EAST TIMOR: A UN failure

June 12, 2002

BY MAX LANE

A major theme of the ceremony that took place in Dili on May 20 to proclaim the independence of East Timor was that the three-year period of United Nations transitional administration was a great success. However, East Timor has been one of the great failures of the UN.

Military forces under the political direction of General Suharto's New Order regime entered East Timor in December 1975. In the weeks and months immediately after that invasion, the UN Security Council and later the General Assembly called for the withdrawal of Indonesian military forces. When the Indonesian military finally withdrew 24 years later, much of East Timor had been destroyed, 200,000 East Timorese had been killed and more than 100,000 had been displaced.

The UN's role in forcing the Indonesian military out of East Timor was completely secondary to the Indonesian pro-democracy movement, which forced Suharto out of power, and the East Timorese people themselves, who defied enormous intimidation at the hands of the Indonesian military (TNI) and voted overwhelmingly for independence in the August 31, 1999, referendum.

A further key role was played by Australian public opinion, which was outraged at the initial inaction of the UN and the Australian government when TNI-organised militia gangs went on a violent rampage after the referendum result was announced. Tens of thousands of people mobilised on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne to force the Australian government to reverse its 24-year policy of support for Indonesian rule over East Timor and to send troops to secure East Timor's right to independence.

The mass violence organised by the TNI in September 1999 would probably never have occurred had the UN acceded to the earlier calls from the independence movement for security during the ballot to be provided by an armed UN peacekeeping force instead of by the TNI — as Indonesia and Australia insisted.

The UN has also been congratulating itself, helped by the somewhat obsequious character of the independence ceremony, for its role in the transition process towards independence since 1999. Of course, it is true that East Timor is now independent, which was what the East Timorese people wanted. But it was not a result of anything done by the UN. The UN has been nothing more than a midwife — and not a very good midwife at that.

In the economic field, the UN has supervised a transition process very similar to that through which Suharto guided Indonesia in 1966-67. The strategic direction of economic development is being determined by "donor meetings".

In addition to the "donor meetings", the UN has ensured that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are dictating economic policy. Thirty years of direction of the Indonesian economy by the IMF and the World Bank led to the horrors of the krismon (monetary crisis) that have plunged millions of Indonesian workers and farmers into desperate poverty.

Royalties from the exploitation of big oil and natural gas deposits have not saved Indonesia's poor from the devastating results of IMF-World Bank policy. It is unlikely to save East Timor either while the same gang of financial "advisers" remains in control.

What is most shocking is that the East Timorese people were never given the chance to decide whether they wanted to have their lives determined by this cabal of Western pro-corporate financial administrators.

East Timor has been born as an independent state already tied to the major institutions inflicting great suffering on most of the countries of the Third World. It is not surprising therefore to hear of so many protests from grassroots organisations in East Timor about the UN's priorities. Most symbolic of the anti-poor people direction of the country's economic strategy was the decision by the Fretilin majority of the Constituent Assembly to vote against guaranteeing free basic education and health services in the constitution.

While East Timor is an independent state, the struggles of the East Timorese people are not over yet. Like the Indonesian people, and most of the peoples of the Third World, the East Timorese workers and farmers now face the challenge of winning full political independence and economic freedom from profit-driven institutions of the imperialist powers. Once again, it will be up to the people of East Timor to win such full independence.

During the recent transition process, most of the East Timorese political elite, like their counterparts in Indonesia, have accepted the strategic economic direction set by imperialist governments. Leadership in the struggle for economic independence and social justice will have come from a new generation of East Timorese political activists.

[Max Lane is the national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 5, 2002.

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