Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Indonesia and East Timor

Power to the people?

What are the barriers to change in south east Asia, and how easily can they be overcome, asks Lindsey German
Cory Aquino presented herself as the 'ordinary housewife'. In fact she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the Filipino ruling class.

'Oldest among its European competitors, the Portuguese transcontinental empire lasted the longest, collapsed the fastest, and left the most bloodshed and ruin behind it.' So begins the essay on East Timor in this collection.* Freedom from the control of Lisbon followed the Portuguese revolution of 1974. Yet the end of empire brought little relief to the East Timorese. Instead the Indonesian dictatorship of Suharto stepped in--backed by the US and other major capitalist powers--to bring bloodshed, oppression and genocide.

The story of East Timor illustrates the major questions facing those wanting change in south east Asia: how is it that despite the formal end of colonialism the ordinary people are not free? How is it that countries are dominated by rich and powerful oligarchies? Why did the spectacular economic growth of the Asian Tigers merely preserve the inequalities?

This collection contains many fascinating answers and insights into these and other questions. It demonstrates the tremendous rollercoaster of south cast Asian politics and society postwar: the movements against colonialism, the horrific attacks on left wing movements in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the impact of the Vietnam War. The war's tentacles spread into Laos and Cambodia and turned Thailand into 'a sort of gigantic immobile aircraft carrier: in the peak year 1968, there were almost 50,000 US servicemen on Thai soil'.

Those who accuse the left of 'knee jerk anti-Americanism' in their opposition to imperialism could learn from this book. So much of the horror in the region has been made in America. The US was complicit in the barbarism in East Timor--'the only option now left to Indonesia's expansionists was an invasion, duly launched on Pearl Harbour Day, 1975, within hours of the departure of visiting President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger', writes Benedict Anderson. Washington acted in part because 'Suharto's secret offer to permit American nuclear submarines to pass through Indonesian waters, now including the deep channel along East Timor, without surfacing for Soviet satellite monitoring, was irresistible'. But US and Western influence has many more subtle social and economic manifestations: the electoral system in the Philippines which disperses power horizontally while concentrating it vertically; the US dominance of the Philippines from language to education; the dominance of sex tourism on the one hand and emigration on the other.

The book's title is taken from a phrase by the 19th century Philippines writer Jose Rizal, by which is meant the development of 'a new, restless double-consciousness which made it impossible ever after to experience Berlin without at once thinking of Manila, or Manila without thinking of Berlin'. In a period of global capital and instant communications, the possibility of making such comparisons is greater and more immediate. Anderson sees the comparison as the 'origin of nationalism'. Yet nationalism in the region has its material bases not just in the legacy of imperialism but in the recreation of divisions within the region. For example, the attacks on ethnic Chinese during the Indonesian Revolution were real and unpleasant enough, but there is ample evidence that they were fostered and encouraged by a repressive militarised regime which consciously sees divide and rule as a means of maintaining its power. Much of the present repression in East Timor is both about creating an example to other areas which want independence and about maintaining a level of national pride and resentment at foreign interference.

The political structures do nothing to challenge the ideas of national unity and development which allow the very rich cliques to dominate. Take the example of people power, coined in the 1980s during the overthrow of US backed dictator Fidel Marcos in the Philippines. His successor, Corazon Aquino, portrayed herself as an ordinary politically innocent housewife. In fact Anderson shows that she was 'a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within the Filipino oligarchy', who rode the people's power revolution to defeat the left and make the country safe for the rich once more.

Her path is now being trodden by Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, although in an economically and politically more unstable situation. But the weakness of the politics is apparent. Not only does it disarm much of the nationalist left, which fails to assess its strategy in class terms, but it places touching faith in a national leader to change things. It also leaves economic relations untouched. Workers at Cory Aquino's family Hacienda Luisita were asked after the elections in January 1988 what difference her being president made. Whereas they had received rice and sugar free, they now paid, as they did for their water. Wages had risen marginally. The general opinion was that the horses ate better than they did.

The challenge to economic power remains central to really altering the lives of millions. Without such a challenge the prospect of greater inequality, and a constant and vicious military threat, remains. Yet the globalisation of capital also makes possible a return to the ideas of permanent revolution which Karl Marx pointed to as long ago as 1848. Benedict Anderson stops short of such analysis, and seems to point often to simply a national solution to the problems of the region. At the same time his book contains much of the information needed to understand the problems confronting such a path.
*The Spectre of Comparisons
Benedict Anderson, Verso 13

Cory Aquino presented herself as the 'ordinary housewife'. In fact she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the Filipino ruling class.

The Spectre of Comparisons

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