Australian troops are back in Timor. But this time, their imperialist agenda is a lot more obvious.
In 1999, the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military and its puppet militias retaliated by wrecking the place and killing over 1,000 people. Australian Prime Minister John Howard then sent in troops to seize the territory. They presented themselves as liberators.
But the Timorese soon learned that Canberra was concerned entirely with its own interests. These boiled down to restoring stability — to restore business confidence — and grabbing a bigger share of the oil and gas in the Timor Sea.
East Timor effectively became an Australian colony, mired in poverty and exploited by carpetbaggers. As early as March 2000, the head of the United Nations district administration resigned over the occupiers’ “colonialist” practices.1 An aid worker described their mentality:
The comments echoed what I imagine dinner table conversation might have sounded like 100 years ago in Australia. “They have the IQ of a dog — well at least I can train my dog” and “they don’t need electricity because they don’t read or wash”. 2
And they ripped the Timorese off. More than half of the aid this tiny country received on gaining independence, says the Melbourne Age, “was spent on consultancy fees and salaries to foreign advisers, with little tangible result.”3
In 2000 President Xanana Gusmao warned that East Timor’s soldiers led an impoverished “subhuman existence” and might eventually revolt. Conditions have not improved, and Gusmao’s fears have been realised with rebellion in the army and clashes between soldiers and police.4
Nearby seabeds contain major deposits of oil and gas, but Australia bullied the East Timorese into signing treaties robbing them of much of these. If boundaries had been set according to a 1982 UN Convention, East Timor would get most of the rich Greater Sunrise reserves. But Australia insisted on boundaries previously set in a deal with Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship. Howard dragged out negotiations on the Timor Sea Treaty, which covers other reserves, to push East Timor into accepting Australian terms on Greater Sunrise.
Now the East Timorese state has developed cracks due largely to the effects of abject poverty. Conflicts in the security forces opened a space for communal strife, and again Australian forces have taken direct control. Their first aim, as usual, is ensuring stability, but Canberra is also keen to force out the East Timorese Prime Minister, leftish populist Mari Alkatiri, who stood up to the Australians in negotiations over the oil and gas. They want to install Jose Ramos-Horta, a right wing supporter of the Iraq war who thinks foreign investors shouldn’t pay any taxes at all. The Australian media routinely demonise Alkatiri.
Today Aussie jingoism is rampant. Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper calls this country a “potential hegemon that shapes security and political outcomes” in the region. Former spy chief A.D. McLennan writes bluntly of the need to quell “native violence” — and not just in Timor: he sees all of Australia’s Melanesian neighbours as “wild societies for which intervention represents a blunt, but sometimes necessary, instrument.”6
But this mentality isn’t new. Australia has been the key imperialist in its region since the 19th Century, when it was a beachhead of white colonialism in the Asia-Pacific. More recently it joined the Vietnam war; and today, the US relies on Australia as the local “police” for the region.7 For Canberra this is partly about ensuring favourable conditions for Australian (and more generally western) business; but most importantly about keeping order in what policy-makers call the “arc of instability” to the country’s north — running from Aceh through Papua New Guinea and on to the Solomon Islands and Fiji.
The supposedly humanitarian 1999 Timor intervention did much to overcome Australia’s “Vietnam syndrome.” For the first time in years, Aussies think sending troops abroad is a good idea. When the government set about building support for big hikes in military spending, it was confident enough to hold “community consultations,” which revealed how the East Timor events had silenced anti-militarist voices:
Representatives of groups which do not generally favour defence spending seemed to be content to retain the existing level of funding. We believe the success of the East Timor deployment, a cause that was favoured by these groups, had much to do with this view.8
The way was open for Canberra to throw its weight around.
Amidst the post-September 11 crisis atmosphere, the Howard government played up reports that Pacific island “failed states” might become nests of terrorists. The first target for armed intervention was the Solomon Islands. The Solomons certainly had problems, due partly to neo-liberal policies and cuts to government services previously demanded by Australia. The resulting hardship bred communal conflicts. But as the Bishop of Malaita wrote: “as someone who has lived safely [there] . . . I would say that the Solomon Islands have serious economic and security problems but they are not in a state of anarchy and chaos.”9
Nevertheless, Australian forces went in, and were initially welcomed. But here, too, people eventually saw their dark side.
In April this year, Solomons voters soundly rejected their government in elections, but were shocked to see the post-election parliament elect as Prime Minister a man called Snyder Rini — a re-tread from the old regime. Most blamed this on pay-offs to MPs from Rini’s business cronies.
In the ensuing unrest, Australian police appeared to protect Rini, firing tear gasinto a crowd of 200 opposition supporters outside parliament. Australia then dispatched several hundred heavily armed troops to Honiara. Despite this the government fell, and Canberra has been trying to regain control of Solomons politics ever since.
Meanwhile Australia had arm-twisted the Papua New Guinea government into accepting a similar intervention — Australian cops were to operate there with complete immunity from local law. That plan met frustration in May 2005; Canberra had to withdraw 115 police officers and a number of public servants, following a local court ruling that they were not entitled to immunity. But Canberra is still trying to get control of PNG’s administration..
Such interference in PNG is hardly new. It was effectively an Australian colony under a UN mandate until the 1970s, and Canberra helped counter a rebellion in Bougainville during the 1990s. In PNG, too, Australia demanded neo-liberal reforms of the economy, contributing to difficulties which gave Howard an excuse to send in the cops.
This pattern of Australian imperialism explains Canberra’s close relationship with Washington. Critics have wondered why Australia sends troops all over the world to back American adventures, from Vietnam to Iraq. Most of the Australian left puts this down to sycophancy (Howard as Bush’s “lapdog”), but that is to miss the point.
Howard is acting in the direct interest of Australian imperialism. This country has never been strong enough to enforce its interests unilaterally and has always relied on big-power backing: first Britain, now the US. Sending troops to the Sudan in the 19th century, or Iraq in the 21st, helps lock in the big power connection.10 And Canberra might need it soon. Perhaps it won’t be too long before the “natives” get fed up with Australian bullying.
1 Mark Dodd, “UN Staff Battle Over E Timor’s Independence Policy,” Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 2000.
Tom O’Lincoln has has been active on the left since 1967, in the German SDS, at UC Berkeley, and for many years in Melbourne Australia. He’s the author or editor of five books on Australian history and politics (Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism; Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era; United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia; Class and Class Conflict in Australia; and Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History), and maintains the Marxist Interventions website: www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/. Tom is a member of Socialist Alternative.