Aussie imperialism exploits East Timor unrest

Exactly four years after winning its independence from Indonesia, East Timor is tragically descending into chaos, and Australia has sent a “peacekeeping” force. Excerpts from a Reuters account via TV New Zealand, May 27:

Gangs of youths allied to feuding East Timor police or army units went on the rampage in parts of the capital on Saturday, torching houses and vehicles, as Australian and Malaysian peacekeeping troops stepped up their patrols.

Youths armed with machetes, swords and knives patrolled neighborhoods near government buildings against what they said were rogue army elements planning to return from the hills surrounding the capital of the world’s newest independent nation.

Black smoke billowed above the city in the morning, but residents were generally calm, gathering on corners to hear gossip and news about the situation.

By mid-afternoon the clashes appeared to have ended, although Australian helicopters circled the city and three navy ships cruised along the waterfront.

The trouble started last month when the government sacked around 600 soldiers from the 1,400-strong army after they protested against alleged discrimination.

The army split is mirrored in the general population, with neighbourhoods and street gangs allied to one faction or another. The police force has also effectively disintegrated, further complicating the situation.

Earlier this week the government asked Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia to send troops to help restore order. On Saturday foreign military patrols were the only sign of any real authority.

A foreign ministry official said the cabinet had met on Saturday and repeated a call for rebellious troops and police to lay down their arms and return to barracks.

Residents say the rebellion has turned into a protest against the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who they say has failed to deliver any economic or social development since Timor became an independent state in 2002.

An election is scheduled for early next year, but some diplomats say the government cannot last that long.

On Saturday an ailing President Xanana Gusmao, a hero of the independence struggle, was trying to broker talks between the government and the rebels.

An aide said Gusmao was furious that Alkatiri had not dealt more swiftly with the soldiers’ grievances. The aide added: “This situation has been simmering for months. It could have been dealt with in a much better way, without this violence.”

A convoy of around 30 heavily armed Australian troops in civilian four-wheel-drive vehicles drove around the streets outside the government secretariat, but they appeared to steer clear of the neighbourhoods where houses were being torched.


A Portuguese colony for centuries, East Timor was annexed by Indonesia in 1976 in a move the United Nations condemned and much of the population resisted.

Australia led a UN-backed intervention force to East Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesian militias after a referendum vote for independence. This was finally achieved in 2002 after almost three years of UN administration.

Hundreds of Timorese troops rebelled in April after they were dismissed for protesting over what they said was discrimination against soldiers from the west of the country. Most of the military leadership is said to come from the east.

The simmering revolt turned bloody last week when police were routed after they tried to disarm the sacked soldiers. Officials say around 15 people have been killed in the past three days.

But there was concern that the army divide was being mirrored amongst citizens, with gangs of youths from the west fighting against the east.

“Today’s incidents are truly saddening because the youths have destroyed the image of tolerance and peace,” Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta told reporters before the cabinet met.

“Therefore I am urging these youths to stop their actions because they will only create damage, discredit their family, their homeland and this country,” said Ramos Horta, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.


The Australians say their aim is first to restore order to the capital before fanning out into the rural areas where most of the 1 million population live and where the rebels have fled.

An editorial in The Australian is revealingly entitled “Back for good: East Timor is a failed state and has reverted to being our responsibility again.”

The roots of East Timor’s destabilisation – with its own army turning on the police force – lie in the traditional divide between the east and west regions in which Dili is the fault line. The 595 troops sacked earlier this year in an army of 1500 were mainly drawn from disgruntled westerners or Loromonu, part of the country with the easterners or Lorosae firmly in control of East Timor’s army, the F-FDTL. The core of the army still consists of Falantil fighters from the east who kept the resistance struggle alive during long Indonesian occupation.

After independence Australia advised East Timor not have both an army and a police force. That advice was rejected. The fledgling Government established a 3000-strong force with 1500 regulars in addition to a separate police force with its own ready reaction force and border police units. The army has been a source of chronic instability. Its role was never clearly defined and it competed with Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato’s police force for political preferment and scarce budget resources. With many police having served in the pre-independence Indonesian armed forces, tensions between the two security arms were institutionalised from the creation.

This week’s debilitating struggles between elements of the military and police should dictate a fundamental rethink of East Timor’s security apparatus. No solution is possible without such a rethink.

Falantil was the military arm of Fretilin, the independence movement that resisted Indonesian occupation. The F-FDTL is the Portugese acronym for the East Timor Defense Force-Falantil.

The East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), which built international solidarity for the independence struggle, has released the following anguished statement on the new violence. ETAN recently protested the US State Department’s November 2005 lifting of all restrictions on military aid to Indonesia (using a “national security” waiver allowing it to over-rule Congress, which had just voted to extend the restrictions), despite the fact that Indonesia continues to wage multiple grisly counter-insurgency wars against ethno-nationalist liberation struggles across the archipelago. The restrictions were put in place in response to Indonesia’s harsh repression in East Timor in 1999, and ETAN has been lobbying ever since to keep them.

May 27, 2006 – We have watched the unfolding situation in Timor-Leste this past week with deep concern. We do not believe that events had to escalate to this point. Like others, we do not have complete information about the current situation and its causes. Below are our initial reflections:

The intervention by foreign military and police forces is a sad event for Timor-Leste, whose hard-won political independence has had to be laid aside—we hope for only a short time—because leaders and state institutions have been unable to manage certain violent elements of the population and security forces.

Now that foreign forces are being deployed—at the request of Timor-Leste’s government, with the stated support of rebel leaders, and the welcome by most of a terrified population—we hope that they serve their intended purpose in quelling the violence and allowing negotiations and a peaceful resolution, as well as the identification and arrest of those who have committed crimes.

Outside intervention is a temporary solution at best. Timor-Leste must find ways, with respectful support from the international community, to deal with problems in a manner that will not require troops.

Statements by Australian government leaders that providing security assistance entitles them to influence over Timor-Leste’s government are undemocratic, paternalistic, and unhelpful. Who governs Timor-Leste is a decision to be made by its people within its constitution.

Key countries—including those now sending troops and police—must examine their roles in relation to the new nation, including the training provided to Timor-Leste’s security forces. Australia bears special responsibility for Timor’s underdevelopment by refusing to return revenues, totaling billions of dollars, from the disputed petroleum fields in the Timor Sea, including Laminaria-Corallina, and by bullying Timor-Leste into forsaking revenues that should rightfully belong to it under current international law and practice. As in 1999, we must not forget that the Australian government’s actions have contributed to the situations their peacekeepers have now been sent to correct. Australia should not view its current assistance to Timor-Leste as a favor, to be repaid, but instead as a partial repayment for the debt Australia owes the Timorese people for its help during WW II and for Australia’s deep complicity in Indonesia’s invasion and occupation.

Independent Timor-Leste had a violent birth. The legacy of Indonesian occupation left the people of the new nation deeply traumatized and impoverished, without governmental institutions and experience. Those who orchestrated, implemented and aided the illegal occupation have never been held accountable.

We wonder if international and Timorese failures to ensure justice have led some in Timor-Leste to believe that their own use of violence would be met with similar impunity. As described in the recent report of Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), several countries – among them U.S., U.K., and Australia – bear a special responsibility to ensure justice and accountability due to their action and inaction from 1975 on. Reparations, as called for by the CAVR, would help alleviate the poverty and joblessness that have fueled some of the unrest.

It must not be forgotten that despite its many problems, the transition from occupation to UN administration to independence has been relatively peaceful, especially when compared to the experiences of many other post-colonial countries. We hope that the recent violence—which appears to have complex causes—proves to be an exception.

We urge the key political, security force and other actors in the current crisis to evaluate their own actions and recommit themselves to the spirit of national unity and public service, which so ably provided the foundation for the independence movement. Timor-Leste needs to examine whether or not it wants a military and, if so, what is its purpose. In addition to addressing the past, the CAVR report provides useful recommendations for implementing rule of law and improving justice and accountability in independent Timor-Leste.

We urge the international community and the UN, especially the Security Council, to work with Timor-Leste to complete the nation-building and development tasks to which they have already committed. If Timor-Leste is to become the success story it has already been portrayed as, further international support is necessary. However, this support must be given in an honest spirit that supports real self-determination and empowers the Timorese people to take full charge of their own destiny.

Few are talking (openly) about resource interests behind the current conflict. But the Timor Sea, bewteen East Timor and Australia (and disputed by both countries), is awash in oil just waiting to be exploited. Noted CNN, May 17, 2002:

Oil the fuel for East Timor

SYDNEY — For the next three years, the newest nation on earth’s economy will be bolstered by $440 million in aid, after a series of nations pledged to help East Timor out.

But in the long-term, East Timor’s economic survival rests on the promise of oil and gas, with large reserves under an area of sea known as the Timor Gap.

The U. N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) estimates that the biggest reserve, the Bayu-Undan field, could rake in up to $3 billion over 17 years.

Under a treaty to be signed by the East Timorese and Australian governments following Sunday’s independence ceremony, the new nation will reap the lion’s share of the oil revenue, dividing the income 90-10 in its favor.

Other oil and gas fields are also up for exploration, with high expectations on the Greater Sunrise field, which is still in the design phase. Eighteen percent of its production revenue is earmarked for East Timor.

Advocates for the East Timorese maintain that the oil zone lies wholly within waters that should be recognized as East Timor’s according to international standards, and that Australia exploited the weakness of a small, newly independent nation to elbow in on the action. The Timor Sea Justice Campaign has been petitioning to have the maritime boundary redrawn in East Timor’s favor.

If East Timor is now on its way to becoming a de facto (or de jure) Australian protectorate, the issue could be academic. Did the Australian secret service foment or inflame the current conflict on the island? We don’t know that. But we think it is a legtimate question.

See our last post on ethnic struggles in the Indonesian archipelago, and our special report of June 2005 on US military interests in Indonesia.

  1. Australia, East Timor sign deal on maritime border

    Australia and East Timor have signed an agreement that draws the first maritime border between the two nations. It is hoped the deal, signed at the United Nations in New York, will end the bitter dispute over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. The two nations have agreed to split revenue from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas deposit, which lies between Australia and East Timor. (Radio Australia)