East Timor, Iraq and Jose Ramos Horta

East Timorese foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta's defence of Washington's
"aggressive strategy" towards Iraq is not a surprise. Horta's approach
to diplomacy throughout the struggle for East Timor's independence was
always based on offering assurances to the US government that an independent
East Timor would be friendly towards US interests. This approach was bound
to lead to major defects of memory (and analysis) once independence was
achieved. These defects are most evident in his article "War for peace?
It worked in my country", published in the Sydney Morning Herald
and the Age on February 25.

Horta tries to equate the case of Iraq with that of East Timor. Of course, in this he follows in the footsteps of Australian Prime Minister John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer. Horta states: "In 1999, a global peacekeeping force helped East Timor secure its independence and protect its people."

The truth is that the peacekeeping force, the International Force for East Timor (Interfet), played no role in either securing East Timor's independence or protecting its people. Interfet soldiers arrived in East Timor after the Indonesian government and military had agreed to respect the September 1999 independence referendum and withdraw.

When Interfet did arrive, they took no action to prevent some final acts of destruction by Jakarta-backed forces as they fled. Interfet's main role was to help rebuild some of East Timor's damaged infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

Throughout the struggle for East Timor's independence, right up until the arrival of Interfet, the primary force that was exerted to defeat Indonesian dictator Suharto and the Indonesian military was mass street action by the peoples of East Timor, Indonesia, Australia and Portugal. In this struggle, the threat of military force played no role.

There were four major turning points in the struggle for East Timor's independence.

The first was mass demonstration in Dili in November 1991, which ended with the terrible Santa Cruz massacre. This demonstration, and the televised massacre, was the culmination of a series of mass demonstrations, including one during the visit to Dili of the pope a year before. These courageous actions, led by the young people of East Timor, revived the struggle for East Timor's independence and again made it an issue in the eyes of international public opinion. Lobbying and state-level diplomacy in the United Nations had totally failed to have any serious impact.

The second turning point was the mass upheaval in Indonesia in early 1998. The Indonesian student-led anti-dictatorship movement forced the collapse of the Suharto regime and its replacement by much weaker governments, which are under continuing pressure to democratise and demilitarise.

Another wave of mass demonstrations took place in Indonesia in November 1998 demanding, among other things, a reduction on the role of the military in Indonesian politics. Facing a deep economic crisis and mass pressure for reform on many different fronts, and receiving advice from figures outside the old Suharto ruling circles, then-president Habibie decided to allow the UN to hold a referendum on independence in East Timor. If the students had not overthrown Suharto, it is very possible that East Timor President Xanana Gusmao may still have been in jail, and East Timor still occupied, today.

The third turning point was the incredibly courageous mass mobilisation of the East Timorese people " in the face of the violent onslaught of the Jakarta-backed militia " to campaign for, and participate in, the September 1999 referendum.

The fourth turning point was the mass protests in Australia and Portugal that demanded international intervention in East Timor to end the Indonesian military/militia scorched earth policy, the mass forced deportations and the militia's violent attacks and murder of pro-Independence people.

In Australia, demonstrations escalated in size from a few hundred to more than 30,000 each in Sydney and Melbourne within just six days. These mobilisations were not only driven by a sense of solidarity with the East Timorese people but also with intense and growing anger at the Australian government's inaction. This was an anger that had accumulated for more than two decades, as successive Australian governments collaborated with Jakarta's illegal occupation of East Timor.

These huge demonstrations threatened to escalate into even larger and angrier actions, drawing in the trade unions, if the Australian government continued to side with the Indonesian government and military. Howard lobbied Washington frantically to pressure Habibie to allow international forces to enter East Timor in order to stave off a political crisis in Australia.

Habibie's decision to withdraw Indonesian troops from East Timor was not made because of a fear that an overwhelming military force was about to descend on East Timor from Darwin. It was a response by a weak and crisis-ridden government desperate to retain international support.

So the Interfet forces arrived in East Timor as a construction team and a border patrol force. In this role, Interfet has been involved in no military offensives and only in very rare exchanges of fire with remnant militias.

It was neither the threat of international force nor diplomatic lobbying that were crucial in East Timorese struggles. The failure of diplomatic lobbying was reflected most vividly in the incredible passivity of Washington and Canberra in the aftermath of the 1999 referendum.

Both the US and Australian governments were willing to accept the implementation of the scorched earth policy and the mass deportations in East Timor. Perhaps " but only perhaps " they may have later insisted on East Timor's independence, after the damage was done. But, it was the mass protests in Sydney, Melbourne and Lisbon that forced Canberra and Washington to suddenly move to end the Indonesian-backed massacres.

There are obvious other differences between Iraq and East Timor. The most important is that the leadership of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, which represented close to 100% of the massive pro-independence popular movement in East Timor, supported the campaign for an international intervention.

In Iraq today, there is no clear overwhelming call from the Iraqi people for the US, Britain and Australia to invade, overthrow the regime and set-up a temporary US military administration. The few genuine opposition groups in Iraq oppose a US invasion. Even Washington's puppet "opposition" parties are divided, with many opposing the US plans to purge the regime only of its most odious elements, while retaining the core of the repressive Baathist regime and military. Furthermore, it is impossible to say who has popular support and who does not.

The real lesson from East Timor struggle is that democratic political change, including national liberation, will come about only as a result of the oppressed people themselves organising and mobilising to overthrow their oppressors. The 12-year-long "aggressive strategy" of imposing a devastating embargo on Iraq has in fact held back the process of developing a genuine opposition to Hussein's regime.

The blockade and the bombing of the northern and southern "no-fly zones" have driven Iraqi society backwards dramatically, socially and economically. Survival, rather than the struggle for democratic change, has become the focus for the vast majority of the people living in Iraq. This has strengthened the repressive regime in Baghdad rather than boosting forces committed to a genuine liberation of Iraq from dictatorship.

Iraq has long ceased to be a military threat to its neighbours. Its armed forces are half the strength they were at the time of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and much more poorly equipped. Iraq has little industrial infrastructure.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence that Iraq was long ago disarmed of its Western-supplied weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and German governments state that there is no evidence that Iraq possesses such weapons. On this last aspect, Horta has swallowed holus bolus Washington's version of reality.

Horta cannot tell apples from oranges. Iraq is not East Timor. Howard, Downer and company want us to believe that apples are oranges. To date, the mass of people in Australia have not been confused by this deception.

On February 14-16, when about 1 million people " undoubtedly including most of those who came out for East Timor in 1999 " demonstrated around Australia against the looming US-British-Australian invasion of Iraq, they voted with their feet against the spurious attempt to equate the case of Iraq with East Timor.

Incidently, it was good to see that such protests also took place in East Timor on February 15 as well.

[Max Lane chaired the 30,000-strong demonstration in Sydney on September 11, 1999, to demand that the Australian government and the UN send troops to East Timor. He is national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific. Visit www.asia-pacific-action.org.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 12, 2003.
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