Meddling while Dili Burns
There is no doubt that the Australian-led intervention force is struggling to control events in East Timor. They have been unable to establish political 'stability' by resolving the power struggle between ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao. Although Alkatiri has been forced out of office, he has in recent days managed to mobilise supporters from the east of the country, and he retains a base of support in the Fretilin organisation. Gusmao and his ally Jose Ramos-Horta have leaned so heavily on the Australian government for assistance, and have employed such flagrantly extra-constitutional tactics in their power grab, that they seem to have shored up Alkatiri's support within the party.
The departure of the Prime Minister responsible for the April 28th massacre in Dili has only opened up a new political vacuum, because according to the constitution Alkatiri's successor must be chosen by Fretilin, which dominates East Timor's parliament. Gusmao does not dare to ask the party to choose Alkatiri's successor, because he knows that his buddy Ramos-Horta will fail to win the votes of most of Fretilin's parliamentary representatives. Fretilin may even restore Alkatiri to the post of Prime Minister. Gusmao and Ramos-Horta face a stark choice: they can either back down and abandon their power grab, or they can even more flagrantly ignore the constitution, and turn their attack on Alkatiri and his close allies into an attack on all their opponents in Fretilin. Gusmao's refusal to organise a vote for a new Prime Minister suggests they are so far following the second course of action.
The continuing political impasse in East Timor and the frustrations of Gusmao and Ramos-Horta help to explain the behaviour of Anzac troops in recent days. These 'peacekeepers' did little to intervene as pro-Gusmao mobs began a new round of riots, attacking refugee camps inside Dili that held pro-Alkatiri civilians and burning shops and houses. In some cases, the failure of the Anzacs to protect civilians was undoubtedly an expression of their own incompetence and lack of resources. There must be a suspicion, though, that at least some of the attacks carried out by pro-Gusmao forces have been tolerated by Anzac forces because the Australian government wants to strengthen Gusmao's position within Fretilin.
Despite their stated policy of allowing all peaceful protests, the Anzacs devoted precious manpower to blockading a protest march by Alkatiri's supporters on the eastern fringe of Dili for several days. At the same time, Gusmao's rather less than peaceful supporters rampaged through the city, driving pro-Alkatiri residents out of the city and chanting slogans like 'Kill the communists!' Alkatiri's supporters seem to have been allowed into Dili only now that the residents they might have mobilised have been dispersed, and the chances of building a demonstration large enough to pressure Gusmao into abandoning his power grab has been lost.
The Anzac forces have shown their blatant pro-Gusmao bias by blaming Alkatiri for provoking the riots of recent days. Apparently Alkatiri's refusal to retreat quietly from the political stage after resigning as Prime Minister and his call on supporters to march on Dili are responsible for the attacks on refugee camps. The impatience of the Anzac forces with the refusal of Gusmao's opponents to accede to his coup is palpable, and Australian left-wing analyst Michael Berrell may be right when he warns that the riots of recent days may foreshadow a pogrom resembling the hideous aftermath of Shuarto's anti-communist coup in Indonesia in 1965.
Despite the overwhelming evidence for the self-interested and cynical nature of John Howard and Helen Clark's latest 'humanitarian mission', the Australasian left has done little to make East Timor an issue. In Australia, the Labor and Green parties are firm backers of the reoccupation of East Timor, and the largest far left organisation, the Democratic Socialist Perspective, has taken the absurd position of neither supporting nor opposing Howard's new military adventure. In New Zealand, the tiny Communist Workers Group and Communist League remain the only organisations to have staged anti-intervention events. The latest issue of the Workers Charter newspaper exemplifies the confused response of the Australasian left to the crisis in East Timor. Workers Charter draws attention to the cynical nature of the Anzac occupation, but it also runs an article calling for leftists to take their lead from the tiny and completely compromised 'Socialist' Party of Timor, an organisation which is energetically promoting Howard's intervention!
It is not as though John Howard and his boss George Bush are popular figures in Australasia. This week tens of thousands of Australian workers rallied to oppose Howard's anti-union legislation. The occupation of Iraq is incredibly unpopular in both Australia and New Zealand. But the left and the workers' movement have done little to relate the occupation of East Timor to Howard's anti-worker agenda at home and his role in Bush's imperialist adventures in the Middle East. It may take an escalation of the crisis in East Timor and the return of Anzac troops in bodybags to spark widespread opposition to Howard and Clark's local exercise in imperialism.