Wednesday, September 15, 1999

Why socialists call for troops in East Timor

Why socialists call for troops in East Timor
By Lisbeth Latham and Zanny Begg

A debate amongst the left has developed over the way to stop the violence in East Timor. Resistance demands an immediate armed intervention by the United Nations or Australian troops to force the withdrawal of the Indonesian military and disarm the militias. This demand is summarised by the chant at the demonstrations: "UN in, Indonesia out now!". Some on the left have argued against calling for UN/Australian troops to go into East Timor because they claim it would strengthen the hand of imperialism, not stop the bloodshed and sow illusions in the UN or the Australian government.

None of these arguments are true.

Strengthen imperialism?
Both the Australian government and the UN have said that they won't send troops to stop the slaughter until the Indonesian government accepts an international intervention.

The hesitancy to intervene reflects the Australian government's continuing support for the Indonesian regime. Rather than strengthening the hand of imperialism, sending troops in runs directly counter to the interests and wishes of imperialist countries like Australia, which do not want to undermine the power or authority of the Indonesian military.

Instead of an immediate armed intervention, Western governments have hinted that economic sanctions might be imposed on Indonesia. This would be ineffectual in stopping the bloodshed, and could even strengthen the Indonesian regime politically.

Sanctions would create the conditions for right-wing forces to whip up nationalist fervour. Forces in Indonesia which support independence for East Timor, such as the People's Democratic Party (PRD), would be targeted for further attack. The PRD has argued that sanctions would weaken the movement supporting East Timor, because the Islamic forces within the movement oppose sanctions.

Economic sanctions would punish the Indonesian people for the actions of their government, a government that the majority rejected in this year's election.

Stopping the bloodshed
An armed intervention by the UN or Australia to stop the bloodshed, force the withdrawal of the military and disarm the militias would place the resistance in a better position to continue its struggle for independence. If the Indonesian army is able to get away with its campaign of terror, it will be a massive setback for the East Timorese and could allow the Indonesian military to impose its version of a "final solution".

An armed intervention could halt the Indonesian policy of genocide by providing physical protection to the East Timorese. It is the only policy which can halt the massacre in the short term.

The massive solidarity movement with East Timor which has swelled onto the streets puts extra moral pressure on the Australian government. If it did send in troops, people would expect them to halt the slaughter. Anything less would expose the collaboration with the Indonesian regime and provoke a major crisis of confidence in the Australian government.

But stopping the slaughter in East Timor brings the Australian government into conflict with the Indonesian regime, a scenario Howard and Downer are keen to avoid.

While immediate intervention is against the intentions of the Australian government, it is possible for it to be forced to intervene by mass pressure from the Australian people. This would require the mobilisation of thousands in street protests. Such pressure would demonstrate to the government that the domestic costs of not intervening are higher than the gains.

It is only by placing these demands on the Australian government that socialists are able to highlight the contradiction between the governments claim to support democracy and the reality of its support for repression throughout Indonesia and East Timor.

If the movement is strong enough to force an intervention, it would be a massive victory  -  not just for struggle for East Timorese independence, but for all solidarity movements in Australia.

Failure to raise a demand that pressures the Australian government to take concrete action immediately to stop the killing would be a major mistake. If the killing continues at the present rate, there will be no time for diplomacy, trade union bans or other avenues to force the withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

Sowing illusions?
The demand "Troops in!" highlights the role of the Australian government and the UN in blocking action to end the bloodshed. Rather then sowing illusions, it will expose the unwillingness of capitalist governments to stop thousands of people being slaughtered.

The heroic 24-year struggle of the East Timorese people has already forced major concessions from Indonesia and imperialist governments. Even holding the UN-sponsored ballot was a concession won by years of struggle, and driven forward by the strength of the democracy movement in Indonesia.

At each step, the hypocrisy of the UN has been revealed to people all over the world. In 1991 people demanded to know why the UN was prepared to go to war in Iraq, when it was unwilling to lift a finger to save East Timor. During the war in Kosova people wondered why NATO countries like the US and Britain waged war to "save" the Albanians when they were not prepared to save East Timor and in fact assisted the Indonesian military.

If the solidarity movements and the liberation struggle in East Timor are powerful enough to force the UN or the Australian government to intervene, they will gain confidence that they have the power to force them to act elsewhere. A victory for the East Timorese would encourage the struggle against imperialism world over.

September 15, 1999
Originally published in Green Left Weekly #376


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