"The East Timor struggle: Oil and Other Considerations "
Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo
kklcac at SPAMearthlink.net
Sun Oct 3 17:26:10 MDT 1999
The East Timor struggle: Oil and Other Considerations
By Karen Talbot
This article was reprinted from the September 25, 1999, issue of the
*People's Weekly World.* For subscription information see below. All
rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits.
There has been worldwide horror and condemnation over the bloody attacks
by Indonesian troops and paramilitary gangs against the people of East
Timor who voted overwhelmingly for independence.
There is an urgent need for stepped-up actions of solidarity and to
demand an end to U.S. backing of the Habibie/Suharto regime, army and
paramilitary forces responsible for these atrocities and those
perpetrated since 1975 when Indonesia invaded the former Portugese
President Clinton and the U.S. power elite, with the stroke of a pen,
could end the genocide today. The same is true of killings in Kosovo,
Angola, Colombia and elsewhere.
Let's look at the events in East Timor and Indonesia in the context of
the globalization drive by the U.S. corporations - backed up by U.S.
military might - to increase economic penetration, to destabilize and
fragment nations. If necessary, they will bomb them into submission or
otherwise to intervene militarily on human rights pretexts.
This scenario was perfected in the bombing, occupation and dismantling
of Yugoslavia. Though perhaps not immediately apparent, the okay by the
leadership of Indonesia to allow "peacekeepers" into East Timor to quell
the violence was predictable, as was President Clinton's decision to
include a U.S. contingent as part of the UN multinational force.
Why this belated "concern?" Where was that concern when the
unprecedented genocidal assault on the East Timorese took place in 1975?
Where were the front-page stories and alarming headlines then?
At that time, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger just happened to visit Jakarta immediately before the
invasion, providing General Suharto with tacit approval for the
The 30,000 Indonesian troops were armed and trained by the U.S.,
including the elite unit Kopassus, which is involved in the current
rampage in East Timor. Suharto himself came to power in 1965 by deposing
Sukarno and massacring two million mass leaders, Communists, labor
leaders, workers, peasants and ethnic Chinese - all with the help of the
U.S., including the CIA which, among other things, provided the lists of
the intended victims.
This, of course, opened the way for the unfettered penetration of
transnational corporations (TNCs) like Nike, which has sucked
super-profits off the sweatshop labor of Indonesian workers, mainly
young women and girls. It also provided U.S.-based transnationals with
access to the great agricultural and mineral wealth of the islands -
Oil, oil, oil!
Why suddenly, now, is there U.S. support for independence for the East
Timorese and criticism of those very same military forces, even if it is
Since East Timor achieved independence from its Portugese colonial
masters, Australia also has sided against the East Timor struggle for
independence from Indonesia, which forcibly took over the land after
A treaty was concluded between Australia and Indonesia, the Timor Gap
Treaty, granting Australian companies the right to the rich sources of
off-shore oil in the Gap.
But Australia, too, abruptly changed its policy at the beginning of this
year to one of advocating East Timorese independence. It has kept troops
at the ready in Darwin to intervene in the struggle, calling East Timor
"our nearest neighbor."
There is much oil, not only in the Timor Gap, located in the seabed
between Timor and Australia, but throughout Indonesia as well as
recently discovered deposits in the South China Sea, which happens also
to be a strategically important shipping lane.
Other mineral riches abound through the archipelago. For example, there
are valuable gold mines in Irianjaya owned by Freeport-McMoran, a U.S.
company with close ties to the Suharto regime.
Among the oil companies involved in the Timor Gap are Burmah Oil, a
British company originally operating in Burma, and now through a joint
venture with Woodside Petroleum and with the Australia company BHP.
These companies were active in the "oil lobby" that pushed Australian
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam into yielding to the Indonesia goal of
annexing East Timor.
Burmah Oil had been exploring for oil on-shore and off-shore in East
Timor in the early 1970s and discovered the existence of profitable oil
and gas deposits in the then-Portugese territory.
In a book on mining and indigenous peoples in Aspac, a chapter entitled
"Sacrificing the poor people's fish for the rich people's oil: questions
on sovereignty and natural resources in the Timor Sea" deals with the
way in which the Indonesian government sacrificed the traditional
fishing rights of East Indonesian indigenous fishermen for Australia's
support for the annexation of East Timor "to be able to divide the loot
with Australian and Western oil companies."
Today, that situation has shifted. There is stepped up maneuvering for
advantage now taking place among various governments and oil companies
over the future of the oil and natural gas reserves, including those in
the Timor Gap.
The "historic shift" in Australian policy on East Timor occurred Jan.
12, when Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer called for an "act of
self-determination" in the Indonesian-occupied territory.
Australia's Labor Party called for renegotiation of the Timor Gap Treaty
to transfer Indonesia's royalties to an autonomous East Timorese
administration, which they admitted would amount to in excess of $150
million a year in oil and gas royalties. One estimate has oil and gas
reserves in the treaty zone worth $19 billion.
The National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) issued the following
statement last July:
"The [CNRT] endeavors to show the Australian government and the Timor
Gap contractors that their commercial interests will not be adversely
affected by East Timorese self-determination. The CNRT supports the
rights of the existing Timor Gap contractors and those of the Australian
government to jointly develop East Timor's offshore oil reserves in
cooperation with the people of East Timor."
The CNRT is headed by recently-released resistance leader Xanana Gusmao
and Nobel Laureate José Romas Horta and is a coalition primarily among
East Timor's three main parties, Fretilin, UDT and Apodeti, all of which
had said they favored self-rule possibly in association with Portugal or
Gusmao last year held talks with a BHP executive in Jakarta's Cipinang
prison, where he also received other prominent visitors, including U.S.
Secretary of State Madeline Albright and three U.S. Congressman.
Suddenly reversing previous condemnations of the East Timorese
leadership and opposing Gusmao's release, Australia, joined by the U.S.
on Aug. 19, 1989, urged Indonesia to release Gusmao so he could actively
participate in negotiations.
Companies drilling in the Timor Gap, including Australia's BHP and its
partners, Santos, Petroz and Inpex Sahul, are determined not to be left
behind if the Indonesian regime continues to break up. Last August, this
consortium began production from the Elang Kakutua field, expected to
yield about 30 billion barrels of oil worth $600 million over four or
Even greater profits will come from the huge Undan-Bayu natural gas
reservoir, which will commence production in three years. It holds about
900 billion barrels of oil.
Had the results of the referendum been accepted peacefully, Australia,
and possibly Portugal, would have had nearly total control over a tiny
independent East Timor state with more or less exclusive access to the
oil and gas reserves for the Australian companies.
The Indonesian leadership certainly knew the vote would be overwhelming
for independence, yet agreed to it and made little attempt to disrupt
the voting as it proceeded. But afterwards, the ensuing violence created
circumstances in which now the U.S. will be on the ground as part of a
"peacekeeping" force. This likely will help thrust a bigger foot in the
door for U.S.-based companies.
Furthermore, Habibie has raised objection to the participation of
Australian troops, let alone their leadership, in the UN force. Any
reference to Australian participation was removed from the wording of
Security Council Resolution 1264 authorizing a multinational force
"under unified command structure."
Meanwhile, Clinton has called for joint training exercises with
Australia and New Zealand.
That Clinton attaches great importance to the U.S. role in East Timor is
indicated by the fact that he met with José Ramos Horta while in New
Zealand for the meeting of the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation. It is
doubtful all this was simple happenstance.
More at stake
But this is not just a saga of East Timor - the wider concern is over
Indonesia itself. Also figuring in the equation is the role of China and
the strategic South China Sea lanes through which there is tremendous
Indonesia's greatest export of oil has been to Japan, which is totally
dependent on such outside sources. The U.S. is the second largest
market. U.S.-based oil companies - including Mobil, Chevron and Texaco -
as well as other oil TNCs, have been involved in Indonesia for decades
in a "partnership" with the state-owned oil company, Pertamina.
The state owns all oil and mineral rights while foreign firms
participate in their extraction through exploration and production
sharing contracts. The Suharto regime, of course, has pocketed great
riches from such "state-owned" enterprises. There has been a strong push
to allow private sector participation in downstream marketing of
petroleum products because the current arrangement has limited the
ability of the oil transnationals to maximize their profits from the
region. There is considerable competition among the the U.S., British,
Japanese and Australian imperial powers over these spoils.
The situation opens up the question of which powers will prevail in
exploiting the wealth of this nation. The rivalry has reached
substantial intensity in the recent period since the Asian economic
meltdown - basically a crisis of overproduction.
That economic tsunami unleashed a growing people's democratic movement
against the Suharto regime and its handpicked successor, President B.J.
It expresses itself not only in large demonstrations, but in the
struggle to elect Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the Sukarno who
had been overthrown in 1965 by Suharto. Megawati likely would be the
winner in the upcoming elections.
This emerging political configuration and the economic disintegration
have the U.S., Australia and the TNCs worried about maintaining and
extending their plundering of Indonesia. The show of violence against
the East Timorese is also aimed at intimidating the emerging people's
democratic movement in Indonesia.
It is no accident that all of this is taking place just before the
November runoff elections in the archipelago. The elections may not even
take place now.
So what is really going on? A likely scenario: the Australians reversed
their position to support East Timor independence in the face of the
"lack of political stability" in Indonesia.
They allied themselves with the East Timorese leadership with agreements
between them to continue to implement the terms of Timor Gap agreement.
Habibie agreed to a referendum knowing the vote would be overwhelmingly
for independence and the army made little effort to disrupt the vote.
Instead, they waited until the results were in to unleash a horrendous
bloodbath, which created the conditions justifying a call for foreign
intervention including by U.S. forces.
This allows the U.S. to be there on the ground as part of an occupying
force - as in Kosovo and Bosnia - and pre-empts a peaceful transition to
independence from which Australia would have been the main beneficiary.
Meanwhile, there is every expectation that the floodgates will be opened
to further "ethnic" conflicts and the fracturing of Indonesia. Armed
separatist movements already exist in other mineral-rich regions of
Indonesia, including West Papua and Aceh in northern Sumatra where there
have been intense conflicts with the regime's ABRI troops for over 10
The violence, displacement and deprivation that hundreds of thousands
have been subjected to under the Suharto regime will keep many from
seeing an advantage to unity within the sovereignty of Indonesia, even
under Megawati's leadership. The conflicts will likely be exploited even
more by outside powers.
The archipelago is made up of widely diverse groups of different
languages, religions and ethnic backgrounds. As with Yugoslavia, it is
much easier to control and pillage a divided nation whose sovereignty
has been weakened or destroyed.
Other scenarios include total destruction of national sovereignty -
economically or militarily - in favor of bite-sized republics and
balkanized enclaves. This is the strategy required for the ongoing
"Coca-Colazation" of the world.
The struggle might have evolved quite differently had Suharto not been
in the picture and had there been a progressive people-oriented
government such as under Sukarno. There could have been full autonomy
for East Timor. When Sukarno came to power, he accepted the boundaries
set under colonial dominance because to do otherwise would lead to
religious, tribal and ethnic conflict at time when the greatest need was
for unity and stability to achieve economic development and overcome the
terrible legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
That concept of unity - within the similarly important principle of
autonomy, cultural and national self-determination with the right to
secede based on total equality - is still valid. To put it simply, there
is need for unity based on equality and respect for diversity.
How else will the peoples of poor and super-exploited nations be able to
resist the economic, political and military onslaught of the remaining
super-power, other imperialist nations and their transnationals?
Above all for East Timor, there is a need for increased international
solidarity with the liberation struggle and for total withdrawal of
Indonesia and its armed forces.
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