International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

East Timor’s tragedy continues

The East Timorese catastrophe was predictable. The vengeful scorched earth campaign of the Indonesian military against a population which voted overwhelmingly for independence was planned well in advance. The Jakarta government knew, the US and Australian intelligence knew, and the UN knew. Nevertheless, the scale and intensity of the death and destruction wrought in less than a month has shocked and horrified the world. KERRY MORGAN writes

THOUSANDS OF MAUBERE (East Timorese) people were killed in the unprecedented wave of violence since the historic 30 August vote. Many hundreds had already been killed in the run-up to the referendum. The ballot had seen an overwhelming rejection of rule from Jakarta.
As the Indonesian army (the TNI) and its murderous auxiliaries - the "militia" - went on the rampage, practically the whole of East Timor's population was "displaced", driven from their homes and terrorised. Hundreds of thousands fled to the perilous safety of the mountains where there is little or no food, water or protection from the thugs. At least 200,000 were forced into exile, most being held as hostages in the concentration camps of West Timor.

Australian troops who began arriving at the head of the UN task-force, Interfet, on 18 September, and the journalists and photographers who went with them, have only begun to uncover the real horror of the devastation and human suffering. Dili, the capital, and every town in the country, have been almost totally destroyed. The home of Manuel Carrascalao, a prominent opponent of Indonesian rule, where many terrified Timorese had sought refuge, had been ransacked by the militia. In its grounds a torture chamber had been set up and meat hooks and a primitive guillotine used. Thirty dismembered bodies were discovered piled up in the compound's well.

The question on everyone's minds was: Why did the UN not act more quickly? At the end of the 20th century, far from a "New World Order", we have more scenes of carnage, genocide and barbarity which have nothing to do with "cultural traditions" and everything to do with the bloody record of imperialist plundering. Yet again, the UN is asked to organise what amounts to a "sanitary" cleaning up operation after untold damage has been done. In spite of the individual heroism of some of its civilian and military forces, it will never be able to eradicate the problems it is sent to sort out.

The history of Indonesia and East Timor proves beyond doubt that the major capitalist powers dominating the UN are the very ones who have contributed to this human tragedy. For decades they encouraged, armed and did business with the hated General Suharto, not only when his troops invaded the newly-independent East Timor in 1975.

When he bludgeoned his way to power in the 1960s, they failed to condemn the massacre of over one million workers and peasants who were supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party. CIA agents supplied the names of people to be annihilated! When, in 1969, another half-island nation, Irian Jaya, struggled to win its independence, a UN-approved "Act of Free Choice" was stitched up which, in reality, gave control to Indonesia.

Throughout the years of genocide and bloody repression, the governments of the big capitalist powers continued their business links and made no mention of either the murderous role of the army or of the massive corruption endemic in Suharto Inc.

When in 1997 Indonesia suffered a catastrophic collapse as part of the "Asian Crisis", the world's bankers poured in over $43bn dollars to shore up Suharto's crony capitalism. When the hated dictator was overthrown by a revolutionary mass movement in May 1998, the US, Britain and other imperialist countries continued to back Suharto's appointed successor, BJ Habibie. The new "transitional" president battled to keep to a minimum the concessions he was forced to make to the aroused oppressed layers in society. Since the incipient revolution found no political party making an all-out challenge to the rule of private interests in finance, land and industry, even the tasks of establishing democratic processes in society and solving national grievances could not be completed.

The armed forces were unreconstructed and remained a powerful force in politics. They continued to employ the brutal methods of the past against opposition movements of workers, students and oppressed nationalities, including killings, torture and "disappearances" of activists.
Under both Suharto and Habibie, Western imperialist countries - Australia and New Zealand among them - have continued to equip and train the TNI. A British Defence Ministry spokesman justifies this with the unreal assertion that, "It is a way of ensuring professionalism in foreign armies. It encourages higher standards, good governance and greater respect for human rights"! (Observer 19 September 1999) Wars, civil wars and military interventions bring out what is most odious and rotten in the capitalist system - its brutality, its double standards and its crass hypocrisy.

Imperialism and self-determination

THE CYNICAL OPPORTUNISM of the Australian government is demonstrated by its withdrawal at the end of last year of its notorious recognition of the annexation of East Timor by Indonesia. It had become clear, after the fall of Suharto, that the movement for independence in East Timor was becoming an unstoppable force. The way had to be prepared for renegotiating business deals, particularly over oil, with whatever government might emerge in an independent East Timor.

Imperialist powers do not make a habit of supporting oppressed nations struggling for their independence. But when they are faced with the kind of determination shown by the East Timorese people, they have to look for some "solution" that will keep things safe for their interests.

As far as the ruling elite in Indonesia was concerned, the loss of their "27th Province" represented a big blow to their material interests as well as their prestige. The occupation troops, with Subianto Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, playing a commanding role, were amongst the most brutal fighting forces in the world. Their officers were trained in the West in the barbarous military tactics of Vietnam, including the use of napalm, torture, defoliation and depopulation. Thousands of soldiers had been killed in the 23 year-long battle to hold down the independence movement. Total withdrawal would seem like a betrayal of the "supreme sacrifice" they had made.

George Aditjondro, a lecturer at Australia's Newcastle University, has revealed the full extent of the involvement of the Indonesian elite in the tiny half-island territory: "East Timor is the Indonesian "province" with the second largest landholdings under control of the Suharto family, namely 564,867 hectares. These landholdings stretch from the Western border to the Eastern tip of East Timor, consisting of a 50,000 hectares timber plantation allocated to Bob Hasan, one of the Suharto family's business operators, to tens of thousands of hectares of sugar cane plantations awarded to the kids on the Southern coast, stretching from Suai to Viqueque and to Los Palos in the district of Lautem. In addition, the best marble deposits in Manatuto, have been awarded to Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, Suharto's eldest daughter, who also has a monopoly over coffee production and export from East Timor, through a company of hers in Dili....

"The entire top brass of the Indonesian army and civilian bureaucracy in East Timor are closely inter linked with the former inner circle of Suharto, which has in turn been taken over by his successor, Habibie. Even Wiranto (the TNI commander) is not free from Suharto connections, since all the army charities which are now under his patronage, are co-shareholders of many of the Suharto family's timber concessions and telecommunication companies".
He concludes: "I believe that behind the militia tactics in East Timor there seems to hide a strategy to partition East Timor into a western half which support continued links with Indonesia and an eastern part that would be allowed to become independent. A partition, that would roughly follow the lines of the "oil-rich" and 'oil-poor" parts of East Timor.

"Or, a strategy that would allow the entire territory to obtain its political independence, as long as the landholdings of the Suharto family and their East Timorese collaborators would be respected by an independent East Timor state, and not be seized by the new government or by those properties' rightful, traditional landowners". (East Timor International Support Centre, 8 September 1999)

It was clear that, in spite of verbal condemnations, the big powers would not agree to intervene without the "permission" of their long-time ally and major business partner in the region. They had not challenged Indonesia's control in East Timor and even after the UN-approved intervention began, they did not insist on the withdrawal of all Indonesian troops. Even though the TNI has been ostensibly leaving, at least 5,000 remain in place and are reportedly preventing refugees from returning to their homes. Its commander of operations in East Timor, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, stands alongside the UN appointed commander Peter Cosgrove, as he briefs his forces and the press.

Although the major capitalist powers feared the effects of the conflagration on the stability of the whole region, they were also concerned about the repercussions of breaking-off relations with Indonesia. This meant cutting-off loans and lucrative commercial contracts, including those for the very arms being used to kill and terrorise in East Timor. They were also fearful of the destabilising effect inside Indonesia if the military were seen to be totally humiliated. Eventually, however, they were forced to act and impose certain "sanctions". In the end the intervention was presented as a move to "aid" Indonesian forces to restore law and order - aid the very same forces who were directly behind all the murderous activities of the militia and often directly involved in them.

Meanwhile, Habibie was struggling to maintain his position as president. In offering autonomy within Indonesia and then independence if that was rejected, Habibie was trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Whether he blundered, gambled on people's fears of a too rapid transition to independence, or deliberately provoked the present situation, his future looks uncertain.

The government has been reeling before renewed demonstrations of tens of thousands of students joined by Jakarta's poor and a number of defiant workers. They have achieved the suspension of legislation being rushed through to give the military practically unlimited powers in case of a "national emergency". This is seen by many as an incipient military coup and a warning against any who might protest the domination of the next government by the military.
It has been speculated by regional analysts like Catherine Napier of the BBC that the president in waiting, Megawati Sukarnopoutri, could be preparing a deal with the military over East Timor. "Under a pact, the army's past crimes in not just East Timor but the rest of Indonesia could be studiously ignored in the interests of national unity, much as under President Suharto". (BBC News 14 September 1999)

Megawati has opposed independence for East Timor and blames the referendum for the catastrophic violence. In this she reflects the interests of the Indonesian ruling class and their fear of other losses, in particular, oil-rich Aceh and copper-rich Irian Jaya, and the disintegration and humiliation of the Indonesian state. One of the aims of the army's bloody wrecking tactic in East Timor is to deter independence movements in these and other areas. However, it could have the opposite effect and increase people's determination to escape from the nightmare of life under Jakarta rule.

The carnage in East Timor signifies one of the bloodiest counter-revolutions in history, proof that the regime issuing from the overthrow of Suharto is far from democratic. The party that picked up the electoral fruits of the "reformasi" movement of 1997-98, Megawati's Democratic Party of Indonesia - Struggle (PDI-P), is now said to have "profited from a wave of nationalism and xenophobia". (Far Eastern Economic Review, 16 September) "Many Indonesians see a UN and American plot to humiliate their country, and they blame foreigners, not their military, for the violence".

While they have said they would reluctantly accept the democratic decision of the people of East Timor, it is ironic that the arch "democratic" figure of Megawati could, by November, head a military bonapartist government, with General Wiranto as vice-president. But what kind of government can East Timor expect? What is the aim and role of the UN-approved intervention? How can an "independent" state be established?

What future for East Timor?

THE INITIAL FORCE of around 3,500 troops proved unable to assure the security of either the UN's own humanitarian relief agencies or of the mass of the population, including the imprisoned refugees in West Timor. Later, they will inevitably come into conflict with the starving East Timorese people, who have already raided food stores and begun to take things into their own hands.
It seems certain that the large anti-independence forces massing in the border area with West Timor will continue their bloody terror raids into East Timor on a regular basis. Phone calls between TNI and militia groups still on the ground indicate the possibility of bloody clashes, in which some foreign soldiers and many more unarmed civilians could be killed. The UN soldiers will be there for some time before a new "independent" government is established and probably for some time after.

The dependence on Interfet forces indicates the weakness of the aspiring rulers of an independent East Timor. The main independence force, Falantil, could not win a military victory. It had not adopted a strategy of mobilising and arming the workers and poor of the towns. The guerrilla tactics from mountain bases to pick-off military targets were insufficient to defeat the all-pervasive Indonesian army. The possibility, on the other hand, of a movement in the urban areas being able to appeal to and split the occupation forces is not so unrealistic given the reports of mass desertions of the thousands of East Timorese in the TNI and of about 1,000 police even before the arrival of the UN-sponsored force.

Unfortunately, with Cosgrove promising "impartiality", it is inevitable that independence fighters will find themselves being called on to hand in their weapons. Apart from a few skirmishes and even successful attacks on the TNI, the Falantil fighters, still in the four cantonments they agreed to restrict themselves to before the referendum, have been under orders not to do anything that might provoke civil war. As if there is already not a one-sided civil war being carried out against the overwhelming majority of the population.

The orders have been coming from their supreme commander, Xanana Gusmao, recently freed from detention by the Jakarta regime. He has long been appealing for UN intervention to oversee the transition to independence and talks of "reconciliation" and "forgiveness". He proposes joint policing with the Falantil fighters operating alongside the murderous militia. Gusmao tries to reassure his backers that revenge will not be taken for the massacres of "his people" and that all property rights will remain untouched. Pressure will build up against policies which go against some of the long-held principles of the ranks of the independence movement.

Gusmao is the acknowledged leader of the East Timorese nation and will undoubtedly become its first president or prime minister. He and his colleagues, such as Jose Ramos Horta, are undoubtedly assembling a future East Timorese government as they wait in the North Australian port of Darwin for the time they can return to Dili. Under the protection of the foreign forces now "securing" the situation in his homeland, Gusmao will undoubtedly establish an administration that is heavily dependent on resources from the US, Australia and European countries, especially the ex-colonial power, Portugal (whose business class also has lucrative ventures to protect).

Gusmao has already had extensive discussions with the World Bank and has been courted by business people and politicians from around the world. Deals will have been struck and conditions promised. This grovelling to world imperialism shows how far the national liberation leaders have become representatives of what is a very feeble East Timorese capitalist class and its attendant middle-class layer. In power, they will be unable to satisfy the needs of the masses. The working people and the poor farmers of one of the poorest countries in the world will tire of waiting for genuine improvements in their living and working conditions.

Massive sums of money will be needed just to reestablish the elementary infrastructure of East Timor, let alone restore the workplaces, docks and communication systems. Homes, hospitals, offices and schools, will all have to be rebuilt. Such wholesale reconstruction will not be achieved on the basis of such a weak capitalism as that represented by Gusmao and the CNRT front in which Falantil is the major force.

It is clear, that a Gusmao government will have no trace of a socialist content, in spite of the declarations of the CNRT in March of this year that the vast properties of Suharto Inc would be confiscated. The ex-guerrilla fighter, now seen in smart suits and ties, will play a similar role to that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa after the victory of the people's struggle against apartheid in keeping things safe for capitalism.

As part of his deals with imperialism and with Jakarta, no doubt, assurances have been given that the land, resources and industries will not become the property of the East Timorese state but will be "available" for the exploitation of local proprietors as well as Australian, US and even Indonesian corporations. Little benefit will accrue to the ordinary people from their struggle to control their own lives. The only way this will be possible will be through a struggle for public ownership of land, minerals, banks and major companies.

Once the heroic youth of East Timor see the inadequacies of a programme that leaves property rights as they were under Indonesian rule, they will begin to organise to take the struggle further. With the recovery of the small but important proletariat of East Timor, new battles with the employers will open up. If these struggles are coordinated behind a programme of socialist demands, they can provide hope for the long-suffering people of this devastated country. Then comes the prospect of genuine, socialist self-rule. An appeal for support to the workers, youth and poor of Indonesia would spread the struggle. If it was taken up by the powerful Australian working class, which has begun to show what it is capable of in its solidarity actions at the beginning of September, the whole region could look towards a socialist future.

Lessons drawn from the tragedy of East Timor - of the need to take a class, socialist approach on every issue of importance to working and poor people - can provide the spur to workers and youth everywhere to engage in the struggle for a new world, a socialist world free of wars, genocide, exploitation and poverty.