East Timor’s struggle against forced neo-colonisation


East Timor became a colony of Portugal in the 16th century and remained such (apart from a period of bloody occupation by the Japanese in the second world war) until 1975 when, as a result of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, it was liberated – only to be immediately seized by Indonesia. There followed a 24-year armed struggle to achieve liberation, which cost some 200,000 lives – a third of the population! – but was eventually crowned by success in 1999 when, after the fall of the fascistic US puppet Suharto in Indonesia in the wake of the devastation of the far eastern ‘currency’ crisis, the United Nations held a referendum on independence among the East Timorese whose results Indonesia was expected to respect. In this referendum, 99% of the population participated, and 78% of voters cast their ballots in favour of independence. All the imperialist powers suddenly developed a passion for justice for East Timor, notwithstanding the fact that they had all (a) encouraged the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the first place, and (b) extensively assisted Indonesia in its bloody suppression of the East Timorese people throughout the period of its rule, especially by the provision of weaponry and military training.

We have of course observed that whenever an imperialist power takes an interest in anybody’s human rights, one can be certain that this must be a smokescreen which is being created for the development of imperialist profiteering interests, and naturally East Timor is no exception to this.

East Timor has the “good fortune” to lie on extensive oil and gas deposits (valued at $30 billion – and that is just those which have already been discovered) that imperialism is desperate to monopolise. Therefore, as a result of this, and like other countries sharing the same “good fortune” but lacking the means to defend themselves against imperialist plundering, it faces destitution and ruin, to say nothing of condemnation as a “failed state”. This “failure” is then interpreted as a carte blanche for some imperialist power to “come to the rescue”, as Australia has in the case of East Timor – but the “rescue” is in reality a disguised colonisation. A document circulated within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) dating from 2001 has been leaked which states that “Australia’s strategic interests can … be protected and pursued more effectively if Australia maintains some degree of influence over East Timor’s decision-making”. In other words, right from the start, Australia’s interest in East Timor was entirely limited to promoting its “strategic interests”, not peace and democracy for the people of East Timor.

The unequal oil treaties

As early as 1893, the first non-Timorese explorations took place in Portuguese Timor. They generated small-scale exports in Laclubar, Manatuto. In 1956, the Australian company, Timor Oil Limited began off-shore explorations with many other companies joining in over the following years.

Once oil was discovered in the ocean between Indonesia and Timor (on the one hand) and Australia on the other hand, it became important to decide who “owned” the sea bed under which the oil deposits lay. From 1956 Portugal, the colonial master of Timor, claimed sovereignty according to median line principles ratified in the 1958 Geneva Convention and again in 1982 in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in November 1994. However, until 1994, the “median line” principle was not universally accepted, following the unilateral announcement in 1945 by US President Truman of the “continental shelf” principle according to which the shallow areas just off the coast of each country, extending to where the sea floor drops sharply, are “owned” by the country. As it happens, application of the “continental shelf” principle leaves Australia with by far the lion’s share of sovereignty over the sea bed between the three countries. In the early 70s, Australia concluded a treaty with Indonesia’s puppet Suharto regime “Establishing Certain Seabed Boundaries” based on the “continental shelf principle”. This treaty, however, could not affect East Timor because Portugal, its colonial master at the time, refused to participate except on the basis of the “median line” principle which Australia was not prepared to contemplate. As a result there arose what has come to be known as The Timor Gap – an area of seabed which has not been allocated to any of the surrounding countries. It covers the gap between the median line and the edge of the Australian continental shelf closest to East Timor, and it contains all the area’s important oil deposits.

In 1974, the year that the Greater Sunrise field was discovered (the only field discovered until the 1990’s), Portugal granted exclusive exploration permits within a 60,700 sq km area of the Gap to a US company called Oceanic Exploration/Petro Timor. This grant was hotly disputed by Australia which had since 1953 been claiming that area of the sea bed on the principle that it lay under Australia’s “continental shelf”. However, in 1975, Portugal withdrew as a colonial power and Fretilin declared East Timor’s independence. Richard Woolcott, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia, advised his government that the dispute over exploration rights in the Gap “could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia … than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor”. On 7 December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, and PetroTimor withdrew. Australia thereby acquired a negotiating partner as far as the grant of oil exploration rights was concerned with whom it could do business. In 1989 Australia and Indonesia signed the Timor Gap Treaty, but Indonesia was still not able to sign on behalf of occupied East Timor because the UN never recognised Indonesia’s annexation of the territory. The Treaty got round this small difficulty by not purporting to decide on the ownership of the sea bed but merely on the way the profits derived from the grant of oil exploration licences should be shared. It was “agreed” that as far as oil lying under that part of the Gap to which the treaty relates (the Zone of Co-operation – ZOC) is concerned, it should be shared 50:50 between the two countries. Iniquitous though this treaty was, even the 50% divide did not apply to that part of the Australian “continental shelf” that was not decreed to be within the ZOC. 80% of Greater Sunrise lay outside the ZOC and Australia retained control over it, therefore, notwithstanding the fact it is considerably closer to East Timor than to Australia. To date extraction of oil from Greater Sunrise, the right to which is controlled by a consortium of imperialist oil companies led by Australia’s predatory Woodside Petroleum, has even today in 2007 not yet begun, but profits will be huge when it does, so the jockeying for position with regard to this field has been intense throughout the 30 years since its discovery.

During the 1990’s three other important deposits were discovered – Laminaria-Corallina (outside the ZOC), and Elang-Kakatua and Bayu-Undan (within the ZOC), the right to exploit which has duly been parcelled out among consortia of various imperialist energy companies – Australian, Japanese, US and European. Only Laminaria Corallina has been exploited so far, producing revenues amounting to $1 billion for Australia, while East Timor has received not a penny, although the field is now nearly exhausted. Australia’s relations with East Timor remain governed by the imperialist needs of its own oil monopolies as well as those of its partners in crime from the US, Europe and Japan.

In 1999, under the auspices of the United Nations, a referendum was held in East Timor to ascertain whether its people wanted independence from Indonesia. 99% of the electorate voted in this referendum, of whom 78% voted in favour of independence. At this point the Indonesian army went on an orgy of violence and destruction in which they killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed the homes of three-quarters of the population. They also destroyed East Timor’s electrical grid and most of its utilities infrastructure. Who should come to the rescue? Why, East Timor’s kind and concerned friend Australia, under whose aegis the UN Transitional Administration was set up, to guarantee peace in the lead-up to Timor’s Independence. Bearing in mind Australia’s long history of cosy relations with the murderous Indonesian regime, can it be fanciful to suspect that Australia might not have been altogether opposed to the violence that provided its excuse to invade (that is to say, intervene in the interests of the purest humanitarianism of course)? At very least, sending Australia to “guard” East Timor was the political equivalent of sending a wolf to guard a flock of sheep.

With 10,000 troops installed in East Timor from 1999, Australia hastened to conclude an agreement with the Transitional Administration (mostly made up of handpicked members of the East Timorese ‘community’ with little or no understanding of politics), which in effect ratified the Timor Gap Treaty, except for the fact that the ZOC was renamed the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA). However, Fretilin, the most revolutionary wing of the East Timorese liberation struggle, was unwilling to tolerate this unequal treaty, and eventually in 2001, following intense negotiations with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, agreement was reached allowing East Timor 90% of the upstream oil and gas revenues from the JPDA. This agreement was ratified by the new East Timorese government within 12 hours of East Timor’s independence on 20 May 2002 – surprising when it is considered that it did nothing but ratify Australia’s daylight robbery of East Timorese rights. However, the new government had no choice as it was informed that unless it signed, it would have to wait indefinitely before the exploitation of the Bayu Undan field began, i.e., before it began to receive any oil income at all. Anxious that the East Timorese people should see some benefit from the years of sacrifice and armed struggle, that they should secure some relief from their grinding poverty – reflected as it is in a life expectancy of only 40 years and an infant mortality rate of 12% – the new government succumbed to the imperialist blackmail and signed.

Since Independence, the East Timorese economy has been struggling. The Indonesians on departing had destroyed so much and non-oil GDP is still very low (albeit improving), estimated at $370 million in 2004 – $400 per capita! Motivated by a desire to use oil money to build up a thriving economy, the entire East Timorese population has been growing increasing indignant at the theft of their oil resources by Australia. In response to this movement Australia has conceded that East Timor’s share of Greater Sunrise (i.e., in respect of the area that lies under the JPDA) be raised from 18% to 50%, albeit only on the basis that East Timor agreed to abandon the issue of determining its permanent maritime boundary for at least 30 years – by which time Greater Sunrise would no doubt be exhausted.

Political moves against Fretilin

There was and is clearly an antagonistic contradiction between the people of East Timor, on the one hand, and Australian imperialism on the other. Yet Australia remained in occupation of East Timor with the blessing of the UN until June 2005, supposedly safeguarding East Timor against Indonesia. Although the East Timorese people are in a weak position, being almost totally devoid of resources for fighting their corner, they are people who were until recently conducting a most successful armed struggle to drive out the Indonesians and who would certainly be able to turn their skills to struggle against Australia. The party most able to lead such a struggle is Fretilin, and this is the secret weapon that had enabled Mari Alkatiri to negotiate to extract relatively large concessions from Australia, which the latter was extremely reluctant to make. Of course, there are those who condemn Fretilin and Alkatiri for accepting anything less than East Timor’s full entitlement in international law, but these are people who cannot see that if it is going to be necessary to conduct armed struggle to assert East Timorese independence, it is extremely important to try to build greater unity among the East Timorese people. Former guerrilla leaders like Gusmao and Ramos Horta still have a large minority following, not having yet been sufficiently thoroughly exposed in the eyes of the masses as the capitulators to imperialism that they have now become. While the naked greed of the imperialist energy corporations is helping a great deal in this effort, nevertheless there is a great deal to be said in favour of a thorough ideological preparation of the masses for the next step in the East Timorese revolution.

Imperialist policy is necessarily to try to break the influence of Fretilin among the masses of the people, while building up support for would-be compradors like Ramos Horta, and it is Australia’s manoeuvres in this regard which have determined the history of East Timor’s first years of formal Independence.

Notwithstanding the concessions that were made on oil profits, as detailed above, the new government, insofar as Fretilin was able to influence its decisions, did try to steer East Timor on an independent course of development and progress. It is becoming very clear that countries oppressed by imperialism no longer have to accept imperialism’s terms as alternative trading partners are becoming available – China in particular, but also India, Venezuela and even Brazil – who offer fair terms that will facilitate development rather than hold it back in the way doing business with imperialism has strongly tended to do. Fretilin’s Mari Alkatiri, the new East Timorese prime minister – who, incidentally, spent years in exile in Mozambique – was well aware of this and offered economic participation in Timorese hydrocarbon reserves to China and India in preference to the US and Australia. He also allowed a Chinese and Norwegian team to survey the northern portion of the Timor Sea for deposits and its is believed he was talking to Sinopec about building an oil refinery that would enable East Timor at last to benefit from “downstream” oil profits, which have up to now been monopolised by a refinery in Darwin, Australia. It is also thought he was on the verge of awarding a multi-billion-dollar gas-pipeline project to PetroChina.

Fretilin, and Mari Alkatiri, also flouted imperialism’s interests by keeping to minimum imports from the imperialist world. Instead of splurging such oil profits as it has received, they insisted on investing them with a view to ensuring that the revenues were used strictly for development. As countries like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and even Iran have discovered to their cost, if you spend your oil money on cheap imports from the economically ‘efficient’ multinationals, you end up destroying your own producers, casting them into the ranks of the unemployed and aggravating the misery that you may have been trying to alleviate. Alkatiri was most anxious to avoid that, much to the disgust of imperialism, which had been hoping to be able to ‘repatriate’ most of the profits it had had to disgorge to the East Timorese.

Another move that enraged imperialism was a deal struck between East Timor and Cuba – in the teeth of outraged protests by the US ambassador – whereby Cuba would send 100 doctors to East Timor, help set up a medical school there, and furthermore would offer 600 East Timorese completely free scholarship to come and train as doctors in Cuba.

Associated with all these progressive policies, Alkatiri became imperialism’s most hated man in East Timor. He was labelled ‘provocative’, ‘autocratic’ and ‘dictatorial’, quite unlike his colleague Ramos-Horta who could be heard announcing that free trade and sweeteners for foreign investors were the way out of East Timor’s economic troubles. His son, writing in the Asian Times denounced Alkatiri as adopting a “foreign policy overtly confrontational to the West”. And whereas Alkatiri declared a national day of mourning when Yasser Arafat died, Ramos-Horta is urging the imperialist powers to stay in Iraq until all Iraqi resistance has been finished off.

Imperialism decided that Alkatiri would have to go and that, again, it would be Australia in charge of implementation.

An externally inspired coup

Imperialist efforts were focussed on finding some minor contradiction between the people which could be blown up out of all proportion and exploited, and it discovered some ill feeling existing as between people from the west of the country and the east. A rebellion was fostered in East Timor’s 1,500-person defence force round the claim that soldiers from one part of the country were being treated better than soldiers from the other part. This led to a mutiny in the defence force, led by one Major Alfredo Reinado, an officer trained in Canberra whose wife was employed in the US Embassy organising Peace Corps activity. In March 2006, the East Timorese government responded by sacking the 600 soldiers who had mutinied. During April and May, sacked soldiers and their supporters co-ordinated by Reinado went on the rampage, attacking innocent people and forcing 21,000 people to flee from their homes. With only some 400 members of the defence force remaining loyal to the government, preparations clearly needed to be made to arm the people in order to enable them to defend themselves.

At this point, however, the Australians stepped into the breach once more, sending 13,000 troops to bring the disturbances in Dili under control. This time, however, the Portuguese also sent a small force. The first Australian troops arrive on May 25, just under a year since they had finally left.

Immediately the imperialist media started putting about the story that the rioting had been prompted by Alkatiri’s increasingly unpopular policies which the army were supposedly reluctant to implement. It was alleged that Alkatiri’s economic policies were a complete disaster for the people of East Timor, totally ignoring the important progress that had been made in regenerating internal production and exchange, rebuilding schools, etc. – with extremely limited means. They claimed that tens of thousands of people were demonstrating in Dili demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, and an Australian TV channel produced a programme accusing him of organising death squads to eliminate his legitimate political opponents. Although the allegations in the programme were totally spurious (and this was confirmed by a UN investigation into the whole issue which Alkatiri himself had demanded), and the tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out to be only a few hundred, Fretilin thought it prudent to beat a tactical retreat: Alkatiri resigned the premiership on June 26, giving an opportunity to Ramos-Horta to step to centre stage and discredit himself thoroughly among the East Timorese masses.

Elections in Timor

Presidential elections whose first round was held in April 2007 have shown that by and large the people of East Timor are still behind Fretilin. They are growing ever-more hostile to the continued presence of Australian troops, especially when they somehow allowed the renegade Alfredo Reinado, who had been captured and imprisoned by Portuguese troops, to escape, and, notwithstanding the array of sophisticated tracker machinery at their disposal, have failed to recapture him – despite the fact that he has appeared on Australian television giving interviews to news teams from his jungle hideout. Ramos-Horta also got the troops to clear a refugee camp near the airport that was home to 8,000 displaced people who had nowhere else to go. The growing unpopularity of the Australian forces is reflecting on Ramos-Horta who is quite rightly seen as their protégé. This in turn was reflected in the first round results, in which Ramos-Horta only managed to secure 22% of the vote, against 28% for Fretilin’s candidate Francisco Guterres (known as Lu Olo). Ramos-Horta’s support was largely confined to the capital, Dili, while Fretilin’s was solid in the eastern part of the country. To the extent that the third candidate, Arauco, had support it was from the western part of the country (where imperialism has been able to play on fears of ethnic discrimination), the area that the sacked soldiers came from. He also had the backing of the Catholic Church. In the interests of securing Arauco supporters’ votes to assist him in winning the run-off, Ramos-Horta has called off the search for Reinado. His other appeal to voters is a promise to free up for immediate spending the funds set aside by Alkatiri to fund East Timor’s development. Whether this is enough to secure him the Presidency remains to be seen, but whether it does or not, one thing that this election has proved, much to the consternation of imperialism, is that Fretilin is still a beacon for East Timorese patriotic people and masses and, whether it is represented in government or not, continues to stand up to imperialism and defend the interests of the working people.