Just what is Australia's stake in a leadership change in East Timor? Veteran foreign affairs commentator John Pilger reports how the Australian brigadier leading a force of 2,000 troops "flew by helicopter straight to the headquarters of the rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado - not to arrest him for attempting to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister but to greet him warmly. Like other rebels, Reinado had been trained in Canberra." And there's also the "zillions" of dollars' worth of oil as Gareth Evans, Australia's ex-foreign affairs minister, once put it.

In my 1994 film, Death of a Nation, there is a scene on board an aircraft flying between northern Australia and the island of Timor. A party is in progress; two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. "This is an historically unique moment," effuses Gareth Evans, Australia's foreign affairs minister, "that is truly uniquely historical." He and his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, were celebrating the signing of the Timor Gap Treaty, which would allow Australia to exploit the oil and gas reserves in the seabed off East Timor. The ultimate prize, as Evans put it, was "zillions" of dollars.

Australia's collusion, wrote Professor Roger Clark, a world authority on the law of the sea, "is like acquiring stuff from a thief... the fact is that they have neither historical, nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor and its resources". Beneath them lay a tiny nation then suffering one of the most brutal occupations of the 20th century. Enforced starvation and murder had extinguished a quarter of the population: 180,000 people. Proportionally, this was a carnage greater than that in Cambodia under Pol Pot.

The United Nations Truth Commission, which has examined more than 1,000 official documents, reported in January that western governments shared responsibility for the genocide; for its part, Australia trained Indonesia's Gestapo, known as Kopassus, and its politicians and leading journalists disported themselves before the dictator Suharto, described by the CIA as a mass murderer.

These days Australia likes to present itself as a helpful, generous neighbour of East Timor, after public opinion forced the government of John Howard to lead a UN peacekeeping force six years ago. East Timor is now an independent state, thanks to the courage of its people and a tenacious resistance led by the liberation movement Fretilin, which in 2001 swept to political power in the first democratic elections.

In regional elections last year, 80 per cent of votes went to Fretilin, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, a convinced "economic nationalist", who opposes privatisation and interference by the World Bank. A secular Muslim in a largely Roman Catholic country, he is, above all, an anti-imperialist who has stood up to the bullying demands of the Howard government for an undue share of the oil and gas spoils of the Timor Gap.

"The picture in the past few months
is particularly ugly against the
background of the self-righteous
posturing in the 'enlightened states.'
But it simply illustrates, once again,
what should be obvious:
Nothing substantial has changed,
either in the actions of the powerful
or the performance of their flatterers.
The Timorese are 'unworthy victims.'
No power interest is served by
attending to their suffering or taking
even simple steps to end it.
Without a significant popular reaction,
the long-familiar story will continue
in East Timor and
throughout the world."

- Noam Chomsky writing about Timor in August 1999.
His words that "nothing substantial has changed,
either in the actions of the powerful or
the performance of their flatterers" echoes in 2006.

On April 28 last, a section of the East Timorese army mutinied, ostensibly over pay. An eyewitness, Australian radio reporter Maryann Keady, disclosed that American and Australian officials were involved. On May 7, Alkatiri described the riots as an attempted coup and said that "foreigners and outsiders" were trying to divide the nation. A leaked Australian Defence Force document has since revealed that Australia's "first objective" in East Timor is to "seek access" for the Australian military so that it can exercise "influence over East Timor's decision-making". A Bushite "neo-con" could not have put it better.

The opportunity for "influence" arose on May 31, when the Howard government accepted an "invitation" by the East Timorese president, Xanana Gusmão, and foreign minister, José Ramos Horta - who oppose Alkatiri's nationalism - to send troops to Dili, the capital. This was accompanied by "our boys to the rescue" reporting in the Australian press, together with a smear campaign against Alkatiri as a "corrupt dictator".

Paul Kelly, a former editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch's Australian, wrote: "This is a highly political intervention... Australia is operating as a regional power or a political hegemon that shapes security and political outcomes." Translation: Australia, like its mentor in Washington, has a divine right to change another country's government. Don Watson, a speechwriter for the former prime minister Paul Keating, the most notorious Suharto apologist, wrote, incredibly: "Life under a murderous occupation might be better than life in a failed state..."

Arriving with a force of 2,000, an Australian brigadier flew by helicopter straight to the headquarters of the rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado - not to arrest him for attempting to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister but to greet him warmly. Like other rebels, Reinado had been trained in Canberra.

John Howard is said to be pleased with his title of George W Bush's "deputy sheriff" in the South Pacific. He recently sent troops to a rebellion in the Solomon Islands, and imperial opportunities beckon in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and other small island nations. The sheriff will approve.


This article first appeared in the New Statesman.

How Mari Alkatiri helped East Timor

Former Prime Minister
Mari Alkatiri.


While events in East Timor have reached boiling point with the resignation of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, little is known about why he is perceived as the enemy.

One of the founders of Fretilin, the independence party, the 52-year-old ex-chartered surveyor returned from exile in 1999 to become economics minister in the interim government. He was chief negotiator between Australia and East Timor over the latter's rich petroleum resources. He was reputedly a tough negotiator and also a Muslim in a 90% Roman Catholic country.

As Victoria University's Dr. Helen Hill observed: "Accusations against Alkatiri frequently accuse him of having 'sat out' the occupation in Mozambique whereas he was present with Jose Ramos Horta every year at the debate on East Timor at the United Nations. It was Alkatiri who did most of the thinking that led the multi-party National Council for Timorese Resistance to adopt its 'Magna Carta' in 1998 linking Timor's future policies with the best standards in international practice coming from the UN's conferences on human rights, environment, population, women and social development during the 1990s.

"Detractors frequently allege that Mari Alkatiri's presence in Mozambique for 24 years means he is some sort of unreconstructed Marxist. In reality he is a strong economic nationalist and has spoken out against privatisation of electricity and managed to get a 'single-desk' pharmaceutical store despite opposition from the World Bank, but this is hardly radical policy. He hopes a state-owned petroleum company assisted by China, Malaysia and Brazil will enable Timor to benefit from some of its own in-shore oil and gas in addition to the revenue it will raise from the area jointly shared with Australia.

"Lessons from their time in Mozambique have helped several of the Ministers now running East Timor to avoid problems such as an international debt, currently plaguing most African countries. There is widespread support in Timor for Alkatiri's decision not to take loans from the World Bank under the Poverty Reduction Strategy Program despite the fact that it gave Timor a few years of extremely low salaries in the public service."

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