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A "humanitarian" intervention?
Why Australia is in East Timor

June 9, 2006 | Page 7

THE CRISIS in East Timor penetrated the headlines of the U.S. media only after tens of thousands of people fled street violence in the capital of Dili and the government invited nearby Australia to send a contingent of soldiers to act as "peacekeepers."

The violence in East Timor has its roots in a split within the armed forces--but also in the legacy of poverty and conflict inflicted during a quarter-century of brutal military occupation by U.S.-backed Indonesia, whichonly ended in 1999.

The Australian government, led by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, says its soldiers will stop the violence in Dili until "stability" is restored. But Howard's real interests in intervening have nothing to do with the wellbeing of the people of East Timor.

DIANE FIELDES, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia, explains why opponents of war and imperialism should oppose the Howard government's "humanitarian" intervention in East Timor.

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WHAT IS Australia's history with East Timor?

AUSTRALIA IS the strongest imperial power in the South Pacific.

In 1975, when East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, the Australian Labor Party government encouraged Indonesia to invade, fearful that an independent East Timor would become a South Pacific "Cuba," open to the influence of China and Russia.

Australian governments for the next 24 years found any amount of East Timorese suffering at the hands of the Indonesian military acceptable, as long as regional stability was assured.

But by 1999, Indonesia could no longer perform this function, as it was itself wracked by political and economic crisis. Australia stepped into the breach, intervening as Indonesian troops prepared to leave. The 1999 Australian invasion of East Timor was designed to establish military, political and economic dominance over the new nation--and it did so.

Since 1999, far from helping East Timorese out of their poverty, the Australian government has robbed them of royalties from oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea, worth over $10 billion.

In 2002, Australia withdrew from international courts that settle maritime border disputes because East Timor would normally receive 100 percent of revenues from these deposits under international law. Early this year, Australia pressured the East Timorese government into accepting a deal which "generously" grants the fledgling nation 50 percent of oil and gas revenues. The gas and oil will be processed in Australia.

In the eight years after 2002, Australia is spending $40 million on East Timor's police and justice system. Only $3.4 million will be spent over five years on health, and $7.5 million on rural development over 10 years. Australia has also trained and equipped East Timor's army.

THE AUSTRALIAN government says that it is intervening on "humanitarian" grounds. Is this true?

THESE ARE exactly the same reasons given for intervening to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. No imperialist power ever says: "We are invading to steal their oil and get a government that will maintain stability for our interests in the region."

Humanitarian concern for the East Timorese people had nothing to do with Australia's intervention in 1999 or today.

In 1999, Prime Minister John Howard was intent on ensuring that East Timor's transition to independence didn't result in a chronically unstable state on Australia's doorstep, nor one that was open to any outside influence but Australia's.

Since then, Howard has declared Australia to be the United States' "deputy sheriff," keeping the region safe for global capitalism. This is most often expressed as the need to maintain "stability" in the region, and includes opposing national liberation or democracy movements that might threaten established political regimes.

It is a role Australia fulfills enthusiastically. Increasingly, Australia has assumed the right to intervene in the internal politics of countries such as the Solomon Islands, Nauru, its former colony of Papua New Guinea, and East Timor.

Australia's interests in the Pacific are primarily strategic. Many islands in the arc to Australia's north are economically unimportant. But they are seen as possible staging posts for a military attack on Australia, or the disruption of vital trade routes. The dominance of rival powers in this area is therefore unacceptable for Australian imperialism, as is the existence of weak or "failed" states which might be prey to "outside influence" (except, of course, Australia's).

France, Germany, Russia and Japan have all been perceived as threats in the past. Today, China is increasingly seen as Australia's rival for regional dominance.

WHY SHOULD we oppose intervention?

1999 MARKED an historic defeat. The vast majority of the political left in Australia (the left unions, the left of the Labor Party, the Greens, most of the socialist left) campaigned for the Australian government to invade another country.

Far from recognizing the imperialist nature of the invasion, the Democratic Socialist Party, for example, still proudly proclaims "the left's leadership of the movement" for Australian troops to go in to East Timor in 1999. The same forces are supporting the Howard government's re-invasion of East Timor today.

In 1999, Socialist Alternative argued against the Australian intervention in East Timor. Far from being humanitarian, the invasion would provide a pretext for increasing the Australian military budget and would make it easier for Australian forces to be deployed against the peoples of the region in the future.

The arguments against intervention in 1999 have been proven correct and make it even more important to stand against Australian imperialism today.

After so many capitulated to the idea that the military of the major imperialist power in the region can play a progressive role, the Australian Financial Review clearly saw the opportunity being handed to the ruling class: "This call to arms has...given broad legitimacy to the proposition that Australia should be able to intervene militarily outside its territory," according to the Review. "This raises the possibility of building a domestic consensus... in favor of increased defense spending."

Sections of the ruling class had been pushing for Australia to become an even more prominent military power for decades. The problem had always been how to sell the killing machine. From 1999, the sales pitch needed just two words: East Timor.

Just like in 1999, the current deployment will be used to bolster military spending and justify Australian troop deployments elsewhere in the region.

The Solomon Islands are a case in point. Since 2003, Australian police, soldiers and administrators have occupied key positions in the Solomons' government. The neoliberal economic policies they impose have made life worse for ordinary people, by cutting government spending and undermining traditional land ownership.

This resulted in riots in April this year, forcing the resignation of the prime minister, who had supported the Australian intervention. Hundreds of Australian troops and police have now been re-deployed to the Solomon Islands.

Ordinary people in Australia pay the cost of all this, with spending on the military outstripping spending on education in this year's federal budget for the first time.

Real improvement in people's lives throughout the world requires the overthrow of imperialism. Any increase in the power of nations like Australia is a step backwards, not an improvement. Anyone who wants to see a better future for our East Timorese neighbors should oppose Australia's latest imperialist foray.

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