East Timor/DSP

Philip L Ferguson PLF13 at SPAMstudent.canterbury.ac.nz
Tue Sep 7 17:16:10 MDT 1999

As someone who has always had a bit of time and respect for the Australian
DSP I must say that I was horrified by their statement on East Timor.
Their call for Australian troops to go in is, as Louis notes, a clear
departure from very basic principles of Marxism.

Moreover, Australian imperialism has substantial geopolitical/economic
interests in SE Asia/Western Pacific area.  Papua New Guinea is largely a
neocolony of Australia and the Australians are also enmeshed in
Bougainville, I think.

Calling on Australian imperialism to step up its intervention in the region
and expand its influence is well and truly crossing the class line.

On the other hand, I am not entirely shocked by this position, as it seems
to flow from the position that the DSP took in relation to Kosovo.  Human
rights violations by third world regimes (Milosevic; Suharto/Habibie) have
become more significant for the DSP than imperialism.  So imperialism, in
this case the imperialism of the DSP's own ruling class, is to be preferred.

In terms of the situation in East Timor itself, I also cannot see how such
intervention would help.  East Timorese independence would be non-existent.
Instead of being occupied by Indonesia, the new state would be occupied by
and shaped by the UN (which is totally dominated by the Western
imperialists) and Australia.

In the case of East Timor, like Kosovo, it is sections of the liberal-left
- and in the DSP's case, even the radical-left, which are leading the
chorus for imperialist intervention.

In fact it is the old demands of the solidarity movement with East Timor
that are really more relevant than ever: Indonesia Out, Western Hands Off,
Self-Determination for the East Timorese.  I don't recall solidarity
activists ever in the past demanding 'Imperialists In!' as a part of the
solution to the East Timor situation.

Philip Ferguson

PS: I was asked to write something on the subject for the LM Online
Commentary.  They seem to have cut it quite a bit, for space reasons, but
here below I'll paste my original commentary, which I've circulated in New
Zealand and to one or two places abroad:

Demands for UN and other Western 'peacekeeping' in East Timor are
undermining that country's chances of real independence, says Philip

A few minutes before I sat down to write this commentary I was in a cafe at
Canterbury University, here in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A
liberal-leftish person with whom I'm on a nodding acquaintance was sitting
at the same table looking at the world news section of the Christchurch
'Press'.  He commented to me how awful the situation is in East Timor and
asked, "What's the point of having a UN-supervised referendum if there is
no UN back-up to enforce it?" and went on to suggest that the sooner the NZ
government sent forces there the better.  Many solidarity activists here
and in Australia are making the same call for intervention.

Calls for greater UN intervention and for police and/or military personnel
to be sent to East Timor from other Western states is also rife.  In
Canada, for instance, a recent convention of the New Democratic party
(Canadian Labour) passed a resolution calling on the Canadian government to
get involved in 'peacekeeping' in East Timor and help work towards bringing
to justice those responsible for committing crimes against the East
Timorese.  I have also just received a press statement from the largest
radical left party in Australia, which is demanding that Canberra ask the
UN to ask for Australian troops and these then be sent in.

The growing clamour for foreign intervention is buttressed by reports
coming out of the East Timorese capital, Dili.  According to a Reuters
report in the media in New Zealand on September 7 hundreds of decapitated
heads have appeared on sticks lining the roads of Dili, as the
anti-independence militias run riot.  The evacuation of aid workers has
created a similar impression that things are totally out of control.

Yet all this seems quite strange, when you stand back and think about
it a bit.   To put things into perspective, the militias, although
certainly armed and encouraged by the Indonesian Army, are a small rag-tag
force with next to zero military capacity.  They represent a relatively
small minority of people in East Timor, since 78.5 percent voted for
independence, as opposed to autonomy, last week.  The armed wing of
Fretilin, the independence movement, has greater numbers and more
experienced forces at its disposal.  Fretilin could mop up the militias in
a few days.

In the 'old days' of the 1970s and 1980s the cry of solidarity activists
was for Indonesian withdrawal and Western hands off.  This seems an
eminently sensible approach today, yet it is scarcely heard at all.
Instead what is happening is the concoction of a crisis which is not only
leading to unnecessary loss of life here and now, but is undermining any
chance the small country has for real independence.

The background to this is the changing Western interests in the region,
changes within the Indonesian elite and the demise of the left.  On the one
hand the Indonesian upper classes and the Western powers want to manage a
transition to 'democracy' in the huge, sprawling archipelago.  On the other
hand, they are worried about Indonesia disintegrating: chronic
underdevelopment has been a barrier to the development of an Indonesian
nation and, instead, diverse population groups often continue to live in
primitive conditions and be pitted against each other in the struggle to

For the Indonesian regime, letting go of East Timor could be the prelude to
losing a lot more.  At the same time, the Western backers of the Indonesian
rulers are no longer as enthusiastic about their rule in East Timor as they
were over the past quarter century.

Back in 1974-5 the Portuguese revolution opened up the possibility of East
Timor, which had been a colony of that European power, becoming
independent, with a radical nationalist (Fretilin) government in power.
This was not a scenario welcomed by Western powers or Indonesia.
When Fretilin declared independence in December 1975, the Indonesian
dicatorship, with the backing (or possibly urging) of Washington, and the
support of Canberra and Wellington, invaded the small country of 500,000
people and imposed a brutal rule.  US President Gerald Ford and Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta just days before
the invasion (Washington Post, November 9, 1979).  Furthermore, about 90
percent of the weapons the Indonesian invaders used came from the USA.

In early 1976 an American State Department official told 'The Australian'
newspaper, "in terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and
Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East Timor...
The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and
friendly" ('The Australian', January 22, 1976).

US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan subsequently noted in his
memoirs, "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove
utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook" to chastise the
Indonesians or oppose the invasion. "This task was given to me and I
carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

In July 1976, following heavy fighting, Indonesia formally annexed East
Timor, as its 27th province. The 'incursion' that the US was so keen on
brought about the deaths of anywhere up to 200,000 people in this tiny country
between 1975 and today.

Meanwhile, closer ties with the Indonesian regime were formed by successive
Australian and New Zealand governments.  Indeed, Canberra had not even
blinked when five Australian journalists were among those killed by the
invading Indonesian forces.  Both countries also helped train Indonesian
military personnel and make life difficult for Fretilin representatives and
activists living either side of the Tasman.  The US, too, continued to back
the Indonesian dictatorship as a bulwark against radical nationalism and
other left-wing movements in South East Asia. In the late 1970s, a period
of especially vicious repression in East Timor, US President Jimmy Carter
authorised substantial further weapons sales to Indonesia.  Subsequent
massacres of civilians in the occupied territory did nothing to dim Western

By the mid-1990s, however, Western attitudes to Indonesia were changing.
The demise of 'communism' and the acceptance of 'market realism' by the
region's powerful 'communist' parties and radical nationalists were
rendering obsolete a number of longtime repressive client regimes.  The
Asian economic meltdown in late 1997/early 1998 showed the need for
economic reform along lines prescribed in the West, but not necessarily
agreed to among former clients and allies in the region who had done nicely
for themselves out of systems of patronage and corruption or 'crony
capitalism'.  These former darlings of Washington - and Canberra and
Wellington - suddenly found themselves under attack from Western
governments and agencies such as the IMF and World Bank, as well as
from growing internal movements demanding democratic rights.

Since Fretilin's politics have become suitably moderated over the past two
decades, and 'communists' in the region are embracing the market these
days, there is now little for the West, or Indonesia's own upper classes,
to fear from an independent East Timor.  Indeed, the fact that the UN is
overseeing the process of independence means that the political and
economic shape of the new country will be largely moulded by Western
agencies.  Indeed it is even difficult to see how this kind of
'independence' will give the East Timorese more real say over their society
than the substantial degree of autonomy being offered by Djakarta.

In the meantime, the section of East Timorese who had been drawn into
collaborating with the occupation, plus Indonesians sent to settle there in
order to help turn independence supporters into a minority, are worried
there will be a limited role in the new East Timor for such stooges of
Djakarta.  Their frustration has been vent on independence supporters, with
a series of brutal attacks.

Yet, instead of the people of East Timor being allowed to sort things out
for themselves, they are being turned into yet another set of victims who
need 'intervention' - in this case by the 'peacekeeping' forces of 'caring
imperialism'.  And, unfortunately, nowhere is the demand for this
intervention stronger than among supporters of East Timorese independence.
>From demanding 'Hands Off' by not only the Indonesians but also the Western
powers, they have now shifted to demanding 'Hands On'.

Calls for Western intervention mean that much of the old left has converted
itself into a conduit for reworked Western interests in the 'new world
order' and ceased any real opposition to our own rulers and their states.

In a world where imperialists are only too happy to intervene in the name
of goodness and niceness, this seems a particularly dangerous approach.
Australia and New Zealand, which would be likely to play major roles in
such an intervention, have substantial vested interests in the region and a
growing array of 'peacekeeping' missions in the Asia-Pacific area and other
parts of the world.  In fact, the politically correct 'anti-nuclear' Labour
government of David Lange stepped up NZ military involvement in the Pacific
to levels not seen since WW2.  This trend has continued into the 1990s, as
the NZ establishment delights in being the world's most moral and caring

When babies are born, umbilical cords are quickly cut.  In the case of
'independent' East Timor, however, it appears that an umbilical cord
attached to the governments and agencies of the West is being wound around
the poor newborn's neck.  The demand for Western intervention in East Timor
is serving to throttle genuine independence at birth.

* Philip Ferguson is a long-time anti-imperialist activist and a member of
the NZ-based Radical Media Collective, which publishes 'revolution'

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