Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Why socialists called for troops to Timor

By Lisbeth Latham

With the United Nations intervention in East Timor underway, the debate among left activists over what were the correct demands in response to the slaughter in East Timor continues.

There is general agreement on the need to force the Indonesian army (TNI) to withdraw from East Timor and disarm the militias, and that the Australian government must end military ties with the Indonesian regime, withdraw recognition of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and recognise East Timor as an independent country.

The disagreement revolves around whether it was correct to call on the Australian government and the UN to send troops into East Timor to stop the bloodshed.

Resistance supported UN troops being sent into East Timor for three reasons:

  • It was a way in which to force the immediate withdrawal of Indonesian troops and allow East Timor to be independent;
  • It would stop the genocide of the East Timorese;
  • It would undermine the Australian government's alliance with the Indonesian regime, weaken the Indonesian military and strengthen the struggle for democracy in Indonesia.

Was the call for "troops in" correct? This needs to be judged by the results of the demand being met. Only a few days after the intervention was announced, the TNI said it would withdraw 80% of its personnel from East Timor. This was a victory for the East Timorese people and marked a stalling of TNI's campaign. It is vital that pressure is maintained to ensure that a complete withdrawal occurs as rapidly as possible.

The International Socialist Organisation (ISO) at first argued that the demand for "troops in" could not be met as the Australian government and the UN had no wish to act against the Indonesian regime. When the mass actions around Australia did force Howard to send troops, the ISO argued that the dispatch of UN troops would result in:

  • UN troops participating in the slaughter of the East Timorese and acting to create a dependent client state;
  • Australians developing illusions in the capacity of the United Nations and Australian imperialism to conduct humanitarian interventions; and
  • A decline in the East Timor solidarity movement.

Role of international troops
The deployment of Australian troops into East Timor was an attempt to quell mass discontent at the Australian government's failure to act to stop TNI's terror campaign against the East Timorese. In these circumstances, it would not have helped Canberra to achieve its goal if the UN troops allowed the slaughter to continue.

Trying to turn its defeat into a victory, the Howard government is claiming that it always intended to intervene. By arguing that the government actually wanted to send troops to East Timor (and that it must therefore serve the interests of imperialism rather than the East Timorese) the ISO has swallowed Howard's lies. This illustrates the ISO's lack of confidence in the capacity of mass mobilisations to change the policies of governments.

The ISO's assertion that Western countries such as Australia will try to exploit an independent East Timor following the intervention is true. But Australia does not need troops there to do this; it is already happening. Australian businesses benefit most from profits resulting from the Timor Gap Treaty.

To argue that the Australian government, or any other Western government, requires troops on the ground to make East Timor economically dependent ignores the reality that underdeveloped countries are economically tied to, and exploited by, the imperialist countries. This dominance will continue until there are successful anti-capitalist revolutions, not just in the Third World, but also in the imperialist countries.

Building illusions in the UN?
The argument that to call on the Australian government and/or the UN to send troops into East Timor "sows illusions" in these institutions is wrong. Through building a movement around specific demands which will solve the problems, we can expose the oppressive nature of capitalist institutions.

While the ISO supports demanding that the government junk its repressive industrial relations legislation and university fees, it opposes calling on the government to send troops to halt the slaughter in East Timor. What is the difference between demanding government action domestically and internationally?

In both cases, Resistance calls on the government to act in the interests of working people. While forcing a government to grant reforms can generate illusions in the capacity of capitalism to meet society's needs, the socialist movement's role is to point out that such reforms are only concessions, which the government will attempt to take back when the movement is not so strong.

Active involvement in mobilising large numbers of people to win, defend and extend such reforms can break people's illusions in the benevolence of the capitalist state. To refuse to place demands on the government would mean that we abstain from the battle to change people's consciousness.

UN intervention or union bans
The argument that calling on the UN/Australia to intervene in East Timor is counterposed to trade union activity is totally false. Unions engaged in industrial action and supported the mass protests calling for armed intervention. Union bans alone would have taken months to affect the Indonesian regime. The East Timorese people did not have months to spare.

The ISO demand for a general strike to stop the slaughter in East Timor was absurd and it had no support. An ISO rally with this demand only attracted a handful of people. If a general strike did take place  -  something Resistance would welcome  -  what would be its central demand? According to the ISO, it would be "more union bans". Focusing exclusively on trade union bans let the Australian government off the hook because it placed no demands on the Howard government to stop the slaughter.

The ISO have said that troops going into East Timor risked further bloodshed. This concedes to the pacifist argument that all violence is bad. It ignores the fact that the East Timorese were facing genocide.

The only practical way to end the slaughter immediately was to send an armed force strong enough to counter the TNI and militia violence.

Resistance supports the right of liberation movements to defend themselves from their oppressors. Socialists in the United States argued in the 1950s, '60s and '70s that African-American communities, in the face of organised racist violence by organisations like the Ku Klux Klan and the police, should be able to arm themselves. Socialists demanded that US government troops defend black communities and protect black students who were exercising their right to attend predominantly white schools.

When the government refused, socialists were able to expose the government's racism. In instances where the civil rights movement forced the government to deploy troops, as in Little Rock to enforce the ending of segregation in education, it was a defeat for the racists and a confidence boost for the oppressed group struggling for equal rights.

Decline in the mobilisations
The public mobilisations for East Timor have declined since the announcement that troops would be sent because the movement's main demand has been won. Most of the people participating in the protests did so because they wanted to stop the genocide. For ISO members to argue that it would have been better for the movement if troops did not go suggests that they believe it would have been better for the killing to continue.

Continued mass killing of East Timorese might have meant that the protests would have continued to grow in the short term, but this would not have lasted long. It is likely that TNI would have completed its slaughter of the pro-independence activists in East Timor within a few weeks.

This would have been a massive defeat for the East Timorese nation and would have profoundly demoralised the international solidarity movement. Surely socialists should advocate policies which prevent genocide and slaughter.

The fact that the solidarity movement won its main demand provides a basis for building larger mobilisations in the future. It has shown many people that mass action can force the Australian government to do what the Australian people want it to.

To maintain the momentum, we must now raise demands which further challenge the government's foreign policy and which build public support for the independence struggle in East Timor and the struggle for democracy in Indonesia.

Resistance demands:

  • No increases in military spending! The "defence" budget should be redirected to reconstructing East Timor. Australian business, such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside Petroleum, which have profited from the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the repression in Indonesia should pay reparations.
  • Put those responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor on trial! Not only Suharto, Wiranto, Prabowo, but also their Australian accomplices  -  from Whitlam to Howard.
  • End all military ties with the Indonesian regime!
  • Let all refugees stay in Australia and grant asylum with immediate residency to any East Timorese seeking refugee status!
  • Indonesian troops out of East Timor!
  • Recognise East Timor as a sovereign country! The East Timorese people alone should decide for how long UN troops remain on their soil and what they can do there.

[Latham Latham is a member of the Resistance national executive.]



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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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