Subject: Max Lane: East Timor, Iraq and Ramos Horta: the failures of the diplomatic memory

Subject: [asap] East Timor, Iraq and Ramos Horta

East Timor, Iraq and Ramos Horta: the failures of the diplomatic memory

By Max Lane

The article by Jose Ramos Horta defending the "aggressive strategy" of the US administration of George W Bush towards Iraq is not a surprise. Horta's approach to diplomacy throughout the struggle for East Timor's independence was always based on offering assurances to Washington that an independent East Timor would be friendly towards US interests. This approach was bound to lead to major defects of memory (and analysis) once Independence was achieved. These defects are most evident in his article "War for Peace? It worked in My Country", published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age on February 25.

Foreign Minister Horta tries in his article do equate the case of Iraq with that of East Timor. Of course, in this he follows in the footsteps of John Howard and Alexander Downer. Horta states: "In 1999, a global peacekeeping force helped East Timor secure its independence and protect its people." The truth is that the peacekeeping force, INTERFET, played no role in either securing East Timorese independence or protecting its people. INTERFET soldiers arrived in East Timor AFTER the Indonesian government and military had agreed to respect the referendum and withdraw. When INTERFET did arrive, they took no action to prevent some final acts of destruction by Jakarta forces. INTERFET's main role was to help rebuild some of the East Timorese damaged infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.

Throughout the struggle for East Timorese independence, right up until the arrival of INTERFET, the primary force that was exerted to defeat Suharto and then the Indonesian military was the mass street action by the peoples of East Timor, Indonesia, Australia and Portugal. In this struggle, the threat of military force played no role.

There were four major turning points in the struggle for East Timorese independence.

The first was mass demonstration in Dili in November, 1991 which ended with the Santa Cruz massacre. This demonstration and the televised massacre, which was the culmination of a series of demonstrations, including one during the visit to Dili of the Pope a year earlier, revived East Timor as an issue for international public opinion. The previous level of lobbying and other state level diplomacy in the United Nations had in the meanwhile totally failed to have any serious impact.

The second turning point was the mass upheaval in Indonesia in early 1998. The Indonesian student led anti-dictatorship movement forced the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship and its replacement by a much weaker government under continuing pressure to democratise and demilitarise.

Another wave of mass demonstrations took place in November 1998 demanding, among other things, a reduction on the role of the military in Indonesian politics. Facing a deep economic crisis and mass pressure for reform on many different fronts, and receiving advice from figures outside the old Suharto ruling circles, President Habibie decided to allow the United Nations to hold a referendum in East Timor. If the students had not overthrown Suharto, it is very possible that Xanana may still be in jail and East Timor still occupied.

The third turning point was the incredibly courageous mass mobilisation of East Timorese in the face of violent opposition by the Jakarta backed militia to participate in the campaign for the referendum and in the vote in September, 1999.

The fourth turning point was the mass protests in Australia and Portugal demanding international intervention in East Timor as a response to the Indonesian military's scorched earth policy and the mass forced deportations and the militia's violent attacks and murder of pro-Independence people.

In Australia, demonstrations escalated in size from a few hundred to more than 50,000 in Sydney and Melbourne each within just a six days. These mobilisations were not only driven by a sense of solidarity with the East Timorese people but with intense and growing anger with the Australian government for its inaction. This was an anger which had acumulated over two decades of inaction and complicity. These demonstrations threatened to escalate into even larger and angrier demonstrations, drawing in the trade unions, if the Australian government continued its defence of Jakarta and the Indonesian military. Howard lobbied Washington frantically to pressure Habibie to allow international forces to enter East Timor in order to stave of a political crisis in Australia.

Habibie made his decision not because of fear of some overhwelming military force about to descend on East Timor from Darwin. Habibie's decision was a response by a weak and crisis ridden government desperately looking for international support. It was threatened with increasing isolation as Western capitals, especially Washington and Canberra, were faced with rapidly increasing hostility from a mobilised public opinion.

So the INTERFET forces arrived in East Timor as a volunteer construction team and a border patrol unit. In this role, INTERFET has been involved in no military offensives and only in very rare exchanges of fire with remnant militias.

So it was neither the threat of force nor state level diplomatic lobbying that were crucial in this struggle. The failure of state level diplomatic lobbying was reflected most vividly in the incredible passivity of Washington and Canberra in the aftermath of the September 1999 referendum. Both Clinton and Howard were willing to accept the implementation of the scorched earth policy and the mass deportations in East Timor. Perhaps - but only perhaps - they may have later insisted in East Timorese independence, after the damage was done. In the meantime, it was the mass protests in Sydney, Melbourne and Lisbon that forced an end to that rampage.

There are obvious other differences between the case of Iraq and East Timor. Perhaps the most important is that the leadership of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), which represented close to 100% of the massive pro-independence popular sentiment, supported the campaign for an international intervention.

In Iraq today, there is no clear overwhelming call from the Iraqi people for the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to invade, overthrow the regime, and set-up a temporary US military administration. Opposition groups in Iraq are divided on this question with many groups opposing the US plans. Furthermore it is impossible to say who has popular support and who does not.

The real lesson from the East Timor case is that democratic political change, including national liberation, will come about as a result of the oppressed people themselves organising and mobilising an opposition. The US "aggressive strategy", pursued by Bush and by Clinton earlier in the form of the embargo on Iraq, has in fact held back such a process.

The embargo and the bombing of the so-called no-fly zones have driven Iraqi society so dramatically backwards, socially and economically. Survival, rather than the struggle for democratic change, has become the necessary focus of so many people in Iraq. This, combined with pressures to unite to overcome the US driven, embargo and bombings, has strengthened the repressive regime in Baghdad rather than strengthened any struggle for change.

Iraq has long ceased to be a military threat to any of its neighbors. Its armed forces are half the strength they were at the time of the invasion of Kuwait. They are also much more poorly equipped. Iraq has no industrial infrastructure to back an aggressive military policy. Countries like Kuwait are now defended by the militarily superior United States.

Meanwhile we have the statements by earlier UN arms inspectors such as Scott Ritter that Iraq has been effectively disarmed of weapons of mass destruction. Even the French and German governments, in their current memorandum submitted to the UN Security Council, state that there is no evidence that Iraq continues to possess such weapons. On this last aspect, Foreign Minister Horta has swallowed holus bolus Washington's version of reality.

Horta cannot tell apples from oranges. Howard, Downer and Co. want us all to believe that apples are oranges. To date, the mass of people in Australia have not been confused by this deception (except for a few people here and there on the Left). When hundreds of thousands of people - including no doubt all those who came out for East Timor in 1999 - demonstrated around Australia against the US, UK, Australian invasion of Iraq, they voted with their feet against this spurious attempt to equate the case of East Timor and Iraq. It was good to see that such protests also took place in East Timor last February 15 as well.

[Max Lane chaired the 50,000 strong demonstration in Hyde Park, Sydney on September 11, 1999 demanding that Australia and the United Nations send troops to East Timor. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS), University of Wollongong. He is also the national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific.]

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