Timor Poll Won’t End the Crisis


The first round of East Timor’s presidential election, held on 9 April 2007, was inconclusive, yet it brought some issues into sharp focus.

Voters punished the ruling party Fretilin for presiding over a collapse in social order; but they showed little enthusiasm for the free-market polices of rival candidate Jose Ramos Horta.  A sizeable vote went to the Democratic Party, based on younger voters; and a further significant share went to minor parties.  With no candidate getting a majority, the race goes to a run-off on 8 May.

Fretilin, traditional party of the independence struggle and until now in control of parliament, was shocked to see its vote plunge to 28 percent.  Before the poll its leaders had talked confidently of winning an absolute majority.  Fretilin remains the strongest political organization on the ground, and should do better in the parliamentary elections due in a couple of months.  It probably can’t win either the presidency or a parliamentary majority, however, if the first-round losers channel their votes to Ramos Horta and his ally Xanana Gusmao.

Even so, Australian-backed Ramos Horta would have been bitterly unhappy with a dismal vote around 22%.

Ramos Horta had replaced Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister last year under international pressure.  This included a vicious Australian “Four Corners” TV show suggesting Alkatiri was guilty of arming hit squads.  The allegations collapsed under investigation, but not before they sealed Alkatiri’s fate.  After that Ramos Horta enjoyed a certain honeymoon, but as the vote shows his standing has recently deteriorated as the country’s woes continue to mount.

East Timor’s crisis began with a mutiny of 600 soldiers in March 2006.  Alkatiri sacked them, for which the international media pilloried him — as if any other government would have treated mutineers more generously.  The clash in the military heralded a general upheaval in the state forces and widespread civil disorder.  Australian troops quickly intervened, after a request from all the key East Timorese political forces including Fretilin — though Alkatiri probably endorsed the request with immense reluctance, sensing it would bring his downfall.  He didn’t last long after the troops arrived.

In addition to creating conditions for regime change, the troops have propped up the local power structures.  Yet tens of thousands of displaced persons remain in camps and the economy remains a disaster.

An important campaign issue concerned $1 billion in oil and gas earnings currently stashed in a special Petroleum Fund in New York.  Alkatiri intended this as a long-term nation-building resource.  While interest earnings go to pay for infrastructure and social programmes, the principal has remained untouched.   Contrary to his radical-leftist image fostered by critics, this and other Alkatiri economic policies are actually quite popular with the World Bank.

But they haven’t shown any sign of lifting the country out of poverty, so it’s no wonder Fretilin is losing credibility.

Ramos Horta promises to unlock the Fund for immediate uses.  That has allowed him to cynically outflank Alkatiri on the (seeming) left.  Asked about the issue on Australia’s “Dateline” TV programRamos Horta remarked smugly that Alkatiri “is a fiscal conservative . . .  He makes grand speeches on fighting poverty as a national cause but . . . he hasn’t moved aggressively enough.”

The proposal to use some of the money seems reasonable given the dire economic situation.  But what exactly will happen with the funds?  Ramos Horta is no lefty.  In the TV interview he went on to offer plans to make the country a free-market “fiscal paradise, next only to Hong Kong.”

No wonder international capital supports him.  On 5 April an Australian Financial Review article explained that “what the Howard Government fears most is that Fretilin will triumph.”  It went on to say: “Importantly for Australian interests, Ramos Horta has promised a taxation reform plan to encourage foreign investment.  It includes ambitious goals of setting up a ‘free-trade’ state . . .  Income and corporate and corporate tax rates would be set at flat rates of 5 per cent to 10 per cent.”

If Ramos Horta and his allies end up running East Timor, these neo-liberal policies could cut deep new wounds in a country already in agony. . . .

Ramos Horta is certainly a friend of western imperialism.  He supports the war in Iraq, and says that if elected, “I will ask the UN, Australia, New Zealand to stay on here for as many years as possible.”

Not that power rests solely or even primary with the politicians.  In addition to international and local capital, there’s the Australian/New Zealand/UN military and police presence.  That, in turn, is provoking resistance among the people.

Hostility to foreign troops began to mount after Alfredo Reinado’s jailbreak last August.  Reinado, a leader of the mutiny, is anti-Fretilin.  But he’s none too complimentary about Ramos Horta and has repeatedly embarrassed the high-powered Australian troops sent to catch him.  In a botched raid on the mountain town of Same where he was staying, Reinado escaped easily, but Australians commandos killed 5 local people.  Ramos Horta got the blame for this along with the troops.  In the aftermath, crowds barricaded streets in Dili, burned tires and chanted: “Australians, go home!”

The troops savagely attacked a refugee camp near the airport on 23 February, using tanks, tear gas, and bullets.  According to people in the camp, they killed at least two people, wounding others.  Ramos Horta’s interim government had demanded the camp’s displaced persons leave, but where were these 8,000 people to go?  They refused to budge, and later published a statement detailing Australian violence against them, adding that this reflected a systematic Australian bias (“They have carried out systematic discrimination against Timorese people”) and demanding immediate withdrawal of the troops from East Timor.

Last year, most East Timorese welcomed the Australian forces.  The popular understanding was that the Aussies had previously intervened in 1999 to stop killings by the Indonesian military and its proxy militia.  (Actually, the evidence suggests that the killings had largely subsided before the Australian troops arrived; the troops’ real agenda was to consolidate Australian hegemony.  But this isn’t widely understood.)

Now with abuses mounting, the public mood has begun to turn against the troops.  Veteran Timor observer James Dunn recently wrote of the Australian military that”their popularity has declined since those balmy days in 1999.”

These are still fragmentary developments and anti-Australian sentiment isn’t yet majority opinion, but that could  change.  Already Fretilin’s stance has become more openly hostile to Canberra.  Should it lose the presidency and also control of the parliament, both of which are on the cards, the party in opposition might begin to base itself on an emerging anti-imperialist mood.

For Canberra, the recent events in East Timor are the latest development in a vexing pattern.  Australian plans to use troops, police, and administrators to take indirect control of island states have met a series of frustrations.  Political leaders in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, and Fiji have found opportunities to send Australian meddlers packing.

A Horta-Gusmao government would be acquiescent, but Fretilin is another story.  If re-elected it might challenge the Australian presence in some way.  What’s more likely, if it’s driven into opposition it might campaign against the troops.

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.

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