the first of a three-part article on Australia's recent military
intervention in East Timor published on the World Socialist Web
weeks of Australian troops landing in East Timor on May 24, the
country's prime minister Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign and
the former foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, who has made no
secret of his sympathies for the US and Australia, had been installed
in his place.
If one were
to believe the Australian media, Canberra had no hand in these
events. Acting out of the purest of motives, Prime Minister John
Howard dispatched military forces at the end of May to protect
the East Timorese from a sudden and largely inexplicable eruption
of ethnic violence between "easterners" and "westerners". Since
then, the story goes, Australia has remained a neutral arbiter,
standing above the political conflict in Dili. It is simply fortuitous
that the new prime minister, is, as the Sydney Morning Herald
put it, the "right man" for East Timor.
reality, what has taken place is an Australian-inspired political
coup. As troops were landing, Howard's public declaration that
East Timor had not been well-governed gave the signal for a deluge
of propaganda in the Australian media demonising Alkatiri as aloof,
an autocrat and a Marxist. Insistent demands that he take full
responsibility for the violence and resign were counterposed to
high praise for Ramos-Horta and President Xanana Gusmao, both
of whom backed the Australian-sponsored campaign to remove the
refused to immediately cave in and Gusmao lacked the constitutional
power to sack him without the support of parliament, where Alkatiri's
Fretilin party had a large majority. So a new approach was taken.
reality, what has taken place is
an Australian-inspired political coup.
As troops were landing,
(John) Howard's public declaration
that East Timor had not been
well-governed gave the signal for
a deluge of propaganda in the
Australian media demonising Alkatiri
as aloof, an autocrat and a Marxist.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired a "Four Corners"
program on June 19, which dredged up lurid allegations from Alkatiri's
political enemies that the prime minister had approved the formation
of a "hit squad" to murder his opponents. Quite apart from the
dubious and unsupported character of the claims, the program conveniently
ignored the fact that the rebel soldiers and police officers who
were making the charges were clearly guilty of taking up arms
against the state.
and Horta were "sympathetic" to rebel leaders such as "Major"
Alfredo Reinado, a dubious character who had trained in 2005 at
the Australian defence academy in Canberra and who had become
a favourite of the Australian press. Reinado had pledged his allegiance
to Gusmao and welcomed the arrival of Australian troops. He was
also openly threatening civil war if Alkatiri were not sacked.
No-one in Dili, Canberra or the Australian media even broached
the suggestion that Reinado and his fellow rebels should be charged
with treason. Instead Gusmao sent a tape of the ABC program, with
its unsubstantiated allegations, to Alkatiri, with a letter demanding
his immediate resignation.
Just a week
later, on June 26, Alkatiri resigned. But since Fretilin remained
the largest party in parliament, with the constitutional right
to nominate a new prime minister, the issue of who was to replace
him remained. To force Fretilin into submission, Gusmao threatened
to ignore the constitution, dismiss parliament and select his
own interim government, pending fresh elections. Once again Fretilin
capitulated. Ramos-Horta, who, like Gusmao had not been a Fretilin
member for many years, was included among its three nominees.
On July 10, he was duly sworn in.
Howard government has been rather coy about acknowledging its
role, Murdoch's Australian newspaper has been less so.
In a comment on June 3, foreign editor Greg Sheridan bluntly declared:
"Certainly if Alkatiri remains Prime Minister of East Timor, this
is a shocking indictment of Australian impotence. If you cannot
translate the leverage of 1,300 troops, 50 police, hundreds of
support personnel, buckets of aid and a critical international
rescue mission into enough influence to get rid of a disastrous
Marxist Prime Minister, then you are just not very skilled in
the arts of influence, tutelage, sponsorship and, ultimately,
promoting the national interest."
in Dili, Canberra or the
Australian media even broached the
suggestion that (Alfredo) Reinado
and his fellow rebels should be
charged with treason.
his own crude fashion, Sheridan was simply foreshadowing what
subsequently took place. Canberra shamelessly exploited and manipulated
the factional divisions within the East Timorese political elite
to install the man it wanted. Ramos-Horta's first actions were
to insist that Australia should lead any new UN mission to East
Timor and, most importantly, to pledge that the parliament would
rapidly ratify a stalled agreement between East Timor and Australia
over the division of proceeds from the Greater Sunrise gas field.
Among other concerns, the Australian government's hostility to
Alkatiri stemmed from his refusal to cave in totally to Canberra's
plans for the estimated $30 billion worth of oil and gas reserves
under the Timor Sea.
of the past weeks have flowed organically from Australia's past
relationship with East Timor, in which concern for the welfare
of the East Timorese people has never been a factor. Howard, like
his Labor and Liberal predecessors, backed the Indonesian Suharto
dictatorship's invasion of East Timor in 1975 and its subsequent
annexation of the former Portuguese colony. Canberra's interest
was centred on control of the substantial Timor Sea oil and gas
reserves, which it secured in 1989 under the Timor Gap Treaty.
fall of Suharto in 1998, Australia faced the prospect of the treaty
being declared null and void. The former colonial ruler, Portugal,
in league with East Timor's leaders, was pushing for the country's
independence, as a means of regaining influence. Since the UN
had never formally recognised Indonesia's annexation, a separate
state of East Timor might well abrogate Canberra's deal with Jakarta,
particularly as it ran counter to international law. The Australian
ruling elite made the necessary calculations and effected an abrupt
Suddenly, it became an advocate for the rights of the East Timorese
people and a supporter of "independence". Utilising the violence
carried out by pro-Indonesian militia both before and after the
UN-supervised independence referendum in 1999 as the pretext,
the Howard government dispatched troops to East Timor. Its real
aim was to preempt Australia's rival, Portugal.
other concerns, the Australian
government's hostility to (Mari) Alkatiri
stemmed from his refusal to cave in
totally to Canberra's plans for the
estimated $30 billion worth of oil
and gas reserves under the Timor Sea.
of "independence" for East Timor was never viable. In the era
of globalised production, any nation, no matter how large, is
subject to the dictates of the major transnational corporations
and internationally mobile capital. A tiny statelet on an impoverished
half-island, with a population of less than a million, could never
be "independent" of the regional and global powers, or of the
various international financial institutions, such as the World
Bank and IMF. The inter-imperialist rivalry for East Timor's lucrative
resources only intensified after the country was transformed into
a UN protectorate. Its "Special Representative of the Secretary
General," the late Sergio Viera de Mello, had all the powers of
a colonial governor.
was not only the Timor Sea oil and gas, but the island's strategic
location astride key naval and shipping routes between the Indian
and Pacific oceans. Washington's support for Canberra's ambitions
in East Timor was bound up with the growing rivalry between the
US and China for influence in Asia. The Pentagon has long regarded
the deep-water Ombei Wetar Straits as one of the crucial naval
"choke points" in any military conflict in the Asia Pacific region.
Likewise Portugal, backed by the European Union, viewed East Timor
as an important outpost in the struggle for influence in Asia,
a region that has assumed critical importance with China's and
India's emergence as the world's main cheap labour platforms.
inter-imperialist rivalries found their expression in Dili's factional
politics. The Fretilin leadership had always looked to Portugal.
Fretilin itself was forged, not in a struggle against Portuguese
colonial rule, but rather against the Indonesian annexation of
East Timor and its repressive military rule. The party's leaders
were drawn from the Portuguese-educated elite, and they used East
Timor's so-called "Portuguese identity" in their campaign for
"independence" from Indonesia. Fretilin's program was not Marxist,
but it did advance basic democratic and social reforms that rested
on a nationally-regulated capitalist economy.
of Fretilin's agenda included Horta and Gusmao, who broke with
the party and regarded its limited reformist program as too radical.
Gusmao oriented directly to the most rightwing and reactionary
political forces in East Timor, including the Catholic Church
and the UDT, which had supported the country's incorporation into
Indonesia. UDT leader Mario Carrascalao, the island's largest
coffee plantation owner, served as provincial governor for a decade
under the Indonesian dictatorship. These layers regarded the "Marxist"
Fretilin as an intolerable barrier to foreign capital and to their
ambitions for the unfettered exploitation of the island's resources
and cheap labour.
itself was forged, not in a
struggle against Portuguese colonial
rule, but rather against the Indonesian
annexation of East Timor and its
repressive military rule. The party's
leaders were drawn from the
Portuguese-educated elite, and they
used East Timor's so-called
"Portuguese identity" in their
campaign for "independence" from
Indonesia. Fretilin's program was not
Marxist, but it did advance basic
democratic and social reforms that
rested on a nationally-regulated
prior to Suharto's fall in 1998, Gusmao, with the support of Portugal,
engineered a grand coalition of "national unity" - the National
Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) - which included Fretilin
as well as the UDT, church leaders and individuals such as Horta.
Fretilin, however, remained the dominant force within the CNRT,
because it was popularly recognised as having led the difficult
and courageous struggle against the brutal 24-year Indonesian
its objective of a UN referendum, the CNRT began to fracture under
UN rule. Despite Gusmao's efforts to maintain the broad coalition
on which his influence rested, Fretilin increasingly came to play
the dominant political role.
produced seething resentment in Australian ruling circles.
Even though it had provided the majority of troops for the UN
military intervention in 1999, Canberra found that rival Portugal
was gaining the political upper hand through its ties to Fretilin.
In the political manouevring that took place in the lead-up to
formal independence in May 2002, the Howard government increasingly
relied on Fretilin's opponents. Both Gusmao and Ramos-Horta had
longstanding connections with Australia - Horta during his exile
and Gusmao through his Australian wife, Kirsty Sword.
the political manouevring that took
place in the lead-up to formal
independence in May 2002,
the Howard government increasingly
relied on Fretilin's opponents.
Both Gusmao and Ramos-Horta
had longstanding connections with
Australia - Horta during his exile and
Gusmao through his Australian wife,
a conscious appeal to the various anti-Fretilin layers on the
basis of "national unity". Around him gathered those whose positions
were threatened by Fretilin's ascendency - former officials and
police in the Indonesian provincial administration, businessmen
wanting immediate access to be provided to foreign investors,
and the Catholic church, which opposed Fretilin's secular demands
for a separation of church and state.
Insofar as any geographic divide existed, it reflected the fact
that Fretilin's base had traditionally been in the eastern areas
of the island - those more conducive to guerrilla warfare - rather
than the more developed western regions, with their links to the
Indonesian province of West Timor. Gusmao, who had established
close ties with the Indonesian regime during his imprisonment
in Jakarta, called for reconciliation with Indonesia.
differences erupted into the open in the election for a constituent
assembly in August 2001. Fretilin won an absolute majority - 55
of the 88 seats. Its closest rival, with seven seats, was the
Democratic Party (PD), formed just prior to the election. The
PD appealed to younger, disaffected people who saw few opportunities
for advancement in a Fretilin-led state, where Portuguese, spoken
by few East Timorese, would be the official language. Mario Carrascalao's
Social Democratic Party (PSD) gained just six seats.
proposed a secular parliamentary constitution, which would ensure
the party's continued dominance. Its opponents backed Gusmao's
push for a presidential system, based on a "national unity" front,
in which he would hold overall power. Fretilin prevailed and,
with UN backing, transformed the constituent assembly into the
first parliament. The factional bitterness re-emerged during elections
for the presidency in April 2002. Fretilin did not stand a candidate,
allowing Gusmao to win an overwhelming majority. But Alkatiri
pointedly announced that he would be casting a blank ballot, while
other Fretilin leaders gave tacit support to Gusmao's nominal
campaign to oust Alkatiri began at
least four years ago," Maryann Keady
wrote. "I recorded the date after an
American official started leaking stories
of Alkatiri's corruption while I was
freelancing for ABC Radio.
I investigated the claims - and came up
with nought - but was more concerned
with the tenor of criticism by American
and Australian officials that clearly
suggested that they were wanting
to get rid of this 'troublesome'
As far as
Canberra was concerned, the outcome of the UN-supervised process
was disastrous. Those in Dili most sympathetic to Australian interests
had been largely sidelined. While Gusmao had become president,
he had limited constitutional powers. Moreover, the Fretilin government
quickly made clear it would not simply acquiesce to Canberra's
diktats. In the week prior to formal independence, the Howard
government flew Alkatiri to Canberra by VIP jet to pressure him
into finalising a deal ceding most of the largest Timor Sea gas
field - Greater Sunrise - to Australia. But Alkatiri refused to
journalist Maryann Keady, in a recent article entitled "Imperialist
Coup in East Timor", points out that the moves against the new
government began as soon as "independence" was declared. "The
campaign to oust Alkatiri began at least four years ago," she
wrote. "I recorded the date after an American official started
leaking stories of Alkatiri's corruption while I was freelancing
for ABC Radio. I investigated the claims - and came up with nought
- but was more concerned with the tenor of criticism by American
and Australian officials that clearly suggested that they were
wanting to get rid of this 'troublesome' prime minister... After
interviewing the major political leaders, it was clear that many
would stop at nothing to get rid of Timor's first prime minister."
imperialism, East Timor and the role of the DSP
July 2006 - click
Australia installs its man in East Timor:
July 2006 - click
Oppose Australia's neo-colonial occupation
of East Timor
June 2006 - click
Why Australia wants "regime change" in
May 2006 - click