The tenth anniversary of East Timor’s vote for independence was marked on August 31, with around 650 Australian troops and 200 Federal Police still stationed there and likely to remain for another ten years or longer.
In September 1999, the Left in Australia celebrated when Prime Minister John Howard sent in Australian troops. Many hoped that East Timor’s long suffering, after 25 years of Indonesian rule, would end.
Australian troops only entered East Timor after a negotiated agreement with the Indonesian government was in place. By then over 1400 people had been killed, buildings destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people forcibly taken to Indonesian West Timor by Indonesian-backed militias.
With Australia playing such an enormous role in the shaping of East Timor we have an example of how the Australian government intervenes in the region. Its objectives have been to shore up its strategic and economic interests and impose an IMF and World Bank agenda.
Australia has always played a rotten role in East Timor. In 1974 Labor PM Gough Whitlam gave Indonesia approval for its invasion. He told Indonesia’s dictator, President Suharto, “An independent East Timor would be an unviable state and a potential threat to the area.”
Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser gave Indonesia’s control of East Timor official recognition, making Australia the only country in the world to do so.
Understanding why successive Australian governments followed the same policy requires looking at the strategic interests of the Australian ruling class.
Defence think-tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote in June 2003 of “the permanence of Australia’s strategic interests in the pattern of islands that punctuate the approaches to our island continent.” That has been ruling class thinking for over 100 years.
In 1903, Dr J M Creed, NSW MLA, wrote to the State Governor pointing out the “especial importance which (Timor) has to the British Empire is in its proximity to Australia” and its commanding position in relation to the shipping routes between “Australian ports, the Philippine Islands and China.”
Creed argued that if the Timor colony were to fall into the hands “of another nation such as Germany, France or Russia” it would endanger British and Australian interests.
Those fears remain in the ruling class to this day. As the Canberra Times editorial on East Timor’s 10th anniversary argued:
“East Timor will remain a foreign policy headache for Australia for the foreseeable future, not just because of its weak government apparatus and its continuing dependence on Australian military aid, but because without that aid and comfort there is a real risk the country will drift into China’s orbit.”
Just months after Australia troops entered East Timor The Dili Times, a paper run by former News Limited staff, was promoting the country as a capitalist’s dream, “The East Timorese are desperate for work. The going rate is $A5 a day.” This was at a time when beer was being sold for $5 a can in Dili. A kilo of sugar was $40 to $50.
To this day East Timor remains one of the world’s poorest nations. About 90 per cent of its 1.1 million people earn just $US1.50 a day. Unemployment is estimated at 20 per cent in Dili and between 50-60 per cent in rural areas.
East Timor’s economy has not developed or diversified. Its main staples are tourism and coffee. Oil exploration is controlled by Australian multinationals such as Woodside and BHP.
The Australian government has imposed IMF-style policies, demanding agricultural production be geared towards export, instead of trying to meet the food needs of East Timor’s impoverished population.
In 2006, Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign in favour of Jose Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao, who were more willing to go along with the Australian government’s wishes. Alkatiri was not suitably pliant to the Howard government in negotiations about the carve-up of Timor’s oil. Gusmao, on the other hand, had met BHP executives in his Jakarta cell in August 1998. There is no doubt BHP’s access to oil in the Timor Sea would have been on the agenda.
In 1999, the Left’s call, led by Left-Labor secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council Leigh Hubbard, for Howard to send in the troops, was a mistake.
It legitimised the Australian ruling class’s cynical use of claims about a “humanitarian intervention” to cover Australian imperialism. As the Australian Financial Review wrote, “This call to arms has for the first time in decades given broad legitimacy to the proposition that Australia should be able to intervene militarily outside its territory.”
The mass movement did not force Howard to act against his interests. The demand for “troops in” coincided with the imperial interests of the Australian ruling class.
By Tom Orsag