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East Timor: Another success for “nation building”?

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The small island of East Timor, which is sandwiched between Australia and Indonesia, is in chaos. The army has fallen apart, the police have fled, there are armed gangs roaming the streets attacking civilians, a 100,000 people have fled their homes in a population of just one million.

Yet this was a country that the UN administered for two years, declaring its occupation a great success when it left an independent East Timor in 2002. Now thousands of Australian, Portuguese and Malaysian troops are pouring back in. The immediate cause of the current crisis was divisions in the army, which had their roots in the East Timorese struggle for independence from Indonesian occupation.

East Timor had won independence from Portugal in 1975 under the leadership of a left-wing nationalist party Fretilin. Within months, it was invaded and occupied by the right-wing government of Indonesia, with a nod of approval from Washington. In the ensuing crushing of the Fretilin guerrilla movement and estimated 200,000 died.

When the right-wing dictatorship of President Suharto of Indonesia was finally overthrown in 1998, East Timor, as a result of decades of struggle and countless massacres, was finally given the right to vote on independence. When in 1999 nearly 80 per cent of the electorate voted in a UN supervised referendum for independence, in revenge the Indonesian army and pro-Indonesian settlers and militias razed the country to the ground before being forced to withdraw and let the UN take control.

So it is little wonder that a small country left ravaged, one dependent largely on subsistence agriculture and with huge illiteracy rates, was riven with problems and rivalries. The guerrilla movement had regional differences, especially between the east and the west, and some commanders in the west of the country had little loyalty to Fretilin or Falintil its guerrilla force.

When a unified army was created under UN supervision, Fretilin/Falintil under the leadership of the President Xanana Gusmoa took most of the leadership positions leading to growing resentment from the western forces. This February, 400 soldiers went on strike protesting at supposed discrimination in promotion and over pay and conditions. The government responding responded by sacking 600 soldiers who then rioted.

Worse the interior minister, on bad terms with Gusmao and other army commanders had been building up a para-military police force. The police have been accused of torture and rape by the US Human Rights Watch and are deeply discredited among the population. The country had become a tinder-box waiting for a spark.

But the underlying reasons for the deep discontent in the country is the appalling poverty. A recent UN report pointed out that 40 per cent of the population was below the poverty line and 40 per cent were unemployed, with much higher rates among the young. It concluded that the poor were getting poorer.

Yet East Timor sits next to one of the largest untapped oil and gas fields in the world, the Greater Sunrise field in the Timor Sea. Why hasn’t it been able to exploit this or borrow on its future earnings? Because Australia claims large parts of it under an agreement it made on territorial boundaries with Indonesia in 1972, boundaries that East Timor disputes. This dispute was only finally put aside early this year and agreement reached on how to share the income. Now desperately needed finance from this field is still years away.

Australia considers that East Timor exists in its “sphere of influence”; it is treated like any other semi colony. It is bullied on oil and gas, Australia is always the first country to send in its troops on “humanitarian peacekeeping” missions, and it is the first to demand that its soldiers quickly swop to the blue helmets of the UN, the collective arm of the imperialists in the area.

East Timor is once again about to be put under UN supervision. No doubt the imperialists will be using the intervention as another example of how a failed state cannot be left to run its own affairs – like Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – of how the imperialists have to shoulder once again “the white man’s burden” of nation building in these states.

East Timor, like Iraq, proves the opposite. It shows that the imperialists and their system of rapacious exploitation of these nations for profit, is the root cause of “failed states”. Far from being nation builders, the imperialist powers and their military-economic system of exploitation, are nation destroyers.