The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

East Timor:
Blood on the Hands of Imperialism

Sep 21, 1999

By the middle of September, a United Nations "peacekeeping" force, led by a 4500-strong contingent from neighboring Australia, landed in East Timor. Australia had always intended to incorporate East Timor in its economic zone of influence. The U.N. force's official mission is 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 the August 30th referendum.

Judging from reports published in the papers here, the damage was already done. East Timor is a devastated and partly deserted country. The tens of thousands who were massacred over the past months 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 U.N. estimates) are now held hostage by the Indonesian military in other parts of Indonesia.

By the time September 11th that the Indonesian interim president Habibie had finally agreed that a U.N. force be sent to East Timor, the relationship of forces on the ground had heavily tilted in favor of the Indonesian army to the detriment of the nationalists and especially the population.

At best the role of this "peacekeeping" force will be to broker a deal with the Indonesian army - a deal which will 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. More likely than not, the U.N. 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 in East Timor that such a catastrophe was threatening. Had the U.N. and imperialist powers wanted to prevent it, they would have had plenty of time to do so. Instead, they went along with the waiting game played by Habibie. The U.N. made moralistic admonitions and passed resolutions; diplomats and observers were sent. But while the imperialist leaders were waging this hypocritical war of words, the Indonesian military was 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 1999 and announced that a referendum over the independence of East Timor would be organized, 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 near the capital of Dili. Jakarta bluntly refused the proposal for an international enquiry by U.N. observers. In Washington and London, no-one lifted a finger.

That same month, 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, which used such methods in nearby Malaysia and Burma in the aftermath of World War II.

Coming 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 6:30 a.m., there were already long lines. By 1 p.m., U.N. 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 favor.

Hours after the results were 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 U.N. 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 blunt criticisms leveled 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 truck to ports or airports and then flying them out of the country, mainly to neighboring West Timor, under the pretext of protecting them. Most people were herded into refugee camps which were little more than concentration camps. An estimated 100,000 were forced to leave within a few days, many with only the clothes they wore on their backs. 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 the army had set up for refugees waiting to be transported out of East Timor. 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 organize 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 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. And it took still more time for the European Union to announce an embargo on arms shipments - an embargo that was probably more symbolic than real.

In any event, while the Western leaders and the U.N. were making sanctimonious noises of condemnation, it was business as usual for their multinationals operating in Indonesia - and it still is. There was not then, nor is there today, any question of freezing the bank accounts held in the industrialized 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 cozy relationship with Indonesia's privileged layers and its 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 were 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 U.S., 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 Southern Asia. While the leading circles of the army thrived on the West's military assistance, they also thrived on taking their cut on much of the country's trade with Western multinationals as well as on purchases by the Indonesian state. Suharto's extended family, which ran both the political and military machineries of the state, also controlled a huge business empire which allowed it to stockpile wealth estimated at 40 billion dollars. 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 favorite bulwark in the region.

Suharto's overthrow in May 1998 did not change much in this respect. The number and determination of demonstrators two months earlier had proved that 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. Of course, he was said to have left, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State 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 corrupt and discredited dictatorship of the Indonesian army but, on the contrary, to preserve it, possibly behind the smokescreen of some kind of democratic form. 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. For centuries, the Dutch and Portuguese colonial powers competed for new territories in the huge archipelago, which comprised some 13,000 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans. It 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 island of New Guinea went on until the mid-50s when Indonesia finally won control. The only territories that continued under colonial rule were the eastern part of New Guinea (occupied by Australia up to 1975, when it became independent) and East Timor (which was 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 led to the legalization 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 neighbor. In 1975 the UDT attempted a coup and FRETILIN organized an armed insurrection. The UDT's defeat led to the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial administration and the declaration of independence on November 28, 1975, under a radical nationalist government dominated by FRETILIN.

The independence of East Timor was short-lived. A western-backed invasion by Indonesia was already in an advanced stage of planning. 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 December 7, 1975, invasion, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta for three days. The odds are that Ford okayed the decision to invade East Timor at that time.

The imperialist leaders looked the other way when the Indonesians invaded although the brutal occupation of East Timor was no more justified than was the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by Saddam Hussein. Moreover, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait because its economy was being strangled by Kuwait's speculative dumping of cheap oil on the world market. Suharto, on the other hand, was merely aiming at enlarging his empire, against the will of the East Timorese. Yet, in contrast to what happened in Iraq, 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 rug by imperialism, with just a few resolutions voted by the U.N. in order to keep delegates from the Third World 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 organized guerilla groups in the mountains with the support of a large part of the population. The war settled in.

As an eyewitness 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 organized. 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. 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 continued without anyone in the rest of the world taking notice.

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, troops, who had lain in waiting, shot some 200 young people who were entering a cemetery to place flowers on a student's grave - he had been shot dead in church. The international reaction forced Suharto to have the deaths investigated. However, though some soldiers were found guilty, they were given token punishment, and the policy of the Indonesian regime continued unabated.

By 1992, 15 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 reduce the local population, compulsory sterilization 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 program 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 what western propaganda described as "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia, what was it? And yet, in the case of East Timor, the imperialist powers did not even protest, not even symbolically. Even today, when they 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 - especially 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 generals as reliable allies 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 destabilize 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 atomized 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. 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 on it - among them Shell (Anglo-Dutch), Chevron (U.S.), Elf (France), BHP (Australia) but also PT Astra, an Indonesian oil company which is part of Suharto's business empire. 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. Borneo's territory has been divided between three powers, Indonesia, Malaysia and the tiny Sultanate of Brunei - which was really tailor-made for Shell by the British after World War II.

Then there is another large mineral-rich island, New Guinea, which is divided along 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. There are many reasons for discontent, including the brutality of the Indonesian army, the prohibition on families traveling across the border dividing the two parts of the island and, above all, the brutal exploitation of the Papuas by the companies operating on the island. In the two decades since 1977, security forces have killed some 43,000 native people.

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 65 million Javanese 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 (U.S.) and Rio Tinto Zinc (Anglo-Australian). There can be found the world's largest gold mine and the world's second largest copper mine, which produce huge 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 for 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 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, were really granted to the East Timorese population? Would this unleash centrifugal forces in other parts of Indonesia, with the risk of creating political instability not just in Indonesia, but possibly in other countries linked to it by ethnic ties, such as Malaysia or even the Philippines? If Indonesia breaks up, even partially, what risk does this imply for capitalist interests throughout the region?

The Indonesian generals seem to have already made up their minds about this. They have obviously chosen not to take any chances and to ensure that East Timor will not become independent. Of course, some in the military hierarchy, especially in the Suharto clan, also have important economic interests in preserving Indonesian control of East Timor since they have large investments in coffee plantations, sandalwood forests and oil fields.

As for 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 U.N. 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 the people. 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 U.N.-sponsored local dictator.