One year after the independence referendum: Which way for East Timor?

"It looks more like a capitalist hell". Jean Duval is analyzing the situation in East Timor one year after the independence referendum.

It is staggering to see how one and the same thing, the prospect of independence, can mean such different things to different people. An Australian businessman sipping his beer in the waterfront garden of his Hotel in Dili has his own vision of East-Timor's future. "You wait. This place will take off. It needs to be a tax haven, a Swiss banking set-up it will be low taxation and open to foreign investors. The place will boom. Tourism will be the biggest industry. There will be at least one casino and eco-tourism will be strong". Favoro, the deputy head of Dili's chamber of commerce says that in 10 years, East Timor will be an upmarket Bali with five star resorts. "You will be able to sit on a luxury hotel in the mountains in the middle of a coffee plantation and sip cognac by the fire into the early hours."

The arrival of almost 10.000 United Nations peacekeepers and UN personnel has transformed the capital Dili. Six months after the Indonesian military, police and their pro-integration militias looted and destroyed almost everything of value in the city it is acquiring facilities usually seen in Asian resorts. Entrepreneurs are targeting the wallets of UN staff most of them are on salaries and allowances of US$50,000 a year.

A journalist visiting the island in the spring gives the following description. "Take a helicopter flight across the half-island territory - US$300 for 10 minutes. Sit on the beach front sipping lattes and eating fresh bagel sandwiches. Take a bay cruise with Wombat Charters (full moon special recommended). Eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast and lashes of bacon at the old UN compound where last September die-hard UN staff, journalist and Timorese refugees huddled under gunfire, existing for days off meagre rations and sleeping on concrete. Or as the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, did on his recent visit, enjoy good food and wine served in the ruins of a burnt-out house, one of more than a dozen restaurants in a town that a few months ago had none."

Meat, vegetables and alcohol is shipped from the nearby Australian city of Darwin. Near the old governor's office, there is now a supermarket called "Hello Mister" offering gourmet goodies from Australia. Businesses, mostly Australian have sprung up everywhere offering car hire, travel services, building materials and plumbing services.

Dili looks like a boom town. At weekends the new bars, the two floating hotels and restaurants in a city where previously there had never been any before are packed. Volvos and BMW ply the streets. People from all over the world have rushed to this mini-state carrying laptops and mobile telephones. The big spending UN staff has created a very big bubble (UN spending is now accounting for 20% of GDP), a false economic boom that is fuelling inflation and a lot of social frustration.

Now listen to the plight of the ordinary Timorese. Look at the class abyss dividing East Timor. Food is too dear for them. The consumer price-index has jumped by 200% from August to October 1999. There are no jobs and almost no houses for them. 70% of all buildings and houses have been destroyed by the Indonesian army and the militias.

Thousands have been killed by the Jakarta sponsored paramilitaries. 120,000 are still languishing in camps in West Timor (Indonesian territory). They are held as hostages by the militias who fled after the arrival of the INTERFET (Australian led UN intervention in East Timor) troops and cannot go back to their villages. The militias and the Indonesian army also use those camps as recruiting and training grounds. West Timor is also becoming the staging area for raids into the East. Tens of thousands of other Timorese who have been kidnapped, forced at gun point into ships, planes and dumped in other parts of Indonesia are part of a new diaspora.

Most of the Timorese in Dili, whose size has doubled since one year, live in plastic shelters or in roofless ruins. The first houses to be rebuilt have been for the UN staff and aid agencies. In the residential areas where the former Indonesian military officers and high ranking bureaucrats lived, their empty houses are guarded by UN troops with the aim of keeping local people out of them. Those villas are kept aside for the new rich. They could house thousands of homeless Timorese. The lavish lifestyles of the new "foreign invaders" cannot hide the fact that East Timor is one of the 10 poorest countries of the world.

The major source of worker dissatisfaction is the disparity in working conditions between local and international labour. The guidelines for the employment of local workers by humanitarian agencies specify that the wage differentials for workers described as "unskilled" must be between 20 and 25,000 Rp per day (5/6US$). The so-called international workers are paid much more.

"Unskilled" workers include those employed as wharf labourers (the Australian name for dock workers), security guards, distribution workers, cleaners and office 'boys'. Dock workers for instance enjoy little job security. They are hired on a first-come-first-served basis each day and depend entirely on the schedule of the ships. On the docks they are expected to carry 50 kg bags of rice. They are paid 20,000 Rp a day. It is no accident that in these conditions outbursts of workers' protests against discrimination and poor conditions, and even riots, have been on the increase in East Timor.

With the destruction of the economy as a result of the scorched earth policy of the military backed militias in September, the United Nations Transitional Administration, the foreign non government organisations and a handful of foreign owned businesses have become the main employers.

One senior official of the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance composed of 21 disparate political parties) draws the following conclusion: "I think it is very obvious that East Timorese are becoming more and more marginalised. It is almost as though an elite world has been created by the UN expatriate community."

In March of this year 800 job seekers asking information about their job applications for the new administration had to confront UN anti-riot troops armed with riot shields, tear gas canisters and batons brought there to quell the demonstrators. The job seekers were angry at the prospect of violence being used against them equating it with life under the Portuguese and Indonesian rule.

When the workers of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) organised by the Socialist Workers Alliance of Timor linked to the Timorese Socialist Party asked for better pay and job security their demands were arrogantly dismissed by the UNHCR with the view that it could still dismiss recalcitrant workers and easily find replacements among the many unemployed.

The peasantry still represents 75% of the population and lives from hand to mouth subsistence farming. Agricultural potential for self sufficiency has been seriously hampered by a deliberate policy of Indonesian colonial rule. Whole areas of fertile land and valleys have been transformed in no man's land in the 25 year long struggle against the Timorese guerrillas. Moreover a lot of water buffaloes have been massacred by the militias knowing their vital role in rice production.

The most fertile land are still in the hands of big landowners. Members of this social class are often descendants of the most powerful Portuguese colonialists such as Joao Carrascalao, a former Indonesian appointed governor of East Timor, leader of the right wing political party UDT - Democratic Union of Timor and minister in the UN transitional administration. He owns large coffee plantations and forests of coconut trees. He is part of some 20 to 30 dominant families in East Timor who form the local oligarchy of bureaucrats, landowners, businessmen and professional politicians, who concentrate all the economic power in this half of the island.

The two main sources of foreign revenue are the high quality "arabica coffee" and the oil and gas rich sea-bed between Timor and Australia. Under Indonesian rule a treaty was agreed giving large concessions to Australia in exchange for the diplomatic recognition of the annexation of East Timor. This Timor Gap treaty is now considered illegal and is being renegotiated. Great hopes have been raised by this in terms of extra revenue: A$200 million in oil revenue and A$300 million from natural gas are expected. Although much depends on the development of the Northern Territory around Darwin in Australia. The capacity to further industrialise and to widen the infrastructure around Darwin will determine the capacity of East Timor to take advantage of its rich sea-bed. In any case East Timor will become extremely dependent on the oil and gas multinationals and the economic policies of the Australian government and businesses. Rich oil and gas resources do not automatically mean general prosperity.

One need only look at the situation in Nigeria in Africa. This oil rich territory is exploited by multinationals like Shell, Agip, Exxon and others. Despite this Nigeria is a country with a broken back: a collapsing infrastructure, a permanent energy crisis (regular electric power cuts, scarcity of fuel), and generalised poverty. Despite its richness in mineral and agricultural resources the standard of living has dropped drastically over the past twenty years. In this period average per capita income has fallen from US$1000 to $300 per year. It has become one of the poorest countries in the world. In this situation the danger of ethnic conflict is the result of the imperialist exploitation of Nigeria's resources. No other fate awaits the masses of the newly independent East Timor under capitalism.

International donors have also pledged half a billion US dollars for the reconstruction of this small country. It leaves no doubt that the first to benefit from those handouts will be the local oligarchy. The masses only see the crumbs. Moreover it is generally accepted that East Timor will be on aid drip for at least 20 years.

Among a population of 800,000 there are only 35 doctors, none of which are specialists or surgeons. Expatriate workers always have the option of being cared for in special clinics for foreigners or of being evacuated to Darwin in case of serious illness. However this is not an option for the population in general who suffers all kind of diseases linked to their deplorable conditions and which could easily be prevented. Malaria and dengue (haemorrhagic fever) are still rampant.

An American volunteer in health-care is angry at the World Bank. "They have sent a representative down. He listens to the long list of immediate crises we're facing here - no medicine, no doctors, no anything - then he launches into this speech about how important it is to make sure health care is privatised. Before it can be privatised it has to exist." (Quoted in Estafeta, Voice of the East Timor Action Network/US, volume 6, no. 2, Summer 2000.) This is the extent of the madness and short-sightedness of the arrogant World Bank policy makers.

Inge Lempe an accredited International Federation for East Timor observer of last year's vote said: "The Indonesian military's 'scorched earth' departure from East Timor leaves - even a year later - most East Timorese scratching to make a living. The U.N. and other international organisations seem more concerned with their own standard of living, rather than with helping East Timor. Most youth are without jobs and lack skills. Most of the money spent in East Timor goes to foreigners gambling on making a quick buck. The East Timorese feel themselves as onlookers rather than partners with the UN-mission."

The establishment of a National Council consisting of representatives of East Timorese political parties to assist the Transitional Administration is only meant to appease some of these criticisms. Full decision making power is still in the hands of the UN administrators.

One year after the referendum and the Australian led United Nations invasion of East Timor it has become crystal clear that the so-called "international community" is developing a very different set of priorities than what the peasant and workers masses, the guerrilla fighters of the Falintil have been hoping and struggling for.

All this is not accidental, nor can it be solved by "feeling more empathy" for the fate of ordinary East Timorese, as Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner advised UN staff on a recent visit to the island. It is rooted in the imperialist nature of the United Nations and its intervention last year. The first task of the United Nations mission is to rebuild a colonial style state administration. It does not come as a surprise when the UN administration is often referred to as a "patronising machine".

In other words the UN's priority has been the reconstruction of a bourgeois state apparatus able to guarantee IMF, World Bank, US and Australian strategic and business interests. In this process they are very suspicious of independent grass root organisations. Those organisations had temporarily taken over local administration and state functions such as policing and elementary justice in some parts of the island in the immediate aftermath of the Indonesian withdrawal in September 1999. A leaked internal bulletin of the UNTAET revealed this "hidden agenda" of what progressive NGO's describe as effective "disempowerment" of ordinary East Timorese people.

"CNRT has also been organising security brigades with the task of preventing possible actions from part of the militias. With the arrival of Interfet and CivPol (civilian police) the CNRT involvement in security aspects should progressively be reduced, so that all security and police functions should be completely handed over."

This same report also notes that "CNRT involvement in distribution of humanitarian assistance is being extremely important due to the fact that the NGO's have been incapable of organising food distribution" It recommends that CNRT involvement be reduced because "their direct involvement creates pressure from the population." It concludes, 'It would be desirable that UN agencies and NGO's start to follow more directly (or through the creation of local NGO's) the distribution of humanitarian assistance" A similar report from another region notes that "CNRT have the strong support and trust of the majority of the population and are highly co-ordinated and efficient in their management of programs". It finally recommends that UNTAET take over that role: "It is essential that civil affairs quickly develops a stronger presence in the district so that UNTAET is seen as the administrative authority." This has been the national pattern all over the country.

The revelations of this report are in sharp contradiction with the UN claim that their presence is justified to train local Timorese in all the necessary state, administrative and other logistic skills. Those skills already exist amongst East Timorese activists. What they are doing in reality is to select, train and mould a new and more docile layer of civil servants, technicians, policemen, military and diplomats who will be loyal to the system.

The choice of the official language and national currency also reveals the class nature and the independence of the newly built state. The United Nations with the support of the CNRT has chosen Portuguese as the official language where only 8% of the population speaks and understands it. The overwhelming majority speaks only Tetum which is the language of the peasants and the workers, whereas Portuguese is the language of the new oligarchy.

The national currency is everywhere the affirmation of national sovereignty and independence and its emission one of the first prerogatives of a state. It will come as no surprise that the US dollar has been adopted again by the UN as the new "national currency". It reveals the real extent of independence of East Timor. The poor, the peasants and the workers are still using the Indonesian Rupiah which is of course refused in the new bars, restaurants and supermarkets who only accept Australian and American dollars.

The leaders of the CNRT without any exception are going through this process of assimilation although with criticism, objections and each of them with a different rhythm but without any fundamental resistance to it. Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic commander of the Falintil, the guerrilla army is going down the same road as Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He changed his Marxist rhetoric and military fatigues for adherence to the "free market" and the suite of a professional bourgeois politician. Ramos Horta the Nobel prize winner is on the same track.

Even the leaders of the most left wing of the parties, the Timorese Socialist Party, whose activists are courageously building independent workers and farmers organisations are intoxicated by the idea of national unity, this is class collaboration in the name of the reconstruction of the country. The class policy which they are advocating on the union field should also be applied to the political field in denouncing the UN for its imperialist role and in breaking with the policy of national unity and reconciliation.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation its General Secretary, Avelino de Silva, said that he was not opposed to a free market but that he did not like current investments on the island.

The PST leaders are pushed by the UN to play more and more the role of mediator between angry workers and the UN administration or the new businesses. The UN administration is cleverly trying to lean on the PST leaders to appease social frustration and channel it into safe forms of expression. A crystallisation of a local labour bureaucracy is actively stimulated by the UN specialists. This attempt will inevitably lead to internal tensions inside this party of one thousand activists who have been joined mainly by young people and some old Fretilin cadres of the 70's.

The August congress of the CNRT consisting mainly of the two factions of the UDT and the Fretilin (the political wing of the guerrillas) has seen the latter losing terrain to the advantage of the right wing UDT and the newly formed Social Democratic Party headed by Ramos-Horta. In the name of "national unity" and "reconciliation" the right wing seems to be getting the upper hand. But the situation is still very tense. The CNRT could explode at any moment in time when it will be tested in a national government after the UN withdrawal scheduled in one year.

UDT and Fretilin where literally at each other's throats in 1975 after the Portuguese revolution. It was then that we saw the beginnings of civil war which could have easily led to the establishment of a new little Cuba in the Pacific.

Since the US backed Indonesian invasion, the UDT has become a stooge of the brutal rule of Jakarta. It helped the military to hunt down the Falintil guerrillas through a network of spies and collaborators. They were part of the provincial administration set up by the military. Those wounds have not been healed. It is probable that in the future on the basis of growing frustration with the bitter fruits of independence, exacerbated class conflicts will erupt into a civil war type situation.

The second greatest danger for the security and stability are still the Jakarta sponsored militias. The Indonesian army is still arming and protecting them. In reality those militias are nothing without the support of the Indonesian army. They would rapidly dissolve. The Indonesian army still uses them to destabilise East Timor as a warning to the other restive national groups composing Indonesia and who want to separate like Irian Jaya and Aceh. They are also an instrument of the revengeful Suharto clan. Let's not forget that East Timor was the second province in Indonesia with the largest land holdings of the Suharto family. Those militias want 20% of the territory of East Timor in an effort for a new partition of the island. This percentage of the territory is claimed by them because 20% voted against independence.. Some hundred skirmishes have been recorded since last year.

Their border activity has never been so great as in the last few months. Two UN soldiers have been killed in a recent clash. Up to 150 militiamen in eight or 10 gangs are operating in East Timor. The Falintil guerrillas who have kept their arms but stayed in UN supervised barracks are threatening to strike back and hunt the militias down into West Timor. They are growing impatient with the inefficiency of the UN soldiers to protect their newly established borders. It may even be possible that some Falintil units start to freelance and leave their barracks if the UN does not act quickly. To appease the Falintil the UN is promising to use them as scouts in the mountainous border area. It is also said that the Falintil will form the core of new East Timorese army of some 3 to 5000 men.

Hunting down the Jakarta militias into West Timor, as threatened by Xanana Gusmao would be considered by Indonesia as an "invasion" leading to a period of bloody attacks and counter attacks in which the UN will be forced to protect the border and to act against the same East Timorese who considered them as their saviours only a while ago. This is a nightmare scenario, a deadly trap for Australia and New Zealand who provide the bulk of the troops for the United Nations in East Timor. More and more voices are calling for what they call "an exit strategy" before their armies become embroiled in a new war where they would be fighting both the Indonesian army and the Falintil guerrillas.

Australia in particular, which is trying to play a more assertive regional imperialist role as a deputy of the United States, dislikes the idea of being dragged into a long and painful occupation of East Timor. The former Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott warned almost a year ago that "we are now facing a peacemaking; and later a peacekeeping force in East Timor for at least a decade" (International Herald Tribune, 25/26 September 1999). Not only will it drain important military resources - an increase of the military budget has already been proposed - but the popular support for the Interfet operation will rapidly disappear when they will turn their weapons against the Timorese guerrillas.

East Timor is not only sitting astride of the developments in Indonesia and Australia geographically, but also politically. Its fate is at the cross-roads of the Indonesian and Australian socialist revolution. Its ability to develop the oil and gas potential in the interests of the peasants and the working class depends on the industry and technology of Australia. On a capitalist basis it can only mean greater foreign dependence than ever before. A socialist Australia would build a harmonious and equal relationship with East Timor based on a transfer of technology and skills in the interests of the masses and not of the multinationals.

The capacity to defeat the permanent policy of destabilisation of the Indonesian army and the Suharto cronies via the proxy militias will be greatly enhanced by the struggle of the Indonesian students, workers and peasants in the thousands of other islands.

The left forces in East Timor, the PST in particular, but also in Australia and Indonesia have to bring forward a real internationalist and socialist perspective. It is impossible, as the PST leadership appears to want to do, to separate the struggle to free East Timor from foreign occupation and the struggle against capitalism from the struggle for socialism. The future of East Timor under capitalism and the UN is simply one of exchanging one form of dependency for another. Policy advisers in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra predict" the emergence of a chronically aid-dependent state where rival members of the elite are at each other's throats, corruption is endemic and the government cannot deliver basic services. There are even fears that East Timor will eventually become disenchanted with the Western world and align itself with despotic states creating a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers on Australia's doorstep." (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 august 2000).

The evolution of neighbouring Papua New Guinea into a sick and weak gangster state at the verge of collapse must be a serious warning. Most bourgeois commentators refer to the oil and gas resources as a guarantee against a Fiji or Papua New Guinea-like future. Under a bourgeois system of international and national capitalist relations this is no guarantee at all. Quite the contrary! The exploitation of gold mines (some of the biggest in the world) of Irian Jaya (West Papua) by the Rio Tinto multinational has not transformed this part of the island into a paradise. It looks more like a capitalist hell. East Timor, in a voluntary and democratic socialist federation with Indonesia and Australia could develop to something very near to a paradise.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.