24 years ago Indonesia invaded East Timor. Ever since, its military forces have maintained a reign of terror over the East Timorese masses that has claimed as many as 250,000 victims. They have done so in order to protect their control over East Timor’s wealth of natural resources, from which they and Western companies reap tremendous profits. In return, the imperialists – in particular, the U.S., Britain and Australia – have financed, armed, trained and even directed the Indonesian military’s operations, beginning with the 1975 invasion, through to the current slaughter. And now the imperialists’ U.N. “Peacekeeping” force will step in and deepen the plight of the East Timorese and Indonesian masses.
For years the imperialists turned deaf ears to demands that they end their support for the blood-drenched Suharto military regime in Indonesia. Now they shed crocodile tears over the appalling loss of life in East Timor and support U.N. intervention. The turmoil in East Timor comes at a time of great economic crisis and growing working-class unrest in South East Asia. The reason for this turn-around is that the capitalists know they must cover their dictatorial rule with a democratic facade lest they encourage greater, revolutionary, struggles throughout the region.
The current upheaval in East Timor began with the struggles of Indonesian students and workers that toppled imperialism’s favored dictator, Suharto. Just as the Indonesian ruling class and the imperialists were attempting to construct a democratic facade through rigged elections and a coalition government headed by popular opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and Army Chief General Wiranto, the East Timorese masses rose up demanding their freedom.
With Suharto gone and the Indonesian ruling class clearly weakened, the East Timorese felt emboldened to step up their struggle, organizing demonstrations of thousands in the capital city, Dili. These protests forced the U.N. to step in and organize a plebiscite on the question of East Timor’s future, and the masses voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. That’s when the Indonesian military, through the militias it supports, escalated its terror campaign across East Timor.
The U.N. and imperialists knew all along that the slaughter was going to take place. The militia had escalated their murderous attacks through the period of the plebiscite, and openly promised a slaughter if the people voted for independence. But the imperialists did not even issue serious threats against Indonesia’s rulers, who are dependent on them, to stop the slaughter.
Instead, the imperialist powers chose to allow the attacks to continue (even when U.N. officials themselves were under attack). When they did say anything, they demagogically called on the very force behind the militia terror campaign, the Indonesian military, to restore order!
The Indonesian ruling class, as well as the imperialists, knew that they had to crush the East Timorese independence struggle lest it encourage similar struggles by the oppressed masses of Indonesia’s other colonies, and in Indonesia itself. As a front-page article in the New York Times (9 Sept.) blandly described:
The [Clinton] Administration ... has made the calculation that the United States must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny, impoverished territory of 800,000 people ...
Only now has the U.N. decided to send a “peacekeeping force.” But the purpose of this force is not to liberate the East Timorese. Rather, it is to help reconstruct the Indonesian rulers’ democratic pretensions as well as their own, and protect capitalist investments in East Timor. Indonesian President Habibie has approved the U.N. military intervention without a word of apology for the slaughter. Australia’s Defense Minister announced that far from driving the Indonesian troops out of East Timor, the “peacekeeping force” will “work alongside armed Indonesian soldiers for some time.” In fact, the U.N. Security Council resolution approving the intervention states that the Indonesian forces will remain ... under U.N. command! Considering that the Indonesian military has all along functioned with the assistance of the same imperialists now guiding the U.N. “peacekeepers,” it is clear what the East Timorese people can expect.
And it is little wonder why the Australian imperialists will be leading the U.N. intervention. London’s Financial Times reports that “Australian companies have agreements with the Indonesian government for 50 per cent of the proceeds from oil exploration in the Timor Sea,” and Australian mining giant BHP has massive investments in East Timor. While the East Timorese starve, the U.N. will make sure these investments are protected.
In spite of all this, the main leaders of the East Timorese independence movement, as well as the reformist left internationally, has called for military intervention by the U.N. or by this or that imperialist power. The National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), led by Xanana Gusmao, urged the “international community,” and above all Australia, to help. The Socialist Party of Timor demanded that NATO as well as the U.N. intervene. The Indonesian People’s Democratic Party (KPP-PRD) called for U.N. “peacekeepers”.
It is not surprising that the nationalist East Timorese leaders rely on the U.N. and the imperialist powers. Even though they have fought at the risk of their own lives, their goal has been to achieve an independent East Timor without seeking the overthrow of the Indonesian ruling class or challenging imperialism. Having depended more upon winning imperialist good will for their aims than mass struggle, they now see no alternative to a supposedly benevolent imperialist invasion. Indeed, in recent times, instead of continuing to prepare their followers for an armed struggle against the Indonesian occupying forces and their militia, these leaders spread illusions that the U.N. was the East Timorese people’s savior. By so doing, they actually helped pave the way for the current slaughter.
It is tragic that out of desperation, so many of the East Timorese people look to the imperialists as their only hope. It is bad enough that many people around the world who sincerely want to help the East Timorese masses are also taken in by this monstrous deception. But it is inexcusable that so-called “progressives” and “socialists” even call for imperialist troops to occupy East Timor.
For example, the largest left group in Australia, the Democratic Socialist Party, called for “the immediate dispatch of Australian troops to East Timor.” The activist ASIET organization (Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor) calls for U.N. sovereignty over East Timor, not immediate independence. The U.S.-based East Timor Action Network likewise demands that the U.N. “be granted control of administration and security in East Timor.” And many “socialists” around the world who in the past denounced U.N. sanctions against Iraq, for the sound reason that economic strangulation hurts the workers and peasants, not the oppressive ruling-class politicians and capitalists, now turn around and demand economic sanctions by the imperialists against Indonesia.
The U.N. intervention will do more for the Indonesian ruling class and the imperialists than help the East Timorese. Worse, it will represent a grave threat to the East Timorese most important allies, the Indonesian masses. With its “peacekeeping” occupation of East Timor as a cover, the imperialists now have a convenient staging area from which to “restore order” when the Indonesian workers and students escalate their struggle.
At the beginning of this century and the dawn of the epoch of imperialist domination of the world, various “progressives” and “democratic socialists” such as those who followed Eduard Bernstein, endorsed “socialist colonialism” as a means to “civilize the backward countries.” This was only one of the ways in which they betrayed authentic Marxist internationalism. The attitude of their political descendants today should prove no surprise. After the First World War, the imperialists used League of Nations protectorates to prop up colonialism; today it is U.N. peacekeeping occupations which prop up neo-colonialism. Today fake-socialist justifications for colonialism have been replaced by phony democratic ones.
But still, many sincere defenders of the East Timorese say there is no alternative to U.N. intervention, and look upon opposition to it as showing callous disregard for those facing death at the hands of the Indonesian military. But there is an alternative.
Genuine revolutionary internationalists stand not for imperialist intervention but for armed struggle by the East Timorese themselves, and for every international effort to supply the masses with arms and aid for this purpose. As for crucially necessary outside support, the most important ally of the East Timorese masses is the Indonesian working class. It was their strikes and demonstrations that forced Suharto out and opened the way for the most recent struggles of the East Timorese.
Indonesia’s independent unions have already come out in favor of East Timorese independence. Thousands of courageous Indonesians have battled with police in protests in Jakarta in defense of the East Timorese. Instead of supporting the imperialists, genuine communist revolutionaries see in these struggles the way forward.
But workers elsewhere have a crucial role to play also. Australian unions have already boycotted Indonesian shipping and other businesses. Workers’ boycotts are also called for in all other countries that do business with Indonesia. And we must take forward the struggle to stop all imperialist military assistance to the Indonesian regime.
The Indonesian workers have the power to put an end to the militarist “democracy” that preserves capitalist rule and imperialist plunder under Suharto’s henchman and successor Habibie. We urge the Indonesian unions to launch mass demonstrations for East Timor’s independence and prepare a general strike to that end. Such a general strike before the imperialists cement their position in East Timor could enormously strengthen the working class of Indonesia in the face of the coming crackdown. It could offer new – and real – hope to the beleaguered East Timorese. Such a challenge to state power could ignite the seething masses of the “Pacific Rim.”
Above all, to achieve any lasting solution to the devastating problems inflicted upon the peoples of the entire region, the most politically advanced Indonesian workers need to build a revolutionary working class party to win leadership of its class and fight for the workers to overthrow the capitalist regime and create their own workers’ state. Revolutionary upheaval in Indonesia would be a monumental step in the direction of a Socialist Federation of Southeast Asia and real freedom for all peoples in the region.