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.