Reflections on East Timor
g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Sun Sep 12 19:21:44 MDT 1999
Comrades will recognize my debt to Comrades Monteiro, Ferguson, Stainsby
and, as always, Proyect in what follows. This article is primarily
intended for publication in the local Neighbourhood News but I trust that
although its content is primarily Australian it will be of interest to some.
I wrote most of this Sunday morning. Since then the deal has come though.
The Australian Govt has agreed to allow Indonesian soldiers to remain in
East Timor along side the international peace keepers. Thereby putting at
risk the lives of the Timorese and their own soldiers. Not for the first
time have Australian politicians betrayed their own.
Reflections on East Timor
As I write this the news is that the dreadful killing and slaughter of the
innocents continues. However I believe, that by the time of its printing,
'order' will have been restored in East Timor and that Australian soldiers
will be patrolling Dili. However great the relief that will break out at
the end of the murders, it is still vital that we ask ourselves why East
Timor? Why did the slaughter happen?
It is tempting to say that this is due to the evil in the heart of man.
That killing and torture and rapine are an essential aspect of the human
condition. But such universalism must be resisted. There are specific
material reasons why the East Timor tragedy unfolded and if we are to
prevent similar tragedies we must understand them.
There is a second level of explanation, which is more prevalent than the
first and accordingly much more dangerous. This has it that the killing
happened because the Australian government did nothing. This is the line
being put out by Laurie Brereton the ALP's Shadow Minister for Defence,
Amnesty International, the Progressive Labor Party, and to its eternal
shame the Democratic Socialist Party and its youth wing Resistance. The
solution is obvious according to this scenario. And last night on
television I saw Max Lane of the Central Committee of the DSP scream
repeatedly into a microphone - "Send in the Troops".
Against the tide of this populism it is necessary for the Left to hold its
nerve. We must insist on the need to analyse the situation. Again here on
the Left in Brisbane it is the DSP cadre who are leading the struggle
against theory. They announce that there is a need to organise and dismiss
as "rhetoric" any attempt to ask "what" and "why". Let me be clear here.
The DSP have credibility in the struggles around Indonesia because they
have done great work in organising and supporting those who are fighting
for their freedom. Max Lane has personal credibility because he has
selflessly worked to assist those in struggle. Nevertheless it is wrong to
say that the Australian Government is doing nothing and that they must send
the troops in. Why is this so?
For a start, the Australian Government has not been inactive. For over 50
years it has been actively promoting the interests of the world's leading
imperialist power - the USA. In 1975 following the defeat for the
Americans in Vietnam the Australian Labor Party Government handed East
Timor over to the butcher - Soeharto. Gough Whitlam turned in 1975 to the
mass murderer and said, "East Timor is yours."
Who was Soeharto? He was the man who a mere 10 years earlier had killed
over 2 million communists in the coup of 1965. His credentials were well
established. He was the man who could be relied upon to slaughter the
Commies. So he sent his army into Dili and the sky became red with blood.
Not a single photograph of the killing fields was ever published. Those of
us who protested were rubbished as 'ratbags' and 'rent a crowd' by the
Australian media. There was not a squeak out of any Australian bishop.
There was not a cheep out of the ALP. All sides agreed that Soeharto the
Butcher was needed. This became officially translated into statements that
he was " a force for stability in the region' (Whitlam) or that he was our
'uncle' (Keating) or that he was one of the 'greatest men of the 20th
What was the stability like under Soeharto? How did the 'great man' run
his country? He held his people down with an iron fist. However his family
and the army were allowed to enrich itself. Nevertheless the other side of
this coin was that patronage and corruption ensured that there was a job
for everyone provided they allowed the Indonesia ruling class to get the
greatest share of the spoils.
With the collapse of communism, this had to be changed. The USA no longer
needed the corrupt butchers - such as Soeharto in Indonesia and Pinochet in
Chile. Other priorities emerged. The world was now to be made open for
American business. That meant that all local impediments to American profit
making and investment had to be destroyed. The market was to rule supreme.
Free Trade and globalisation re-emerged as the slogans of the day. In
other wards American business wanted to crash through the monopolies
created by the corrupt anti-communist oligarchs. American business was now
elbowing their former allies out of the way. The great multi-national
companies demanded their turn at the trough. This move was facilitated by
the Asian economic down turn. In Indonesia Soeharto fell and the process of
liberalisation or opening up Indonesia to American business began.
As part of this process Habibie acted, probably on his own accord, to
ensure his post-Soeharto credentials to the Americans. He announced a
referendum in East Timor. However the Indonesian soldiers in East Timor
had no where to go. To cut them off from East Timor was to cut them off
from the source of their livelihood. They ran the businesses. They took
the bribes. In a time of economic down turn the prospects of the veterans
of East Timor were very bleak. They resisted Habibie and their resistance
exposed his lack of authority over the military. Other generals saw that a
retreat from Dili would encourage the dissidents in Aceh and elsewhere.
Central rule would be in danger.
Faced with this intransigence Australia announced the intention of sending
in troops. However such an eventuality could have led to the scenario where
Australians fought and defeated Indonesian soldiers. The problem here for
the Western powers is that they know that a defeat for the Indonesian Army
would be the catalyst for the Indonesian Revolution. That is why the
Americans hesitated to join the Australian push for an international force
in Dili. They need to reform the Indonesian Army not defeat it. For the
Indonesian Army is the guarantor of American strategic interests in the
region. And here as elsewhere it is the strategic which is more important.
Control over Indonesia gives American control over the trade routes in this
So a deal is being worked out as I write. The Indonesians will retreat.
There will be some face saving formula put in action. Australian soldiers
will patrol Dili and Howard will have his foreign affairs triumph, on the
basis of which he will probably try to win an election. East Timor will
fade from the news and shortly it will be business as usual. Worst of all,
the disastrous collaborationist line of the DSP will mean that they, the
only significant Marxist organisation in Australia, will have missed the
opportunity to explain the reality of oppression and imperialism to young
But what of the people of East Timor? Theirs will still be a country
controlled by foreign troops - now Australian instead of Indonesian. Should
a radical movement ever emerge in East Timor or elsewhere in Indonesia,
those same troops will be used to crush it. For the Australian Army is not
an army of liberation. On the wall of the memorial in Anzac Square are the
words "For God, King and Empire". That is the slogan under which
Australian soldiers have fought and died for over a century. God and the
King may have gone but the Empire remains. The only difference is that
this time Australians will fight for the American rather than the British
It should not need saying but in light of the disastrous propaganda
demanding that troops be sent in, it must be repeated that the Australian
Army is not an army of liberation. It will not be there to free the
people of East Timor. If it were serious about freedom for the East
Timorese it would be sending guns and medical supplies to the Timorese
Resistance right now. It would not be training and arming the murderers.
The Australian army will be in East Timor to guarantee the 'stability' of
the region. That means they will keep the region safe for the rule of the
American imperialists. Let me repeat, the lives of the East Timorese have
been repeatedly sacrificed in the interests of the same Imperialism that
the Australian Army supports. I know this is not a popular thing to say.
Yet however unpopular it may be, it is not the job of a leftist to sow
illusions in imperialists. I leave that task to the Murdoch press. I am
though aware that the Timorese have themselves called for Australian
troops. But they will learn to their cost that they are calling for a new
So is all lost? No, for a short space the ruling elite in Australia needed
to tell part of the truth about the Indonesian Army. The Australian public
became greatly agitated by the news coverage and a space opened for the
Left. We had successful marches and demonstrations in Brisbane and much
larger ones elsewhere. Unbelievably in these apathetic times over one
thousand marched spontaneously in Brisbane in defiance of a police order on
Saturday. We on the Left were able to persuade a large section of the
crowd who had attended an official protest meeting to march with us, even
though the procession was illegal.
At the rally on Saturday there was no leftist on the official platform, but
when the crowd streamed out of the City Hall a good number of them wanted
to do more than simply listen to Soorley, so they joined the Left's march.
People like myself who fought for years for such rights had the
exhilarating feeling of marching freely down Adelaide Street. I lost count
of the number of times I was arrested in the seventies for trying to do
The official protest had been organised by Jim Soorley, Mayor of Brisbane,
- a former supporter of the Soeharto regime, now moving rapidly to the
left. It was addressed by the likes of Priest Battersby - the Catholic
Bishop of Brisbane - a man who has done nothing to oppose Australia's
training of Indonesian soldiers despite the genocide in East Timor. Let me
be clear here there are Catholics who have taken brave actions in support
of the their co-religionists in East Timor. As I type this out, the
Catholic activist, Jim Dowling, is in prison for opposing defence ties with
the murderers. Battersby would never demand his release. Priest Battersby
swans around in his palace while a decent man languishes in gaol, such is
the way of the world.
It is true that this freedom will once more be cut off. Very soon the space
that the left has been able to grow within will cease to be. Unbelievably
as it may seem to some readers, the same media that shows us the horrors of
Dili today, will shortly begin the process of the rehabilitation of the
Indonesian Army and other elites. Nevertheless we have learned some things
from the last days. We know that a Left can emerge suddenly. People do
care. They do long desperately for a better world. It is up to the Left to
repeat patiently that such a better world can only emerge from the
dismantling of capitalist imperialism and the construction of a
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