You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
SW readers debate East Timor
Should we support intervention?

HERE, TWO Australian socialists take up questions raised in Socialist Worker's coverage of the crisis in East Timor, and debate the issue of Australia's intervention.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Protests won Australian intervention in East Timor

IN THE June 9 Socialist Worker, Diane Fieldes from Socialist Alternative in Australia tries to equate the 1999 Australian and United Nations (UN) intervention into East Timor with the current Australian intervention into Timor, and indeed with any and all imperialist interventions. Unfortunately, the facts don't support her pat-formula method.

Fieldes makes one significant distortion and leaves out one crucial fact.

The distortion is to write that "Australia stepped into the breach, intervening as Indonesian troops prepared to leave."

Anyone familiar with the time, and especially those in East Timor, will explain that far from the Indonesian troops "preparing to leave," they were engaging in a scorched-earth genocidal policy of destruction and mass murder--as they had been well trained for by the Australian government.

The Timorese were crying out for some force to intervene to get the genocidal Indonesian forces out. While we may prefer that the force saving the Timorese from genocide was a socialist, not an imperialist capitalist, one acting under pressure from below, that idealism would not save the Timorese from slaughter.

This sort of pure position may have been acceptable for Socialist Alternative members who resided safely in Australia, but it was not acceptable for the Timorese who faced the slaughter--nor for those who put concretely dealing with reality ahead of simplistic dogmas.

The crucial fact that Fieldes leaves out is the role of mass mobilizations in forcing the Australian government to reverse its previous support for Indonesian occupation.

After decades of steady solidarity work in Australia alerting people to the plight of the East Timorese and the horrific policies of the Australian government in supporting Indonesian occupation, and in the face of the post-independence-vote slaughter, the people of Australia mobilized to force the Australian government to reverse its pro-occupation policy.

With less than a week's notice, 30,000 people rallied in Sydney and Melbourne to force Australia in to get the Indonesian troops out. Unionists occupied airports. If the Australian government had not acted, it knew that a week later, there would have been hundreds of thousands in the streets.

Of course, it's true that the Australian government was always going to try to turn the intervention to its imperialist advantage--as they have done with the theft of Timor oil.

But that's the ABC of imperialism--whatever they are forced to give (through struggle), they then try to ultimately gain some advantage. Surely that doesn't stop us from fighting for concessions? We see plenty of independence struggles, where formal independence is gained, but economic colonialism is ratcheted up. Is the solution to go back to colonial servitude?

Surely the socialist view is that the successful independence struggle is merely a step toward liberation, and the struggle goes on--as the Timorese have sought to struggle for their oil rights and in forming radical organizations like the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), which was outlawed under occupation. They couldn't have done that from the grave.

So what about the current intervention? The DSP has not proclaimed any such position regarding the current intervention. Clearly, unlike 1999 (where the government tried to the bitter end to leave Timor under Indonesian control), the Australian government has eagerly pushed the current intervention. There has been no mass movement to force it to do so.

But even with the current intervention, simplistic arguments still don't help. The breadth of the Timorese political spectrum--including the PST--are currently supporting the Australian troop intervention. That surely needs to be taken into account.

In that context, simple calls for "troops out" from the safety of Australia ring pretty hollow (note how little this parallels Iraq with the overwhelming majority there calling clearly for troops out).

Certainly the Australian government is in East Timor for its own reasons, for stability in order to continue the theft of Timor's oil. We should be clear about the imperialist role of the Australian government. Clear that it is attempting to shore up its role as deputy sheriff in the region. We should be clear that along with imperialist culpability, the East Timorese political elite hold some responsibility for being a willing partner to imperialism, and playing the game of the IMF and World Bank, rather than mobilizing Timor's greatest asset--its people.

But by drawing a simplistic equal sign between Australian intervention in 1999--an intervention that came after mass pressure from the Australian people, that forced the occupying Indonesian genocidal army out of Timor, that most ordinary people in Australia and Timor saw as a positive event--and the current intervention, Fieldes' arguments unwittingly weaken our hand against the Australian government.

Fieldes and Socialist Alternative simultaneously underplay the role of the masses in altering government policy, and strengthen the government's propaganda assault. It's the Australian government that gains from convincing us that 'intervention 2006 = intervention 1999', which the Australian people overwhelmingly supported.
Paul Benedek, Democratic Socialist Perspective, Brisbane, Australia

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The government doesn't care about saving lives

PAUL BENEDEK argues it is wrong to equate Australia's 1999 intervention into East Timor with the recent return of Australian troops to that country, or with other imperialist interventions.

As an enthusiastic supporter of the Australian military in 1999, he has good reason to disconnect the two. After years of Australian depredation of the Timorese economy, it's now a lot harder to pretend that Australia's intervention will "help" the Timorese.

But the Australian military hasn't changed its imperialist spots. The precedent for today's intervention was set by 1999. Neither was motivated by a desire to save East Timorese lives, any more than sending Australian troops to Iraq and Afghanistan was motivated by "humanitarian" concerns to save the local population from Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Numerous leaked documents show that throughout 1999, the Australian government had intelligence reports that Indonesia was preparing for mass killings if East Timor's people voted for independence. Australia and the U.S. pressured the UN into backing Indonesia's demand that UN troops be kept out before the referendum, despite the impending slaughter.

Far from standing up to the Indonesian oppressors, Australia organized to replace them. Once Indonesia had sufficiently punished the East Timorese for daring to secede--thereby sending a message to independence movements in Aceh and West Papua--Australia secured Indonesia's "permission" to intervene.

As INTERFET commander Peter Cosgrove put it: "The mission in East Timor was accomplished with the cooperation of the Indonesian armed forces, not, as has been wrongly described by some commentators, [despite] them or in opposition to them."

Australian capitalism's only interest in the humanitarian tragedy was to cynically use it to swing public opinion behind intervention. The fact that it succeeded adds to the tragedy.

The idea that the Howard government changed its approach in response to protests--which were incomparably smaller than those in 2003 against the Iraq war--is simply ludicrous.

The government's policy was dictated by its own imperialist interests. What the demonstrations did was strengthen the idea that the Australian military, under the leadership of the viciously right-wing Howard government, was not a brutal imperialist force.

Australia's rulers were gearing up to intervene well before the September 1999 mobilization "made" them do it. In March 1999, Defense Minister John Moore announced that he had assembled the largest intervention force since the Vietnam War so that the government would "be in a position to be able to respond effectively to a considerable range of possibilities" in East Timor. In June 1999, 7,000 troops were placed on high alert.

As an Australian Financial Review editorial explained, "The calls for action in Timor were ironic because many of those who fostered the political climate in which the army was run down were the loudest in demanding Australia intervene...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 Australian military intervention in 1999 resulted in the theft of East Timor's oil and gas, its economy opened to Australian "cockroach capitalists" and the rest of Timorese society left to stagnate. It increased support inside Australia for military spending and more military interventions in the South Pacific.

None of this is what the Timorese were crying out for. But it is what they (and we) got.

So the principled, socialist position is to take a consistently anti-imperialist stand. The outcomes are not accidental, but the reason for the deployment of imperialist troops; we should therefore in all circumstances oppose their deployment.

In 1999, the DSP lined up with the militarist cheer squad backing our rulers, and they still refuse to unequivocally oppose our imperialist state.

Concessions to the idea that the U.S. could intervene militarily in other countries for "humanitarian" reasons set the stage for the occupation of Iraq. Similarly, the DSP's arguments seriously weaken us in the struggle against the reactionary Australian government.
Diane Fieldes, Socialist Alternative, Sydney, Australia

Home page | Back to the top