Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
As Nato's war continues to dominate the headlines, the explosion of violence by occupying units of the Indonesian armed forces, in conjunction with settlers from the mainland, against the indigenous population of East Timor has been relegated to the inside pages of the mainstream press. The violence has thrown into question the plebiscite called for 8 August of the East Timorese for independence or 'autonomy' within Indonesia proposed by the Habibie government--this at a time when Indonesia is in the throes of revolution with its own general election scheduled in June.
On Tuesday 13 April some 2,000 people had sought refuge from bands of marauding Indonesian paramilitaries at the local Catholic church in Liquisa 13 miles to the west of the East Timorese capital, Dili. Under the close supervision of the army the militia proceeded to encircle the church. In the ensuing mêlée, at least 50 defenceless refugees were slaughtered by a combination of automatic gunfire, teargas and grenades within the church--those who made it out of the building were set upon with machetes. By the end of the massacre blood a centimetre deep covered the floor of the church and spattered the walls outside. When journalists returned to the site a few days later all traces of the bloodshed had been removed and the corpses buried in unmarked graves.
The following Saturday thousands of men rallied in support of the Indonesian occupation. In Dili, as soldiers stood outside laughing and cheering, militiamen entered the house of leading independence spokesperson Manuel Carrasculao and murdered a further 30 East Timorese sheltering there, including Carrasculao's teenage son. Hundreds have died in similar incidents throughout the island in recent weeks. Foreign journalists have narrowly escaped being killed. This is a salutary reminder of the execution of Australian journalists by the Indonesian military during the original invasion of East Timor in 1975.
This, then, is the legacy of the imperialist powers' policy of aiding and abetting their client in Jakarta through illegal arms sales--a policy continued by New Labour. While Nato talks about 'genocide' in relation to Kosovo, it stands aloof as genocide continues in East Timor, where 200,000 people--a third of the indigenous population--have died.
The Australian ruling class, however, does not have this luxury. Fearful of the political instability in the region entailed by the break up of the Indonesian state (the local superpower and home to the fourth largest population in the world) the Australian government has felt compelled to station 3,000 troops in the northern city of Darwin in anticipation of an escalation of the violence. John Howard, the Australian premier, flew to Bali in late April to negotiate measures with President Habibie to uphold the fragile truce declared by both sides in the conflict after the Dili massacre. Howard is desperate to oversee a peaceful transition to East Timorese self government after the plebiscite in order to safeguard regional stability and Australian access to Timorese oil supplies. He has thrown his lot in with the East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao, one of the signatories to the truce, who was recently released from an Indonesian prison and is now under house arrest in Jakarta. But the splits within the Indonesian ruling class, faced by revolution at home and communal violence in Ache and Kalimantan on the outer edge of the archipelago, threaten to rip any settlement to pieces.
Habibie's about turn on independence in January was intended to ensure the speedy secession of East Timor in order to maintain the unity of the rest of the Indonesian state. However, right wing elements within the ABRI--the Indonesian military, which is the real power in the land--prefer a policy of coercion for fear that granting secession to East Timor will merely encourage other separatist tendencies in Indonesia proper. While their voice has been marginalised in the metropolis Jakarta, with the removal of Suharto and the exile of his son in law commander in chief of the notorious Koparsus special forces, Prabowo, they have found more room for manoeuvre at the periphery.
The paramilitaries in East Timor are composed of recruits from the Javanese settler community employed in the civil service or as local businessmen. These militia have been trained and armed by regiments still loyal to Prabowo. It is their intention to destabilise the island in order to prevent any United Nations force presiding over the transition to independence. Their resilience has thrown Gusmao's policy of peaceful cooperation with Habibie's government into disarray.
Under pressure from his own guerrilla forces in the mountains outside Dili, and the East Timorese students who have continued their vocal support for independence since the occupation of the US embassy in Jakarta during Clinton's visit in 1994, Gusmao was forced to issue a call to Timorese to defend themselves in the face of escalating militia violence just prior to agreeing to the recent truce. The fragility of the truce is underlined by the fact that five students were murdered on the same day that it was declared.
Gusmao supports the demand for a UN force in East Timor. Yet this is the same force that has stood idle while the genocide of the East Timorese was carried out.
The alternative to the limitations of Gusmao's nationalist politics lies in the continuing struggle of the revolution in Indonesia, where students and workers have sheltered rebel East Timorese people who have brought their protest to the capital. There is every prospect that the demonstrations of hundreds of students and workers in Jakarta in April against the undemocratic restrictions of the June elections will grow in the coming months.