What's wrong with 'Troops Out '?
The Democratic Socialist Perspective, Australia's largest far left group, has circulated a draft statement outlining its position on the reoccupation of East Timor by Aussie-led troops.
The DSP claims to neither support nor oppose John Howard's latest military adventure. It accepts that Australia has a history of ripping off East Timor, and that, as Bush's deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region, Howard pursues a foreign policy that runs directly counter to the interests of ordinary people in countries like East Timor. But the DSP claims that it cannot call for 'Troops Out', for two reasons.
In the first place, the DSP argues that it is very hard to tell what is going on in East Timor, and that therefore it would be rash to raise the slogan 'Troops Out'.
It is no doubt true that there is a lot of information that language barriers and civil disorder prevent us from getting about the situation in East Timor. But even if we don't know as much as we would like about the situation there, don't we know more than enough about the nature of Australian foreign policy, and the Howard government?
Haven't the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the mistreatment of refugees, the bullying of small Pacific countries, the disastrous occupation of the Solomons, and attacks on Aboriginal peoples at home shown us all too clearly that John Howard and his government never act in the interests of oppressed peoples? How much more do we need to know about the ideology and practice of the man Bush describes as his 'best friend in the Pacific'?
Even if we had no information at all about the situation in East Timor, surely we could safely say that the intervention of Howard and the army that helped invade Afghanistan and Iraq could only make the situation worse? For everyone who has seen the role Australia has played in the War of Terror, opposition to Howard and his army should be automatic and unconditional.
The DSP's second argument against 'Troops Out' is that the new occupation has the 'full support of the whole political spectrum of the country, including the Socialist Party of Timor'. But doesn't this argument contradict the claim that the DSP makes about the difficulty of knowing that is going on in East Timor?
When the DSP talks of the 'whole political spectrum' of East Timor, it seems to refer only to the political elite in the official Fretilin organisation and its hangers on like the tiny Socialist Party, plus right-wing opposition groups like the Democratic Party. Does the DSP know the attitude of the large left-wing breakway from Fretilin, the Council in Defence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor-Real Fretilin (CPD-RDTL/F)? This group has grassroots committees all over East Timor, and has in the past been able to mobilise tens of thousands of supporters in opposition to the official Fretilin government. It also has a history of opposing all foreign intervention in East Timor, whether it be by Indonesia or Australia. It organised against the Australian-led occupation of East Timor in 1999, and suffered repression at the hands of the official Fretilin government and UN 'peacekeepers' as a result.
Because it does much of its organising outside Dili, rejects the use of foreign languages like Portugese and English, lacks links with leftist groups outside East Timor, and is persecuted by the government, the CPD-RDTL/F is unable to communicate easily with the outside world. I have not seen a statement from the CPD-RDTL/F about the new occupation, but I find it unlikely that the group would have done a U turn and decided to back the Australian army after opposing its presence in the years after 1999.
The DSP claims that ordinary East Timorese have welcomed the occupation. Even if this is true, the behaviour of the occupying force is certain to quickly antagonise locals, in the same way that the occupiers of Iraq quickly alienated Iraqis who had been pleased to see the back of Saddam. Since the occupation began, the force Howard leads has been far more interested in interfering in East Timorese politics than in helping its people. The Anzac troops have meddled while Dili has burned. Numerous reports suggest that they have ignored much of the looting and arson that have striken the city, and spent most of their time supporting pro-Australian factions of the political elite and security forces against the supporters of Prime Minister Alkatiri. Like the American troops who allowed or even encouraged the looting of libraries, archives, and museums, Anzac troops have stood by and watched while precious documents relating to human rights abuses under Indonesian occupation have been looted in Dili.
The nature of Howard's army of occupation has been perfectly demonstrated by the different attitudes it has taken to demonstrations by opponents and supporters of the occupation. On June the 6th a march by supporters of the occupation and opponents of Alkatiri was given an armed escort into central Dili by troops under Australian command. This week, though, Anzac troops stood by and watched as police opened fire on and threatened to throw grenades at a demonstration against the failure of the occupying forces to deliver food and essential services to Dili. In East Timor as in Iraq, you are allowed free speech, as long as you speak on behalf of the occupation. The same rule seems to apply to journalists.
Yesterday Anzac forces suffered their first casualty, as a Kiwi soldier was shot in the leg while patrolling through Dili. We can expect more such incidents, as East Timorese realise the nature of the force that has taken control of their country.
The crisis in East Timor is not a major political issue for most Australasians. I'm sure that an opinion poll in both Australia and New Zealand would show that the vast majority of people in both countries backed the reoccupation of their small neighbour. But the same populations also overwhelmingly oppose Howard's military adventure in Iraq. As Anzac forces get bogged down in East Timor and the Solomons, as Howard's aggressive foreign policy leads to more and more 'humanitarian interventions' in our backyard, and as more Leonard Mannings start coming home in bodybags, more Aussies and Kiwis will be able to understand that the Asia-Pacific region is just another front in imperialism's War of Terror against the peoples of the Third World.
Earlier this year the DSP courted controversy and media coverage by distributing flag-burning kits on Aussie university campuses as a protest against Aussie nationalism and John Howard's support for imperialism. But opposing Howard and imperialism has to involve more than a few student stunts as orientation time. It has to mean making hard arguments against majority opinion on the left and in the labour movement. Let's hope that the DSP finds the courage to join other Aussie far left groups like Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party and swim against the tide of public opinion by telling the truth about the occupation of East Timor.