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Legacy of poverty and conflict from U.S.-backed occupation
Behind the violence in East Timor

By Alan Maass | June 2, 2006 | Page 2

EAST TIMOR stood on the verge of a new descent into hell following an escalation of violence in the capital of Dili. Tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes, and rival fighters are battling it out in Dili, according to news reports.

According to a United Nations (UN) official, Robert Ashe, almost 30,000 East Timorese have sought refuge at shelters. But the UN tent camps have almost no sanitation, Ashe said, and there is a dire shortage of food and drinking water.

Meanwhile, Australian troops--who landed in Dili last week to serve as "peacekeepers" at the request of the Timorese government--seemed to have little effect, at least initially.

East Timor (or Timor-Leste) won its independence seven years ago following a quarter century of one of the most brutal occupations of the 20th century, carried out by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military. When the Timorese people voted by a wide margin in favor of independence in 1999, the Indonesian regime exacted its final revenge, backing death squads that went on a bloody rampage, killing more than 1,000 and laying waste to the countryside.

East Timor gained its independence, declared formally in 2002, but at a terrible cost. With little economic development in the years that followed, it remains the poorest country in Asia.

Grinding poverty, overlaid with some of the same conflicts of seven years ago, is the backdrop to the chaotic situation today.

The fighting began as a schism within the armed forces, but has since spilled over into a wider battle.

In March, the government fired some 600 soldiers--close to half the country's army--when they refused to return to their barracks in a protest over poor conditions and charges of favoritism.

At the end of April, a demonstration organized by the soldiers to demand reinstatement turned violent. Police loyal to the government attacked the protest, killing five people--and the rebelling soldiers fled to the countryside to set up a network of bases.

This conflict is being exacerbated by a simmering communal divide that pits people from the western part of East Timor against people in the east.

The leader of the rebelling soldiers, Major Alfredo Reinado, says that he wants a negotiated solution, but the split in the army deteriorated into chaotic, several-sided gun battles at the end of May. "There was so much fear among the people because of the different armed groups on the streets, no one knows who is the 'enemy' or who is behind it all," Avelino da Silva of the Socialist Party of Timor told the Australian socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly.

With the fighting growing more intense, the Timorese government--dominated by leading figures from the liberation struggle against Indonesian occupation, such as Xanana Gusmao and José Ramos Horta--asked the UN and the Australian government to send an international military force to restore stability.

This reflects a pattern for the Fretilin party that leads the Timor-Leste government. Prior to 1999 and increasingly since independence, Fretilin's leadership has tended to rely on support from outside governments rather than promoting the mobilization of the mass base of the liberation struggle.

The Australian government sent 1,300 soldiers, backed by troops from Malaysia and New Zealand. But leaders of Australia's conservative government have stated that providing troops for security ought to entitle them to influence over the East Timor government.

This is exactly what East Timor does not need. Its history is stark proof that the world's most powerful governments will tolerate the most savage violence and oppression if it is in their interests.

In 1975, when Portugal announced it would end its colonial rule over East Timor, the Indonesian regime--led by the military dictator Suharto--prepared for an invasion. At a meeting with U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Harry Kissinger, Suharto told the two about his plans to take over East Timor. "We will understand and will not press you on the issue," Ford replied, according to U.S. government documents. Kissinger added, "It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly."

The ensuing invasion and occupation cost the lives of as many as 200,000 East Timorese--about one-third of the population. But the U.S. government remained Indonesia's staunch ally, valuing its strategic alliance with the anti-communist Suharto regime--and privileged access to Indonesia's mineral wealth--over the lives of the Timorese people.

Likewise, after the 1999 independence referendum, the Australian government "pressured, bullied and hustled East Timor into giving up oil and gas resources and sovereignty over seabed territory in the Timor Sea" between the two countries, wrote Jon Lamb in Green Left Weekly. "Australia's ongoing theft of oil from the Timor Sea--combined with its long history of undermining the East Timorese nation--suggests that Australia's motivation for the current military intervention is more about shoring up a continued flow of oil than helping the East Timorese people."

East Timor is a country scarred by decades of Western-backed military occupation. The poverty and violence inflicted by more powerful nations--from Indonesia to Australia to the biggest power of them all, the U.S.--set the stage for the violence in East Timor today.

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