A victory to build on
Twenty-four years ago this week, the Indonesian military launched its brutal invasion of East Timor. Today East Timor is at last free of the Indonesian occupation. Although the East Timorese have paid a huge price, and now face a great challenge to rebuild their country in a world where the strong typically oppress and exploit the weak rather than helping them, this is a truly historic victory.
The chief cause of that victory is the courageous, stubborn resistance of the East Timorese people, who refused to surrender to overwhelming odds. It was that determination which wore down the oppressors and gradually created a political pressure that B.J. Habibie sought to relieve with the proposal for a referendum.
Understanding other factors that contributed to the Timorese peoples's success is important because the progressive side of politics hasn't had a lot of other things to celebrate lately. Indeed, one of the main arguments of defenders of the status quo is always that it's impossible to change things for the better.
In the case of East Timor, the Liberal and Labor apologists for the Indonesian government assured us over the years that it was impossible to win Timorese independence; they were being "realistic" by legally recognising Indonesian rule and quietly advising the Suharto dictatorship to reduce "human rights abuses".
Supporters of East Timor here and in other countries contributed to the victory to the extent that they were able to counter the false argument of the "realists" and thus help to build and maintain public understanding of East Timor's cause. Fundamentally, this was a battle to get out the truth as widely as possible.
From its own standpoint, the Australian government also understood that this was a fight about information. In the months following the Indonesian invasion, for example, members of the Communist Party of Australia set up a radio link between East Timor and the Northern Territory which was able to get out some of the news about the resistance; the Australian government spent considerable resources hunting down the "illegal" station until, after 16 months, it was able to close it down.
For a quarter century, it has been sections of the organised left and the alternative media that have kept alive an awareness of East Timor's cause in the broader Australian public. Green Left Weekly has campaigned for East Timor since its very first issue in 1991, which carried an article by Jose Ramos Horta denouncing those twins of diplomatic plunder, foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas, who had just met in Bali to celebrate the Indonesian parliament's ratification of the Timor Gap Treaty.
It was the countless articles, posters, pickets, leaflets, public meetings, rallies, resolutions and talking to whoever would listen that laid the basis for the massive demonstrations in the streets of Australian cities this year demanding that the Australian government intervene to stop the Indonesian military's destruction of East Timor. Without those years of effort by the organised left, it is certain that the protests would not have been big enough to force Howard's hand.
This was a victory to build on, in two senses. First, it should encourage us to keep up our support for East Timor, demanding massive reparations from the Australian government to aid reconstruction and protesting against any attempt by Australian or international forces, or the United Nations administration, to curtail the rights of the East Timorese people or impose policies upon them.
Secondly, the left's contribution to East Timor's victory is proof that we don't have to accept injustice, exploitation and oppression. With organisation, determination and persistence in telling the truth, things can be changed for the better. Surely, that is worth building on.