East Timor - Blood on the hands of imperialism

sept/oct 1999

At the time of writing, a United Nations "peacekeeping" force has begun to land in East Timor, led by a 4500-strong contingent from neighbouring Australia. Its official brief will be to protect the East Timorese from the terror unleashed against them by pro-Indonesian militias, in the wake of an overwhelmingly pro-independence vote in a referendum held on August 30th.

By now, however, judging from the reports published in the papers here, the damage is already done. East Timor is a devastated and partly deserted country. The tens of thousands who were massacred over the past weeks cannot be brought back to life. And hundreds of thousands of East Timorese (between a quarter and a third of the total population according to UN estimates) are now held hostage by the Indonesian military in other parts of Indonesia.

If the Indonesian interim president Habibie agreed, eventually, on September 11th that a UN force be sent to East Timor, it was less to do with diplomatic pressure than the relationship of forces on the ground, which by then had been heavily tilted in favour of the Indonesian army.

So, at best the role of this "peacekeeping" force will be to broker a deal with the Indonesian army - a deal which will necessarily involve concessions to Jakarta at the expense of the East Timorese, now that the Indonesian army has been given the time to prepare its bargaining position. And, more likely than not, the UN troops will take responsibility for maintaining "order", that is, for imposing this settlement on the East Timorese and, above all, preventing them from taking their fate into their own hands.

The build up to a catastrophe

For more than six months, there had been plenty of signs that such a catastrophe was threatening in East Timor. Had the UN and imperialist powers wanted to prevent it, they would have had plenty of time to do so. But instead, they went along with the waiting game played by Habibie. Moralistic admonitions were made by the UN, resolutions were passed, diplomats and observers were sent. But while the imperialist leaders were waging this hypocritical war of words, the Indonesian military were preparing for real war, arming and drilling their stooge militias and drafting plans for the wholesale deportation of a whole section of the East Timorese population.

After Habibie bowed to diplomatic pressure, in January this year, and announced that a referendum over the independence of East Timor would be organised, a new wave of terror suddenly flared up, at first mostly aimed at known nationalist activists. Then police violence began to spread wider. On April 15th, 62 people were massacred by riot police in a church nearby the capital Dili. Jakarta bluntly refused the proposal for an international enquiry by UN observers. But in Washington and London, no-one lifted a finger.

That same month an official statement by colonel Suratman, one of the heads of the Indonesian military in East Timor, announced the recruitment, arming and training of 50,000 civilians as "security guards". These were to become the military's instrument of terror in the following months. These so- called "anti-independence" militias, as they were described by the media here, were really armed thugs recruited and paid by the Indonesian army to do the bloody business that the military could not afford to be seen doing themselves. Some of these militias were recruited among the non-East Timorese minority transported into East Timor over the previous decade; others were recruited in the Western part of the Timor island; but many were simply recruited forcibly, by rounding up remote villages and forcing the men to join up, while their families were held hostage in "protected" compounds - a tactic probably borrowed from the British army, who used such methods in nearby Malaysia and Burma, in the aftermath of World War II.

In the run-up to the referendum, finally scheduled for August 30th after being postponed twice, the pro- Indonesian militias embarked on a terror campaign against the population in the hope that this would be enough to keep voters away from the polling stations. As it turned out, this was a miscalculation. On the contrary, this terror campaign, coupled with the obvious complicity of the Indonesian police and army, seems to have strengthened the resolve of the East Timorese. Many walked for hours, some for days, to reach the polling stations. When the voting started at 6.30am, there were already long queues. By 1pm, UN observers estimated that 80% of the electorate had already voted. When the booths finally closed, 98.6% of the 432,300- strong electorate had voted. The result was an overwhelming endorsement of independence with nearly 79% voting in favour.

Within hours of the result being announced the militias went on the rampage. Heavily, though crudely, armed, they burnt and destroyed whole villages and small towns, while raping, pillaging and murdering as many as 20,000 people in less than a week. The East Timorese capital Dili which, a fortnight earlier, had been swarming with UN observers and visiting teams of journalists and camera crews was soon no more than a ghost town. During all this carnage the Indonesian army and police stood aside and let the militias get on with their task, where they did not actively assist them.

The declaration of martial law in East Timor by the Jakarta regime two days after the killings started - meant to fob off criticisms levelled at the regime for its "inactivity" - was the green light for the army to start rounding up tens of thousands, transporting them by bus or lorry to ports or airports and then flying them out of the country, mainly to neighbouring West Timor. Most people were then herded into what amounted to concentration camps. An estimated 100,000 were forced to leave within a few days, many with only the clothes they had on. Subsequently, the militias' threats (usually they gave families a few hours to leave their houses before coming back to burn them down, along with whoever was still inside) were enough to drive even the most reluctant towards the assembly points set up by the army for the refugees waiting to be transported out of East Timor. Meanwhile, in the rural areas, the most determined fled to the mountains, while villages were burnt down by the pro-Indonesian thugs. After two weeks, the estimated number of deported refugees had increased to between 200,000 and 250,000, with a similar number hiding away in the mountains, without any food or shelter - this out of a total population of 800,000!

What took place over these two weeks, was the implementation of a definite plan drafted by the Indonesian military. The first targets to be rounded up were, apart from known activists of all descriptions, city dwellers - particularly from among the educated layers. Clearly the military were determined to ensure that there would be no-one left in East Timor who would be able to speak for the population or represent its national aspirations, let alone organise any effective resistance.

Imperialism and the Indonesian army

Despite all the evidence of what was taking place, the imperialist leaders did nothing apart from brandishing vague threats of economic sanctions. It took a week after the beginning of the terrorist wave following the referendum, before Clinton spoke out publicly against the bloodbath and threatened sanctions. Thereafter, all the minor imperialisms - Britain, France, Australia, etc.. - followed suit. But non-intervention was still the order of the day. Despite the evidence of the Indonesian army's role, British foreign minister Robin Cook could only say that it was up to the Indonesian army to protect the East Timorese! The most he could summon up was the despatch of his junior minister to Jakarta and a Royal Navy boat to pick up refugees. Only later came the symbolic decision to suspend the delivery of British made Hawk jets to Indonesia!

The fact that Stephen Byers, the British Industry minister, has been caught red-handed providing export grants for military equipment to be sold to Indonesia as late as the end of July, should not come as a surprise. While the Western leaders and the UN were making sanctimonious noises of condemnation, it was business as usual for their multinationals operating in Indonesia - and it still is. Nor, for instance, was there then, or is there today, any question of freezing the bank accounts held in the industrialised countries by the Indonesian wealthy and particularly those of the military establishment - despite the fact that the tens of billions of dollars held in these accounts would provide a much more potent lever than the threat of stopping IMF aid, the cost of which can be easily passed on to the population. No, the fact is, that despite all their "humanitarian" noises, the imperialist leaders did not want to allow anything to interfere with their cosy relationship with the Indonesian privileged and military.

Imperialism's complicity with the Indonesian military goes back a long way, to the days of 1965 when the Indonesian army, then led by the future dictator Suharto, overthrew the populist regime of Sukarno, of which it had been one of two main pillars - the other one being the Indonesian Communist Party. It was a bloodbath. Depending on estimates, between 500,000 and two million people were massacred, tens of thousands were jailed for long periods. Among the victims, the largest group was the members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, which was practically destroyed.

The CIA had built a wide web of contacts in the Indonesian army and was undoubtedly closely involved in the coup's preparations. In any case, the imperialist governments welcomed the coup. They had been worried by the growing strength of the Communist Party and the development of closer relations between Indonesia and China. Imperialism, particularly the US, saw Indonesia as a key country in that part of the world - politically, because of its size and the large number of ethnic groups it comprised and economically, because it was a major supplier of raw materials for the rich countries. There was too much at stake to allow Indonesia to drift out of imperialist control - never mind the cost in lives to the Indonesian population!

Thereafter, the Indonesian army was rewarded for its services. It was equipped and trained by imperialism and became the largest and most modern army in South Asia. While the leading circles of the army thrived on the West's military assistance, they also thrived on taking their cut in much of the country's trade with Western multinationals. Sukarno's extended family, which ran both the political and military machineries of the state, also controlled a huge business empire which allowed them to stockpile wealth estimated at $40bn. Thus, many more ties were formed over the years between the Indonesian army's leading circles and the imperialist political and military leaders, as well as western capitalists, thereby making the Indonesian army imperialism's favourite bulwark in the region.

Suharto's demise in May 1998 did not change much in this respect. The number and determination of demonstrators two months earlier, had proved that as president, Suharto had become a liability for the political stability of the country. When he eventually resigned, it was not just because he had been dealt a fatal blow by the demonstrators, but also because he had been told to go by his American protectors. Even then, however, it was, in the words of the US foreign secretary Madeleine Albright, "to preserve his legacy"....

In any case, the main problem for imperialism was to ensure an orderly political transition with the aim not to end the corrupted and discredited dictatorship of the Indonesian army, but on the contrary to preserve it, possibly behind the smokescreen of some kind of democratic form, but not even necessarily so. First, hopes for change had to be dampened among the population and the possible shockwave generated by Suharto's resignation after 34 years in power had to be assessed and put under control. But whatever happened, imperialism was determined to see to it that its old allies, the Indonesian generals, remained firmly in control. And that is exactly what happened under Habibie's interim regime.

The roots of East Timor's plight

In fact the imperialist powers have a direct historical responsibility in the origins of the plight of East Timor - the partition of the island. This goes back to past centuries, when the Dutch and Portuguese colonial powers were competing for new territories in the huge archipelago comprising some 13,000 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, which became known as the East Indies. In the 17th century Portugal was largely displaced by Holland which grabbed the bulk of the islands but allowed the Portuguese to retain the eastern half of the island of Timor.

During World War II, the oil-rich Dutch East Indies was invaded by Japan. After the Japanese defeat in 1945, Holland eventually failed in its attempts to regain its former colonies and an independent Indonesia was formed in 1949, although the fighting between Indonesia and Holland over the control of the New Guinea island went on until the mid- 50s. The only part of the archipelago which retained colonial status was East Timor, which returned to Portugal, while the western part of the island became part of Indonesia.

The overthrow of the Portuguese dictatorship by a military coup staged by young army officers in 1974 (the so-called "Carnation Revolution") led to the legalisation of the East Timorese nationalist movements. In September 1974 the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (FRETILIN) was created. It was opposed by the Timor Democratic Union (UDT) which stood for the continuation of colonial status, and the Indonesian- backed Timor Popular Democratic Association (APODETI) which sought full integration with its giant neighbour. When the UDT attempted a coup, FRETILIN organised an armed insurrection. The UDT's defeat led to the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial administration and the declaration of independence on 28 November 1975, under a radical nationalist government dominated by FRETILIN.

The independence of East Timor was short-lived. Already a western- backed invasion plan by Indonesia was well advanced. In September 1974 Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam had met Suharto and stated publicly that "an independent Timor would be an unviable state and a potential threat to the area". Only a few days before the invasion, which took place on 7th December 1975, US president Ford and his foreign adviser Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta for three days. The odds are that the issue of East Timor was discussed on this occasion and the decision to invade it was okayed by Ford.

The imperialist leaders' reaction to the Indonesian invasion was to look the other way. In the case of Britain, it was only shortly after this, that Wilson's Labour government authorised the sale of eight Hawk jet fighters to Indonesia - which were produced by British Aerospace, a state-owned company at the time. At the time, the Labour government's Foreign Minister David Owen - who, ironically, was later to become the West's diplomatic envoy in charge of "protecting" Bosnia against Serbian aggression - went out of his way to play down the aggression of the Indonesian army against East Timor.

The lack of reaction of the western leaders to the brutal occupation of East Timor by the Indonesian army can be contrasted with what they did sixteen years later when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. Although in this case, the Iraqi economy was being strangled by Kuwait's speculative dumping of cheap oil on the world market. Suharto, on the other hand, by occupying East Timor, was merely aiming at enlarging his empire, against the will of the East Timorese. Yet there was no serious attempt made whatsoever to force Suharto to withdraw his troops from East Timor, let alone anything like the massive military build-up which resulted in the Gulf war against Iraq. The whole issue was swept under the carpet by imperialism, with just a few resolutions voted by the UN in order to keep Third World country delegates happy.

Two decades of a bloody civil war

Within two months of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, an estimated 60,000 people had been killed - almost as many proportionally as were killed during the whole of the Japanese occupation. Among them, the 20,000-strong Chinese urban population was the first to be decimated. By July 1975 the Indonesian government felt confident enough to make East Timor its 27th province but there was no let-up in the fighting. FRETILIN was organising guerilla groups in the mountains with the support of a large part of the population. The war settled in.

But, three years on, as an eye witness wrote, "After September 1978 the war intensified. Military aircraft were in action all day long. Hundreds died daily, their bodies left as food for the vultures. If bullets didn't kill us, we died from epidemic disease; villages were being completely destroyed."

In 1978, FRETILIN appeared to be scaling down its actions when a massive surrender of civilians was organised. Many of the men who surrendered were subsequently armed and trained by the Indonesian army in an attempt to "Timorize" the war. This backfired when FRETILIN issued instructions to the now well-armed and equipped recruits to rebel and rejoin the insurgents... The war continued.

A five-month cease-fire in 1983 was only the prelude to a major new Indonesian offensive and the following year conditions deteriorated with widespread hunger and disease. In 1989, confronted with increasingly difficult conditions, FRETILIN's commander, Xanana Gusmao, made an unconditional offer to open peace negotiations. But this was rejected and the war still carried on, without anyone taking any notice in the rest of the world.

In November 1991 East Timor came to the attention of the world following the Dili massacres which by chance were witnessed by foreigners, one of whom had a video camera. Unprovoked, waiting troops shot some 200 young people who were entering a cemetery to place flowers on a student's grave - he had previously been shot dead in church. Such was the international reaction that Suharto felt obliged to have the deaths investigated. However, though some soldiers were found guilty, their punishment was derisory and the policy of the Indonesian regime continued unabated.

By 1992, fifteen years after Suharto's occupation of East Timor, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese had been killed by the Indonesian military in an on-going bloody war. In an additional attempt to cut the local population, compulsory sterilisation for thousands of women was introduced. Meanwhile, 150,000 people from the over-populated islands of Java and Bali had been brought in, often forcibly, as a result of a programme of "transmigration" designed to weaken centrifugal forces among the many different ethnic groups which populated the thousands of islands that made up Indonesia. According to East Timorese nationalists, these transmigrant settlers were often given the most fertile land - at the expense of the former farmers who had been forced off their land by the army - in order to tie them to Suharto's occupation of East Timor.

If this was not similar to what western propaganda described as "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia for instance, what was it? And yet, in the case of East Timor, the imperialist powers did not even protest, not even symbolically. And even today, when they are about to send troops to East Timor, their intervention is not aimed at the Indonesian army nor at Habibie's regime, not any more than are their threats of economic sanctions.

It is not, of course, that Habibie's regime today - or Suharto's yesterday - are more "democratic" than Saddam Hussein's or Milosevic's. There is probably not much to choose between these bloody dictatorships - specially for the national and ethnic minorities who are under their yoke. The only real difference is that Saddam Hussein and Milosevic have tended to be loose cannons, who were prepared to pursue their own interests without taking into account those of imperialism. Whereas, so far at least, after 34 years of a fruitful collaboration, imperialist leaders consider the Indonesian army as a reliable ally, whose loyalty must be cultivated at any cost - regardless of the enormous price paid by the populations in East Timor and in the rest of Indonesia.

The stakes for imperialism

For the past 34 years, the Indonesian army's main function, from the point of view of imperialism, has been to maintain political stability in a vast country which, on the one hand, had the potential to destabilise the whole region and, on the other hand, represented an enormous source of profits for western multinationals.

One only needs to look at a map of Indonesia and the region to understand to what extent this country could develop into a powderkeg. First, it is atomised into a huge number of islands which are often populated by specific ethnic groups - and there is no shortage of separatist movements which have developed along such ethnic lines. Second, some of these islands are themselves split between two or more countries due to the heritage of colonial or imperialist rivalries.

Timor is but one example of this. But there are very down-to-earth reasons why the Indonesian military and western multinationals want to ensure that order (their order) is kept on the island. Indeed there are very large deposits of oil and gas in the Timor Gap, the sea area which lies between the southern coast of East Timor and Australia. The oil reserves of the Timor Gap, for instance, are estimated to be five times as large as the entire reserves of Australia. But so far, due to the on-going civil war in East Timor, very little of these reserves have been tapped, despite the efforts of the Australian government to cobble together a treaty with Indonesia which amounted to a formal recognition of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. A number of oil giants are already involved in the Timor Gap or have bought options in it - among them Shell, Chevron (US), Elf (France), BHP (Australia) but also PT Astra, an Indonesian oil company which is part of Suharto's business empire. And no doubt they are all anxious to see the conflict in East Timor resolved by a settlement which would exclude the claims made by FRETILIN on the oil wealth of the Timor Gap.

In addition to Timor, there is also the huge island of Borneo, with largely untapped underground resources, which is split into three between Indonesia, Malaysia and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei - which was really tailor-made for Shell by the British in the aftermath of World War II and still hosts a British military base (where the British Gurkhas to be sent to East Timor are billeted).

Then there is another large mineral- rich island, New Guinea, which is split into two by an artificial north-south line, between Indonesia (Irian Jaya or West Papua) and the independent state of Papua, which is closely linked to Australia. In West Papua, the OPM (or Free Papua Movement) has been active since 1977, seeking the reunification of the two halves of the island. Between 1977 and 1979, the OPM staged a rebellion which eventually collapsed. But since then there have been many more disturbances including fighting in the capital, Jayapura, in 1984. But given the Indonesian army's insistence on limiting access across the border to peoples who are of the same ethnic origin, their habit of pursuing those in flight on the other side, and the brutality with which they treated the native population, grounds for discontent remained. Overall some 43,000 native people have been killed by the security forces in the two decades since 1977.

The fall of Suharto prompted clashes between the military and pro- independence demonstrators in the capital with at least two deaths. In October 1998, Habibie made the gesture of revoking the status of Irian Jaya as a "military operation zone" without however withdrawing any troops! At the same time, the Jakarta government still has plans to resettle up to 65m Javanese there over a 20-year period, in order to foil any threat of secession. It must be said that the stakes are enormous both for the Indonesian ruling clique and for western multinationals. Indeed the Indonesian part of the island includes the Grasberg mining settlement, which is owned jointly by Freeport (US) and Rio Tinto Zinc (UK). There can be found the world's largest gold mine and the world's second largest copper mine, which produces profits for Freeport and RTZ and royalties for the Indonesian regime. But Grasberg has also become famous for the horrific conditions imposed on native workers and the brutality of the mining companies' security forces (for instance, in 1994-95, over a nine-month period, 37 West Papuan workers were killed by company guards).

There is also the case of Aceh, the Muslim heartland in Sumatra, where Muslim Fundamentalist forces are leading an old and powerful separatist movement. The demise of Suharto has opened new prospects of a possible career in front of such politicians. And some of them seem prepared to use any kind of demagogy to take the lead of substantial separatist movements which might provide them with an independent fiefdom of their own at some point in the future. Religious tensions or ethnic tensions created by Suharto's past transmigration policy, coupled with the considerable poverty and hardship generated by the financial crisis over the past two years, can provide effective levers to such demagogues.

The question which both the Indonesian military and imperialism are confronted with, therefore, is: what would the consequences be if independence, total or partial, was really granted to the East Timorese population? Would this unleash centrifugal forces in other parts of Indonesia, with the risk of putting into question the political stability not just of Indonesia itself, but possibly of other countries which are linked to it by ethnic ties, such as Malaysia or even the Philippines? And, from the point of view of imperialism, if Indonesia breaks up even partly, what risk does it imply for capitalist interests in the region?

The Indonesian generals seem to have already made up their minds about this. Their policy shows that they have chosen not to take any chances and to ensure that East Timor will not become independent. As to the imperialist powers, they have effectively left all their options open by managing to appear as advocates of the right of the East Timorese to self-determination. But there is every reason for the East Timorese to distrust the imperialist powers and the nationalist leaders who, like Xanana Gusmao today, put the fate of the population in the hands of the UN. The experience of former Yugoslavia shows how imperialism operates. It looks for strong men it can rely on to protect its interests against the populations, whatever the cost for them. If the Indonesian army appears capable of keeping the situation under control, imperialism will stick with it. If not, the East Timorese may find themselves under an even worse UN-sponsored local dictator.

There could, however, be another way for the East Timorese. While aspiring to independence, they have one thing in common with all the other populations of Indonesia: the years spent in poverty under the brutal rule of a rapacious privileged class and the bloody dictatorship of its army. This could provide enough common ground to unite the forces of all the peoples in Indonesia under the banner of the social interests of the poor, and not just behind the demand for more freedom which mobilised the students in 1998. On that basis the students were able to bring down Suharto, but they could not get rid of his army, because this army is primarily that of the privileged classes. But on the basis of the defence of their social interests and with a programme aiming at the revolutionary transformation of society, the poor masses could finish off what was started by the 1998 demonstrators and go much further, this time by overthrowing the rule of the privileged, be they Indonesian or imperialist. Then the walls of blood erected between the peoples of the archipelago by the brutal repression and exploitation of the past could at last be brought down.

19 September 1999