East Timor: a fire fuelled by imperialism

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FRFI 151 October / November 1999

On 30 August, after 23 years of bloody repression by Indonesia, 98.6 per cent of the people of East Timor turned out to vote in a UN-sponsored referendum. Despite intimidation by Indonesian-backed militia, the result was a massive vote for independence and freedom and against limited autonomy under Indonesian rule. Within two weeks, East Timor had been destroyed, its cities reduced to smoking shells, hundreds of East Timorese murdered and almost the entire population driven from their homes. Only then did the United Nations send in peace-keeping troops. One of the first acts of the their commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, was to shake hands with the Indonesian military -- who actively participated in the carnage -- and praise them for their 'first-class assistance'. But a willingness to ignore Indonesian crimes, however heinous, has always been the hallmark of the west's attitude to East Timor.

Imperialism's shameful role

Today, East Timor's 'descent into violence' is headline news, a tale of a brutal militia, an impotent Indonesian army and a 'fragile Indonesian democracy' that must not be offended. Enter the good guys, the UN peacekeeping forces. That is the myth. The truth is that for 23 years the imperialist countries, in particular Australia, the United States and Britain, have actively colluded in the bloodbath of Indonesian annexation of East Timor which wiped out a third of its population. The UN has served, and continues to serve, simply as a cover for those interests. Meanwhile, with a few courageous exceptions, the media of the world remained silent.

'The international community continues to miss the point in the case of East Timor. There is only one crime…To the capitalist governors of the world, Timor's petroleum smells better than Timorese blood and tears. It even seems as if the United Nations itself is easing the path of the aggressor, giving it the time and conditions necessary to execute the ethnic and cultural genocide of the Timorese people and, finally, declare that East Timor is definitely integrated into the Indonesian republic.'

These words, quoted by journalist John Pilger*, were written in 1983 by a priest after the massacre of an entire village by the Indonesian army. They ring as true today.

In December 1975 US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Indonesian president Suharto to give him the green light to invade East Timor. US arms were secretly shipped to Indonesia to support the invasion. Philip Liechty, the CIA desk officer in Jakarta at the time, described the annexation as a 'free-fire zone…and all because we didn't want some little country being neutral or leftist at the UN.' The US alliance with Indonesia would override any 'humanitarian' concerns in the coming years. For Australia, the greatest prize was the Timor Sea, believed to contain the seventh-largest oil and gas reserves on earth; Australia's access to these riches is guaranteed by the East Timor Gap treaty with Indonesia. Britain is concerned to protect both its export of arms to Indonesia and the investments of almost every major British multinational from Shell and BP to Glaxo Wellcome. The USA, Britain and Australia trained and armed Indonesia's special forces, Kopassus, which spearheaded the invasion and which is responsible for co-ordinating the 'scorched earth' policy in East Timor over the last eight months. In April, as reports of army-backed paramilitaries emerged, Admiral Dennis Blair, the US commander-in-chief in the Pacific, visited Indonesia's military commander Wiranto to assure him of continued US backing. 'Wiranto was delighted', reported the New York Nation, '[and] took this as the green light to progress with the militia operation.'

From 1976, when Kissinger instructed the US ambassador to the UN to ensure 'that the UN proved utterly ineffective [on East Timor]', to its shameful role today, the UN has acted to protect these interests.

United Nations complicity

The explosion of violence which followed the referendum was entirely predictable. From as early as last April reports were emerging of pro-Jakarta militia murders, kidnappings and torture. Houses and churches were burned. The United Nations even had proof that the Indonesian military were actively fomenting the terror, arming and training the militia. The escalating violence forced the vote to be postponed twice. Yet the UN sent an unarmed mission to oversee referendum preparations. Within 48 hours of the vote itself, an East Timorese UN worker had been stabbed to death and armed militia were rampaging through Dili, taking over the airport and setting up roadblocks while the Indonesian army and police stood idly by. Yet Jamsheed Marker, the representative of UN Secretary General, praised their role. Within a week, militias and army were overtly acting together, cheerfully embarking on an orgy of looting, rape, murder and arson. What did the UN do? Send orders to the East Timor mission to ship out, giving the lie to its posters which had promised, prior to the referendum, 'the UN will stay'. Only when UN workers based in Dili refused to abandon local staff to their fate, to say nothing of the refugees sheltering in the UN compound, were 17 planeloads of refugees finally airlifted to safety in Darwin before the compound closed its gates. It took two weeks for the UN ambassador to come to East Timor to visit the wreckage that was Dili.

Meanwhile, East Timor was being ethnically cleansed, as army and militia drove people from their homes, burning entire towns, butchering communities. One witness counted 145 macheted corpses left to rot on a single street. Reports emerged of the heads of men and women mounted on spikes along the road. Men, women and children were loaded into trucks and dumped in military camps across the border in pro-Indonesian West Timor. Journalist John Aglionby has spoken of forced marches of women and children across the border, with stragglers kicked and beaten into line. The camps themselves are being purged, with pro-independence activists 'disappearing' overnight. Children are dying of hunger; diseases such as TB stalk the land. East Timor is empty: the Red Cross estimates that 800,000 people, out of a population of 850,000 have been displaced. 120,000 are sheltering with the pro-independence Falantil guerrillas in the mountains -- where UN food drops took two weeks to arrive.

Making East Timor safe for imperialism

The aim of the terror was initially to prevent a vote for independence. Having failed to do more than slightly dent the huge majority -- 76% -- in favour of independence, more direct imperialist intervention is needed to ensure the territory remains governed in the interests of Indonesia and its backers. One option is to force a second ballot in a depopulated land. Another is partition -- merging the west of East Timor with West Timor. The army is ready to use the issue of East Timor to topple Indonesian President Habibie, and the other Indonesian parties may refuse to ratify the referendum. Or the UN may force the independence movement to negotiate with the Indonesian butchers a resolution acceptable to imperialism. This, after all, was the role of the UN in Angola in 1992, where it ignored the rearmament of the US- and South African-backed UNITA bandits in the run-up to the election. When its popular opponents, the MPLA, won, despite the terror campaign, UNITA was geared up to go to war. The UN then forced the MPLA to share power with UNITA, all to protect imperialism's interest in Angola's huge mineral, diamond and oil reserves. The 'peacekeepers' of the United Nations are never more than instruments of imperialist interests. The long struggle of the people of East Timor for independence and freedom is far from over.

Cat Wiener

* John Pilger is one of the few journalists to have regularly reported on East Timor over the years and exposed the depths of imperialism's complicity in Indonesia's crimes in the territory. I am indebted to his recent articles in the Guardian and New Statesman for much of the background material in this article.

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