Chomsky et al miss the point re: East Timor

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Wed Sep 15 17:39:47 MDT 1999

Nestor Miguel Gorojovsky wrote:

> >
> > As I've said, I'm not very enthusiastic of east-timorese
> > nationalism. But, you certainly cannot reduce it to an
> > imperialist plot.
> If this is what perspired my posting, then my command of
> English is still worse than I thought!  I have not reduced
> it to any kind of plot.

I'm sorry about that. My command of english is certainly not any better
than yours and as, on top of that, I've been pressed with time, my posts
may tend to be a little muddled. However, the plot hypothesis did seem
to be the main argument of Jared Israel's post that you were commenting
so favorably.

I think we are all still in a learning as regards as regards
"humanitarian" imperialist interventionism. We cannot learn nothing
about it in the classics. However, this has been going on for quite some
time and I think at least a couple of lessons are worth considering. The
first one is to keep cool. The second one is to refrain our pavlovian
impulses to side automatically with the "bad guys" at every turn. This
is indeed the trap being set for us. Many (if not most) of these bad
guys will be discardable old imperialist puppets that are of absolutely
no use in our struggle, even if they make anti-imperialist noises in
their death throes (which is not even the case).

A politico-military humiliation for Indonesia in East-Timor could be the
spark for unleashing a second wave of the indonesian revolution. Our
indonesian comrades are taking a classical defeatist line that I think
is basically correct, under the circumstances. They also have an acute
sense of the leninist line of intransigent defense of the rights to
self-determination for the peoples under the yoke of our own
bourgeoisie. Should we in the West be the ones to tell them
patronizingly that they are wrong and that they should instead close
ranks with their murderous sub-imperialist oligarchs? I think this is
wrong, very wrong indeed. To drown the indonesian revolution in a wave
of unanimous patriotic hysteria is in fact preparing fresh graves for
our brothers and sisters there (already at least one office of the PRD
has been assaulted). And this would be for nothing since the Jakarta
ruling mob has no intention whatsoever of confronting their imperialist
overlords, which would be a complete suicide for them. They have nowhere
near as much room of maneuver as Mahatmir Mohamed.

> I understand that there is an
> actual (and most probably worth supporting) East Timorese
> "nationalism", as you properly say. What I mean is that
> there can not exist an East Timorese "national question"
> unless backed by imperialist troops.

This is true enough, now. But this is the product of present historical
circumstances, not something inscribed in the genetic code of the
east-timorese nationalist cause. The fact that the east-timorese are
been thrown to the australian "shark" is the product of: 1) our own
extreme weakness; 2) the extremely brutal and extremely corrupt
practices of the indonesian oligarchy; 3) the portuguese senile
neo-colonialist policy (I will elaborate on this subject later); 4) the
"humanitarian" coat imperialism is trying to wear these days.

This may sound a little bizarre now, but there was a time when
east-timorese nationalism was feared, in Lisboa, Jakarta, Canberra and
Washington. Each of them has colluded and conspired with each other, in
some way, at some time, to crush east-timorese independence. I don't
think we have the right to refuse the east-timorese their right to
self-determination, which they kept on fighting for and finally won.
This is a bit like refusing assistance to one of our soldiers that, due
to our retreat, got caught behind enemy lines.

In 1975, FRETILIN defeated the neo-colonialists, put the portuguese on
the run and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of East-Timor (yes,
that's how it was called). This same year, in November, the indonesians
invaded. The east-timorese resisted for 24 years with absolutely no
outside help. The indonesians were facing an open-ended war commitment
with no solution in sight. In a time of great financial constraints,
they gave up and have thrown the towel. It was a clean victory, the
product of the heroic perseverance of a people all by their own.

But then came the portuguese again. Of course, the indonesians wouldn't
negotiate peace directly with the east-timorese. Since 1975 they have
maintained on the UN a legal quarrel with Portugal that still claims
formal sovereignty over the territory. The british imperialists have
sent the navy to the Malvinas. Portugal has found it more cautious to
sue, proclaiming themselves the champions of the right to
self-determination for the east-timorese (a right they have never
recognized when they were in a position to grant it). The UN's general
assembly never recognized the annexation. Perez de Cuellar has call on
the interested parties (that is, Portugal and Indonesia) to negotiate.
Of course, the issue has been lying dormant for years on, with
absolutely no progress. But, hit by the 1997 crisis, the indonesian
oligarchy saw that this was the right channel through which to get rid
of East-Timor, while secretly preparing to strike one last and crippling
blow at it. Portugal, of course, was delighted with this opportunity to
claim victory for itself, in fact confiscating it from the east-timorese
who have amass it with their blood and tears. The cautious opinions of
the independentists were ignored. So Portugal signed with Indonesia the
New York treaty that brought us this referendum and the calamity that
(oh, so very predictably) ensued. Indonesian perfidy, portuguese stupid
and self-congratulating paternalism and the UN's lack of resources (this
was a mission "on the cheap", the only one possible) were the main
factors of this tragedy. The east-timorese will have independence, but
on a state of total prostration and extreme dependency of imperialism.
The portuguese bourgeoisie is beaming with pride and good conscience.
Naturally, they expect the east-timorese to be eternally grateful. "Oh,
don't mention it", they will say with modesty, as the east-timorese
descend from the mountains to find the ashes of their homes and the
corpses of their loved ones, guarded by australian patrols.

A peaceful transition in East-Timor was possible. There was a climate of
comprehension and even reconciliation between independentist and
integrationist leaders (they still call themselves brothers). These had
given signs that they were ready to lose, if with dignity and with some
assurances for their future. But the rush, the partisan (or even
missionary) spirit of UNAMET and the lack of transparency in the
electoral process have definitively poisoned the environment. Of course,
the rampage of the military was an operation carefully planned long ago.
But if the militias hadn't burst in spontaneous anger, I don't think the
military would have executed their total clean up operation.

> The "National
> question" there is the Malay national question, and the
> horrid fate of the East Timorese (on which I cry bitter
> tears, you can believe me!) is one of the most terrible
> outcomes of the unfinished struggle of the Malay peoples
> for their unification.  I am not speaking in racial terms.
> A national question is the DIALECTIC SUPERATION of
> ethnicity, in many senses. I have already explained that
> when I think of a unified Malay federation I imagine a
> great nation (a socialist one, by the way: I still cannot
> imagine a succesful national struggle in our times without
> a socialist outcome). This does not mean the brutal
> imposition of one culture on others (such as seems to have
> been necessary for the French, nevertheless), this may and
> should mean an inclusive, broad construction where
> different "ethnic splinters" and "nationalities" build a
> common economic and cultural ground to expel imperialists,
> etc.  But at the same time, one should expect these
> fractions to understand that the largest group will give
> its own imprint to the whole. This is what I meant with my
> "Suriname in Latin America" example.

I agree with this broad project you outline here. The problem is that it
is too far away. What is much more nearer to us is indonesian vicious
brutality and extreme arrogance. The rounding up of tens of thousands of
people left to die of hunger and thirst in camps. The massacres of
peaceful demonstrators, followed by the suing and condemnation of the
survivors to long terms of prison for subversion. The Suharto family
owning half of the island and the marble business, leaving the coffee
plantations to his generals. An island transformed in a military
compound, with rape, torture and murder as common practices. In fact, it
was an occupation (yes, that's exactly the word) made in such way as to
make of any good man or woman a rebel.

Of course, many european nations were built exactly this way (have you
seen "Brave heart"?). Time and the habit of submission efface these
scars, generation after generation. No doubt, this could have happened
to the east-timorese. These are the hard facts of life and history. But
I don't think that is the way we socialists face nation-building.

>  But across East Timor run bloody and murderous
> fields of power where, on the one side, you have the
> imperialists, and on the other side you have the
> Indonesians.

In my view, Indonesia has in fact been a surrogate sub-imperialist power
on its own. For some reason it has been considered such an important
"factor of stability" in the area all these years. It is the very
backbone of ASEAN.

> And I stick to my idea that no matter how
> heroic and admirable the struggle of the East Timorese may
> have been for all these years, (...) I repeat that we should be
> careful not to
> foster Australian intervention there. It would amount to,
> say fostering French invasion of Colombia because this may
> help the FARC in their anti-USA struggle. The example is
> not the best one, since what the FARC are facing is
> American imperialism directly while the East Timorese are
> confronting with -I share Jared Israel's definition- the
> new victim of imperialist balkanizing policies. This would
> prove worse remedy than illness.

I'm totally opposed to an australian "leadership" in the peace keeping
force for East-Timor. Either a totally asian force (which, at this time,
seems unrealistic), or a "rainbow" one, with malays, chinese, aussies
and melanesians. But a peace keeping force was not an inevitable outcome
of the east-timorese push for independence. It has become so due to the
stupid, irresponsible, patronizing and self-righteous conduction of the
process by Portugal and UNAMET. It was all the fault of the mulai mutin
(white men).

And the thing is, we cannot make our position on the right of the
east-timorese for self-determination dependent on whether it will imply
or not the long-term presence of a foreign peacekeeping force. Following
that reasoning, I would have been for self-determination until a few
weeks ago but turn against it the moment the east-timorese started to
get slaughtered. The only coherent position we are left to take is
"ANZAC out" (assuming it is them moving in, as seems inevitable) as soon
as the indonesians have departed.

I don't think the imperialists have a deliberate policy of balkanization
everywhere, at least on a foreign policy level. What occurs is that the
political and financial squeeze the peripheral states are subjected to
makes them abort their national projects. The center cannot hold
anymore. There is a remarkable pattern of recent visits by the IMF in
almost all of the countries that have recently plunged in chaos and
infighting (Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Russia, now Indonesia, etc.).
Put on a forced diet, the state apparatus cannot feed the local
constituencies or the repressive agents that once held the nation
together. I think we will be seeing this over and over again: first the
executioner (IMF), then the nurse ("humanitarian" intervention).

> The inhabitants of the Malvinas or those in Belize do also
> want independence badly and have nothing but absolute
> revulsion for the attempts at "occupation" (which I am sure
> you would not term this way, would you Joao?) by Guatemala
> and Argentina. This is not the best proof of your point.
> What interests here is where may this point to in the
> current world scenario.

I think Belize will fell by itself, their inhabitants being mostly black
people who probably don't feel such a strong appeal for "rule
britannia". They will be just another anglophone spot on the Caribe. As
for the Malvinas, I'm not so sure.

> The problem is, "independence now" will mean more massacres
> tomorrow. I believe that while things change in Indonesia,
> a UN mission _without a single soldier from imperialist
> countries_ would be the best solution. Guess what? This is
> not possible, is it? Maybe, but that is the only guarantee
> for both Indonesians of Malay and Portuguese origin.

Yes, that is a grave concern of mine also. The transformation of
East-Timor into a protectorate of the little friends of the white
people. The religious and neo-colonialist tones on which this tragedy is
being represented here in Portugal are absolutely frightening. When they
say this is a fight between civilization and barbarism, you can be sure
they mean between white (christian) and non-white. Light and darkness.
It brings to my mine the stories of St. Catherine or the five martyrs of

The ethnographic composition of the timorese people seems to be
remarkably complex. There are proto-malayans, melanesian, negritos,
dravidians. Many completely different native languages are spoken on the
territory. It is a melting pot, the origins of which - probably a
succession of migrations - are still a mistery. The portuguese element
is not very relevant, in demographic terms, though there is of course a
creoule elite.

> Nor does the Malvinas "secession" badly cripple the
> Argentinian state (let aside the fact that thanks to the
> Malvinas fishing policies we are running out of hake in the
> once teeming Argentinian Sea). But the question is not
> whether the state is crippled or not. You can listen to
> kelpers saying "You have so much land there, why do you
> want these islands too?".  Well, to begin with I would
> answer that all our land here is theirs if they decide to
> join us. And, secondly but MOSTLY IMPORTANT: the Malvinas
> are a colonial outpost PRIMARILY DESIGNED to foster
> imperialist interests against Argentina, and to control the
> alternative passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
> Watch Timor's strategic situation as regards sea routes, by
> the way.

Hum, I will. But, as I've said, I don't believe the imperialists have
plotted this one.

> Certainly so. But imperialism has lots of barrels of
> gasoline ready. You need a Milosevic to keep such a disease
> from spreading, and watch the cost!

Awesome indeed. But at least he's holding. I think the "democratic"
opposition is in total disarray now. Hurray for the serbian people.

>  I am shocked to see you confusing Javanese
> (Javanese only?) will to keep a fraction of a nation
> unified with imperialism.  It would be the same to confuse
> the will of the Serbs to reunify Yugoslavia and the will of
> the imperialists to put the splinters under their heavy
> boot.

I confess I haven't take a look at the origins of the indonesian ruling
class. Well, at least Habibie is from Celebes, I think. I probably gave
way to common-place here.

> But the fact is that
> here we are facing white, rosy cheeked, round eyed, English speaking
> invasion of a dark, lank, oblique eyed, Malay speaking
> (Javanese speaking) people.

Not so. The east-timorese speak languages not even remotely related to
the bahasa indonesian.

> I am not saying that the East Timorese are a "rogue nation"
> of sorts, nothing like that. I am only observing that now
> they became a tragic pawn in the imperialist game.

Unfortunately, I fear that very much too.

> This (the indonesian PRD position) is an important point that you are
> making, and that
> may probably modify some very harsh comments I made.

Yes, it is an important point. Unfortunately, the PRD is very weak and
it seems to be very influenced by the australian DSP. It is still a very
young party (founded five years ago, I think) and I'm not sure if they
are prepared for high tides that seem to be approaching. The great
indonesian writer Pramodya Ananta Toer has adhered recently. Has anybody
have information on how they have made in the indonesian elections? Dita
Sari, a young labor activist from the PRD, was quoted on my newspaper
("Publico") today saying that their position on East-Timor
(pro-independence) is gaining acceptance on the indonesian masses. One
of the most bitter facts about Indonesia is that the slaughter of 1965
has paid off. The indonesian working class and their vibrant popular
movement have never recovered. They still need a spinal cord, without
which a rise in popular protest can easily turn into a bloody mess, with
bigotry and religious intolerance set loose.

The marxists of East-Timor are gathered on the Partido Socialista de
Timor. Their uncompromising stance against neo-colonialism and their
denunciation of portuguese policy have been very refreshing.

>while Australians are lurking there, I will still go on
>shouting "Beware the shark!".

Sound warning. Go home, Crocodile dundee.

O abraço de sempre.

João Paulo Monteiro

More information about the Marxism mailing list