Monday, April 16, 2007

Maire Leadbeater on East Timor: insights and oversights

The Presidential elections held in East Timor on April the 9th have proved inconclusive, and a second round of voting will be necessary to decide between Jose-Ramos Horta and Fretilin's Lu Olo. Over at leftwrites Michael Berrell has some interesting thoughts on the election campaign and results, and on the possible futures of East Timor.

Another person who will be watching events in East Timor closely is Maire Leadbeater, who has just published a book called Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand complicity in the invasion and occupation of East Timor. This book should be compulsory reading for Kiwis interested in East Timor, because few of us have the knowledge of East Timor that Maire Leadbeater has acquired during her long career as an activist and advocate for the country's people.

The complicity of Australasian governments in Indonesia's genocidal rule over East Timor is fairly well known, but many readers will be surprised to encounter Leadbeater's criticisms of the Anzac occupation of the country that began late last May and shows no sign of ending. By characterising this occupation as neo-colonial, Leadbeater takes a sharply different line from the mainstream of the Kiwi left, which has followed her brother Keith Locke in welcoming Australasian military interventions in the Asia-Pacific region, even as it complains about the use of Anzac troops in the US's Middle East wars.

Leadbeater remains, though, a staunch defender of the Australian-led 1999 occupation of East Timor, and this creates a strange contradiction in her arguments. Her book asks us to believe that the Australian and New Zealand governments behaved atrociously towards East Timor in the decades before 1999, and are behaving badly again, but that there was a brief period when their armies suddenly became a force for the liberation of the country.

What caused this peculiar interlude in a grim history of imperialistic behaviour? How did armies that have enlisted in imperialist wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq briefly transmogrify into instruments of radical left-wing politics? Leadbeater seems to believe that the governments of John Howard and Jenny Shipley were forced into a bout of anti-imperialism because of the pressure applied by protesters in 1999. This seems to me to be an extremely naive argument.

It's true that there were large demonstrations in several Australasian cities denouncing Indonesian behaviour in East Timor in 1999. Under the influence of groups like the Greens and (in Australia) the Democratic Socialist Party, these demonstrations demanded the deployment of Anzac troops to East Timor to secure the nation's independence. But most of these demonstrations took place after the Australian, Portugese and American governments had realised the impossibility of continued Indonesian control of East Timor, and prepared a new strategy designed to replace Suharto with a pliant Timorese elite that would safeguard Western oil and gas interests.

The massive demonstrations that have followed Australian involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars surely show the foolishness of the idea that Howard was forced to act against the interests of Australian and US imperialism just because a few thousand people marched through Sydney. Howard has remained utterly steadfast in his commitment to the Iraq occupation despite marches by tens of thousands of people and a string of electoral disasters. East Timor activists who think they turned Bush's deputy sheriff into an anti-imperialist are kidding themselves.

Leadbeater might possibly concede these points, yet argue that the intervention of 1999 was justified, even if it led to Australian domination of East Timor, because it at least ended the massacre of Timorese by pro-Indonesia militias. This argument, too, has feet of clay. The militias did commit some appalling crimes, but they were poorly armed, and could easily have been defeated by East Timor's Falintil guerrillas. Tragically, the Fretilin party which controlled Falintil accepted the dictates of Portugal and Australia and locked its troops in isolated cantons during the UN-supervised referendum on independence.

Fretilin leaders like Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri believed that they would antagonise Western powers by fighting the militias, and preferred to let hundreds of their people be massacred in the hope that this would aid the case for 'humanitarian' intervention being made on the streets of Australasia by activists like Leadbeater.

The refusal of Alkatiri and others to take the fight to the militias and complete the liberation of East Timor created a major split in Fretilin and at least two mutinies in Falintil. A breakaway from Fretilin called the Committee to Defend the Democratic Republic of East Timor (CPD-RDTL) opposed cantonment and, later, the presence of UN troops in East Timor. On at least two occasions, Falintil troops sympathetic to the CPD-RDTL's arguments broke out of their cantonments, engaged pro-Indonesian militias, and scored easy victories. (After they took power, the 'official' Fretilin leaders began to persecute the CPD-RDTL; the Anzac troops that Leadbeater and others had demanded be sent to East Timor took part in this persecution, raiding the isolated villages where the dissidents were strongest and making politically-motivated arrests.)

Even without the resistance of Falintil, the terror campaign waged by the pro-Indonesia militias had largely collapsed by the time the Australian-led occupation of East Timor began. In a new piece of research he is about to publish, Aussie activist and historian Tom O'Lincoln shows that killings by militias had largely subsided before the end of September.

In 1999 East Timor swapped Indoensian domination for Australian domination. Leadbeater is right to see that the current occupation of the country was designed to maintain Aussie control, by unseating the excessively independent government of Mari Alkatiri and replacing it with the pro-Canberra stooges Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta. She no doubt also realises that, in the months since her book was written, Anzac troops have committed a series of human rights abuses in East Timor, including the tank attack on Comoro refugee camp in February that killed two youths. What Leadbeater still hasn't come to terms with is the fact that the intervention of 1999 created the current situation in East Timor.

If the East Timorese had completed the liberation of their country themselves, then they could have achieved genuine independence, rather than the status of a semi-colony of Australia. The treachery of the Fretilin leadership and the stupidity of Leadbeater and much of the Australasian left played a large part in preventing East Timor from winning genuine independence. Like the misguided leftists who supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Leadbeater needs to realise that imperialist troops are never a force for liberation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seldom have I read such ideologically driven and dehumanising nonsense. The review starts from the premise that all politicians/governments operate consistently driven only by a clear analysis of class or national interest. In this fantasy world there is never any tension between securing long-term advantage and the need to respond to short-term pressure from electorates or moral imperatives.

The reality is that under pressure on a variety of fronts, the Indonesians blinked and conceded a referendum on ET's integration they did this at least partly because their military intelligence (that perpetual oxymoron when it comes to dealing with subjugated peoples) proffering advice that such a referendum might succeed.

The international community (that euphemism for the interests of the more developed countries operating through the UN) was then faced with the question of whether to follow that through in an orderly fashion or to countenance the prospect of ET voting against integration and Indonesia overturning that forcibly. It was at this point that JRH, XG and the CNRT (not just Fretilin) made their most effective play for the process to be internationalised. Of necessity, this meant standing Falantil down from active service, not allowing Indonesia to gain propaganda from its activities; indeed, there is some evidence that Indonesia attempted to fake Falantil activities to weaken the impact of this decision.

For a relatively brief period therefore, the people of ET, through the CNRT, deliberately placed their future in the hands of, among others, the ANZAC forces that had so badly let them down in the decades before. Under intense international scrutiny, these forces did indeed act not in the interests of their own countries (Australia in particular having sold the Timorese out for a share of Indonesian spoils in the Timor Gap) but to right a wrong that had gained international notoriety for all of the perpetrators.

It is one thing to have a perspective on the world that is underpinned by a political and economic analysis, it is however quite absurd to believe that every event in international relations can be explained away without reference to the particularities of the case. Such an analysis leads to the paralysis by analysis; no one need ever do anything out of simple human empathy; if the world is meant to unfold in the right way, it will; if it isn’t no matter, we can move on to observe and analyse the next opportunity for inaction.

The people of East Timor got their independence (which they are now struggling to make the best of) because a) they refused to give up in the face of overwhelming odds, b) people like JRH ran an effective campaign of international organisation and pressure, and c) Indonesia ran out of allies in its occupation because of its brutality and faced more internal problems than it could cope with at the same time as continuing the fight for ET.

That ET remains a target for exploitation for the developed world is a truism that applies to every square mile of the earth’s surface (especially where there is oil). The people of East Timor, with the assistance of the very countries that wish to exploit it, now face that reality directly, rather than having their fate mediated through the government in Jakarta. I know which of these prospects I regard as being in the best long-term interests of the Timorese people. Underpinning this review seems to be a pessimism of the spirit that, had it been shared by the people of East Timor would see it today as yet another exploited piece of Indonesian real estate whose fate would be resolved by and by when the international revolution comes. Not an edifying prospect!

2:55 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Underneath all that rhetoric, anon, your argument for the benign behaviour of the Howard government in East Timor in 1999 is astonishingly empty.

You claim that electoral pressures, 'moral imperatives', and 'international notoreity' all constrained the Howard government and made it act against the interests of the Australian and American imperialisms its foreign policy normally serves.

Where were the 'moral imperatives' coming from? Who enforced them? Was John howard afflicted by some sort of moral crisis when he contemplated the dismal record of his goverment vis a vis East Timor? You do not explain what you mean by this phrase, and that is perhaps wise.

What about the 'notoreity' that Howard had supposedly won internationally due to Australia's attitude to East Timor, and the constraining 'international scrutiny' that this supposedly created?

Where did the notoreity register? Who applied the scrutiny? East Timor was an extremely minor issue on the global scene, even in September 1999. Even the protests that flared up in that month were confined to Australia, New Zealand, and Portugal. Noam Chomsky has documented the extent of the indifference of the word's governments and media to the country during the long years in which it was occupied by Indonesia. The idea that some sort of global civil society was pressing Australia to act to liberate East Timor in 1999 is a fantasy.

The one coherent claim you make concerns electoral pressure on Howard. Did such pressure exist, and did it constrain Australian behaviour? In 1999 Howard did not face a looming reelection battle. He had been reelected in 1998 and would not run a Federal campaign again until 2001. Do you really think that he performed some sort of U turn and abandoned the precepts that guide Australian foreign policy because he feared that East Timor might become an election issue eighteen months down the track? Even if the Timor issue had been that important, the experience of Iraq suggests that Howard's fidelity to an imperialistic, pro-US foreign policy far outweights his fear of an electoral backlash.

For all your talk about particulars, your argument is remarkably vague.

It's a sign of the poverty of your position that you are only able to make the present miserable situation of East Timor as a semi-colony of Australia seem desirable by comparing it with the prospect of continued Indonesian occpuation. This manoeuvre reminds me of the way that the remaining defenders of Bush's intervention in Iraq try to bolster their case by arguing that at least the country is not as badly off as it might have been had Saddam stayed in power. But what about a third alternative, beyond recolonisation on the one hand and a local dictator on the other? That alternative existed in East Timor in 1999, in the opinion of the many East Timorese who opposed the occupation of their country by UN forces, and in the opinion of Australasian leftists who saw through the pretensions of John Howard.

4:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My apologies, I thought your posts were focussed on considering the interests of the people of East Timor. I see now that your only interest in this issue is as a means of conducting an arid philosophical debate.

Howard was a minor player in Australia's contribution to East Timor's suffering. He was just the poor sap left holding the problem when the Indonesians started folding on their Whitlam sanctioned occupation.

I am sure you know even better than I, if you were prepared to admit it, that Indonesian tension on the subject of East Timor meant that its central decision to cede East Timor independence could not necessarily be enforced. There was all the makings of a centre/ periphery dislocation in the Indonesian position on ET, and a huge risk of even greater violence by the Indonesian military and their militia running dogs.

CNRT made the judgement to invite in the international community and not to allow violence and instability to be used by the Indonesians as a justification for remaining in place. That was absolutely the right judgement; and it was that invitation that provided the dilemma for Howard.

The non-existent option, in the 1999 context, of ET going solo in evicting Indonesia is necessary for your argument with Howard and his political philosophy. It has no foundation in the facts as they faced ET at that time.

Your suggestion that my position on ET bears any resemblance to the neo-con and Bliarite position on Iraq is contemptuous. If that is the kind of thrashing about for responses you do the first time anyone questions your analysis it is not Howard who suffers from pretension but you; pretending that your musings are of any value to the people of East Timor; but then, perhaps in the broad sweep of your historical narrative, no great matter if they fall.

8:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For reference on the role of Falantil in maintaining international support for East Timor see the folowing:

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