Subject: GLW/E.Timor: Independence poses new challenges

Green Left Weekly May 22, 2002.

EAST TIMOR: Independence poses new challenges

BY JON LAND [Picture]

As the official festivities wind down in East Timor following the May 20 independence celebrations and the international dignitaries fly back to their comfortable and privileged lifestyles, a beckoning question for most East Timorese remains, what does independence hold?

The plethora of government heads, former prime ministers and presidents who gathered in Dili for the May 20 independence celebrations would like to think they played the main role in East Timor gaining independence. However, most of their governments for 24 years blocked — or at best ignored — the East Timorese nation's struggle for self-determination.

The triumph of the East Timorese can first and foremost be attributed to their own efforts. Two other important factors proved decisive though. Firstly, the dramatic political upheavals sparked by pro-democracy activists and organisations within Indonesia that toppled the dictator Suharto. Secondly, the support from an international solidarity network that challenged and forced the big Western powers to change their hypocritical policies towards East Timor.

The East Timorese resistance to Portuguese colonial rule was stimulated by the anti-colonial struggles that gripped the world in the 1960s and 70s.

Though largely cut-off from what was happening in other parts of the world, young (and not-so-young) radicals, intellectuals and sections of the urban East Timorese elite started to organise against colonial rule. They became the backbone of the new national independence movement, primarily embodied by the political party Fretilin, which espoused the creation of a new East Timor based on egalitarian principles, free from all forms of oppression and injustice.

It is these principles which kept alive the hopes of the East Timorese people during the Indonesian military occupation after 1975. While most of the key leaders of the independence movement where murdered or disappeared in the first brutal decade of the Indonesian military occupation (along with around one third of the entire population), new forms of resistance created by youth and students arose to compliment the guerilla struggle.

The oppression of the East Timorese was dramatically brought to light by the bravery of thousands of young East Timorese who marched through the streets of Dili on November 12, 1991. Hundreds were gunned down or beaten by heavily armed Indonesian soldiers, supplied with weapons and training by the United States, Australia, Britain and other supporters of the Suharto dictatorship.

This incident galvanised existing solidarity organisations internationally and gave birth to new groups committed to supporting East Timor. The plight of East Timor was increasingly popularised during the 1990s through the work of many dedicated activists.

At the same time, the democracy movement in Indonesia began to directly defy military rule. The most radical section of this movement — led by the Peoples Democratic Party — openly supported self-determination for East Timor, and worked closely with East Timorese student and worker activists living in Indonesia.

It was this campaign on three fronts — within East Timor, within Indonesia and internationally — that forced the holding of a United Nations-sponsored referendum on independence in September 1999. It was also the momentum from this campaign that mobilised hundreds of thousands across the world demanding UN military intervention to stop the post-referendum carnage and defend the East Timorese people's rejection of incorporation into Indonesia.

Now that this chapter of struggle has passed, a new, daunting challenge confronts East Timor. As it slowly overcomes the distortions and contradictions created by the presence of the UN administration, East Timor looks set to become the newest victim of the neo-liberal policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on underdeveloped countries.

East Timor is an incredibly impoverished country. The National Human Development Report on East Timor released on May 13 by the United Nations Development Program reveals the extent of the country's underdevelopment. East Timor's GDP per capita is estimated at US$478, with nearly half the population living on less than US$0.55 per day. Life expectancy is 57 years and only 41% of the population is literate.

At the international donors meeting held in Dili on May 14-15, representatives from the IMF and World Bank, under the guise of “economic stabilisation”, stressed the need for further privatisation, lowering of wages and increasing indirect taxes.

It is difficult to conceive how such an economic plan will benefit East Timor, faced with the decline in GDP growth from around 18% to a projected negative growth rate of -2% this year. While donors pledged $US360 million over the next three years to help with the budget shortfall, it remains unclear whether this will be sufficient and what economic and social policies East Timor will be pressured to implement so as to receive this pledge in full.

Around half the recurrent budget expenditure is slated for spending on social welfare and development, but even this amount will barely stretch to meet enormous needs in education, health and basic infrastructure such as housing, roads, power and communications.

Key areas of the East Timorese economy are under threat from foreign countries or companies. Australia is seeking to undermine East Timor's control over oil and gas in the Timor Sea. Portuguese and US interests dominate coffee production while smaller Australian and south-east Asian capitalists have a stronghold in the construction, service and retail sectors (though services and retail will suffer the most with the departure of UN administrative staff).

In a solidarity statement for the May 20 independence day celebrations, Max Lane, national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, commented that: “We witness today the rapacious, arrogant and unjust efforts by the giant financial corporations, the international financial institutions and governments such as those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia to enforce neo-liberal policies on the Third World...

“We stand with the East Timorese people in any struggles they have with the Australian government, greedy Australian corporations, or the IMF and World Bank.

“We are with the East Timorese peoples' struggle, not just up until winning an independent political state but until a full and just society has been achieved.”

From Green Left Weekly, May 22, 2002.

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