Anzac troops out of East TImor

It's easy for the Australian and New Zealand left to call for troops out of Iraq. Scott Hamilton says we should be looking a little closer to home.

It is strategically located, rich in oil and gas, with a long and tragic history of invasion and colonisation. The latest chapter in that history began this decade, when the United States and some of its allies organised an invasion. George Bush and his deputy sheriff John Howard argued that the country had become a failed state, a magnet for terrorists and a threat to its neighbours.

The invaders quickly spread out across the country and were even given a cautious welcome by some locals tired of chaos and violence. This welcome quickly disappeared, though, when the invaders showed their arrogance and their appetite for the resources of the conquered country. Their soldiers broke up political demonstrations, and their diplomats and businessmen began to demand deals that secured their control of the country's energy reserves. They installed a puppet government in the country's capital and called this government a triumph of democracy.

Soon a movement of resistance began in the occupied country. Because of the chaos the invasion and occupation had exacerbated, the movement was without central leadership or a unifying strategy. Parts of it were organised along regional and ethnic lines; other parts took their inspiration from fiery religious leaders. After the repression of street protests, the resistance began to use armed force. Members of the puppet government's army and police forces defected to the resistance as the violence increased. Soon law and order had broken down completely in most parts of the country and the occupying powers were promising more troops and police in a fruitless effort to create stability.

Does all this sound familiar? Most readers would see it as a pretty accurate sketch of the last four years of Iraqi history. Only a few, though, would realise that it is also a broad description of the recent history of East Timor, a country that has been suffering an Australian-led, US-backed occupation since May.

The latest occupation of East Timor was prompted by policies pursued the Fretilin government of prime minister Mari Alkatiri was following in 2004 and the first months of 2005. Alkatiri was an arrogant and sometimes repressive ruler, but he was attempting to make his country more independent of Australia and the United States. Alkatiri struck a number of economic deals with China and East Timor's former colonial ruler, Portugal. Alkatiri also refused to take loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, organisations which had forced debt-ridden Pacific countries such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to introduce 'reforms' involving massive cuts in government spending, job losses and the sale of resources to Australian and New Zealand companies.

Even worse from the point of view of the governments in Canberra and Washington, Alkatiri had attempted to renegotiate the terms of Australia's control of the rich gas fields that lie under the seabed between Australia and East Timor. Alkatiri wanted a bigger share of the huge profits from this gas to go to East Timor.

Australia pursued a treaty that would see East Timor and Australia take a 50 per cent share each of income from the Timor Sea oil and gas fields. There would be a 50 year morotorium on deciding where the line of territorial control would lie. This is pretty handy for Australian interests because if the line of territorial control was adopted now along the lines of international law, East Timor would have the right to 80 per cent of the Timor Sea gas and oil fields. For details on this see the website of Timor Sea Office of the Prime Minister, Government of Timor-Leste.

This treaty was signed by representatives of the Timor-Leste government, but the Fretilin majority parliament has refused to ratify the treaty. Jose Ramos Horta, the current prime minister and candidate for the presidency later this year, has said he will push to endorse the Timor Gap Treaty.

Worried by Alkatiri's moves, Australia and the United States began a campaign of destabilisation against his government. Exploiting East Timor's extreme poverty and regional, cultural, and ethnic divisions, they spread propaganda that painted Alkatiri, who is a Muslim with Arab ancestors, as an enemy of Catholics and of people from the west of the country. They funded demonstrations by right-wing Catholic groups, and hijacked a mutiny by a group of soldiers in East Timor's army who had complained of being discriminated against because they grew up in the west.

By May East Timor was ablaze, as the army and police split along regional lines and shadowy right-wing groups began a dirty war against the 'communist Muslim' government in Dili. Along with New Zealand's government, which was desperate to atone for its 'failure' to join the invasion of Iraq, Australia and the US organised a military intervention which forced Alkatiri from office and installed Jose Ramos-Horta in his place.

The chaos in East Timor has only worsened since last May, as even anti-Alkatiri parts of the population turn against the occupying army. Alfredo Reinado was a major in the East Timorese army with close links to Canberra who had taken control of the 2006 mutiny and acted as a cheerleader for the Anzac invasion of his country. He was intended as a catspaw of Australian interests, with allegations he was co-operating with Ramos-Horta and the revered guerilla-leader turned president, Xanana Gusmao.

Eventually, though, Reinado fell out with the occupiers and found himself in prison. Last August Reinado escaped from custody along with dozens of supporters and fled to the countryside. On February 25 Reinado and an armed band raided two police stations, seizing weapons. Popular now as a symbol of resistance to the occupation, Reinado appears to be plotting a guerilla war.

In the East Timor capital Dili, Anzac troops are increasingly resorting to brute force to keep the lid on anti-occupation sentiment. In the last week of February thousands of Dili residents took to the streets to protest the killing of two youths by Australian troops. The young men were part of a group that had fired steel arrows at the Australians and in the aftermath of their deaths there have been new attacks on Anzac troops patrolling Dili. After Australian troops launched a bloody but unsuccessful raid against Reinado's forces on March 4, supporters of the rebel major blocked the streets of Dili with burning tyres, threw rocks at police, and chanted "Australians go home!". A day later East Timor's president Xanana Gusmao issued a decree giving foreign troops the right to detain people without any legal authorisation and to break up any political gathering deemed a security risk. John Howard promised more resources to 'secure stability' in East Timor.

It is clear that the Bush-Howard brand of neocolonialism has been a disaster in East Timor as well as Iraq. In both countries, invasion has meant the theft of key resources, the deepening of social and economic chaos, the exacerbation of regional and ethnic differences, and repression at the point of a foreigner's gun.

Despite all this, there is no movement in Australia or New Zealand to demand the withdrawal of Anzac troops and police from East Timor. On March 17, people around the world will take to the streets to condemn the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and to demand the end of the US-led occupation of the country. In the long years since the first bombs of Operation Iraqi Freedom fell on downtown Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of Aussies and Kiwis have protested against George Bush's exercise in neocolonialism. Only a tiny number have protested against the same neocolonialism in East Timor.

Some parts of the Australasian left have actually supported the occupation of East Timor. The Green Parties of Australia and New Zealand oppose the war in Iraq, but have been cheerleaders for the invasion and occupation of East Timor. Even the Green Left Weekly, Australasia's largest socialist newspaper, refused to oppose the invasion of May 2006.

It is the blind spot created by nationalism that has stopped many on the Kiwi left from opposing imperialism in East Timor. Groups like the Green Party are happy to rail against things the US army is doing on the other side of the world, but they fall into line when 'our troops' are involved in operations in 'our backyard'. The Greens think that New Zealand capitalism and the New Zealand state are basically progressive and have to be preserved and strengthened as bulwarks against foreign multinational companies and unilateralist governments in Washington.

Veteran Green Party foreign affairs spokesman Keith Locke has argued time and again that New Zealand has to be involved in Australian-led and US-backed military interventions in the Pacific, so that ‘our troops’ can be a force for justice and keep an eye on the forces sent by the regional sheriff Australia. New Zealand can help restrain John Howard and his backers in Washington and make sure that military interventions in places such as East Timor and the Solomon Islands act in the interests of the local population.

We've heard the same arguments before, of course - from Tony Blair. Blair and his supporters constantly argue that the best way to temper US unilateralism is to support US wars and then use the influence this support supposedly gives to make the wars are waged 'humanely' and for 'progressive ends'. Just as the disaster in Iraq discredits Blair's arguments, so the disaster in East Timor discredits the Green Party.

It's about time the Aussie and Kiwi anti-war movements protested imperialist aggression in their own backyard, as well as on the other side of the world. When we march against war and imperialism this Saturday we should coin a new slogan:

'Anzac forces out - hands off East Timor!'

March 13, 2007

Scott Hamilton produces Reading the Maps


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