Over 2,000 Australian troops have been sent to East Timor in the last fortnight as part of an international “peacekeeping force” along with troops from Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal.
East Timor won its independence from neighbouring Indonesia in 2002. Australia has a long history of attempting to shape the politics of the region.
The latest intervention follows a month of violence and fighting in Dili, East Timor’s capital, in which at least 27 people have been killed and thousands have fled their homes.
The immediate cause of the violence was the sacking of around 600 soldiers who were striking over pay and conditions, and against discrimination in the armed forces.
The sacked soldiers, part of East Timor’s 1,500-strong army, refused to hand over their arms. Demonstrations erupted into rioting, and clashes between different groups in the army and police.
The government of East Timor is predominantly made up of veterans of the country’s national liberation struggle.
Press reports of the violence have focused on the rivalry between the Timorese president Xanana Gusmao and the prime minister Mari Alkatiri. There are indeed tensions within the government.
For example, Alkatiri reportedly opposed the intervention of Australian troops, unlike Gusmao and the foreign minister Ramos Horta.
Australian prime minister John Howard has argued that East Timor needs better governance.
But Australia, the US and other Western powers have impoverished and destabilised East Timor.
As East Timor Action Network, a US-based human rights group, argues, “We must not forget that Australia contributed to the situation that their ‘peacekeepers’ are then sent in to.”
East Timor won its independence in 2002 after a long struggle against military occupation. Portugal had originally occupied East Timor in the 16th century.
After the revolution of 1974-5 overthrew Portugal’s right wing regime there was growing pressure for independence and the Portuguese withdrew in November 1975.
One week later the Indonesian dictator Suharto invaded East Timor.
This invasion took place just a few hours after the then US president Gerald Ford had visited the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
As the journalist John Pilger noted, “The governments of the US, Britain and Australia were not only forewarned, but supported and equipped the invaders.
“[US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger personally gave General Suharto the go-ahead.”
Over 200,000 people, almost one third of the population, were killed or starved to death during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of East Timor.
When the Indonesian army finally left in 1999, their troops went on the rampage killing around 1,000 people and destroying much of the infrastructure of East Timor.
Hopes of a new freedom were high at independence, but decades of military occupation and repression had crippled the economy.
East Timor today is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has the lowest GDP per person of any country in the world, lower than the Gaza Strip, and half that of Ethiopia or Zambia.
A recent United Nations report found that half of the population have no access to clean drinking water and over 40 percent live below the poverty line.
It is hardly surprising then to find that one of the targets of the so-called looting last week was the warehouse of the World Food Programme, where people broke in and carried off sacks of rice.
There have been no reparations, political or economic, for the occupation of East Timor or for the complicity of Western powers in the misery of its people.
The Australian government has refused to return revenues totalling billions of dollars from disputed oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea.
Earlier this year, Australia signed a deal with East Timor which allows Australia to continue to reap the majority of revenues from oil fields in the Timor Sea such as the Laminaria-Corallina and Buffalo oilfields.
This is despite these oil fields being much closer to East Timor than they are to Australia.
According to Sydney based academic Tim Anderson, who visited East Timor before and after independence, “Australia and the World Bank have also refused to help rehabilitate and build the Timorese rice industry, and refused to support the use of aid money for grain silos.”
Anderson is very wary of Australia’s past and present role in East Timor.
He points out that its sending of “peacekeeping” forces to East Timor has been combined with increasingly sinister comments from John Howard and the Australian press about the need for a new government in the country.
He argues, “Occupying armies are bad news for democracy.
“The Australian government comes to its most recent intervention in Timor literally bloodied from its spectacularly unsuccessful interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomons.
“Australian people, who strongly supported independence for the people of East Timor, should watch Howard’s latest intervention very closely.”
For the people of East Timor, who have fought a long and brave battle for political independence, the question now is not just how to maintain that, but also how to combine it with a fight for economic independence.