By Chris Latham
Recently at an anti-war rally in Perth, I was asked by another participant ``is it really a racist war?’‘ George Bush, Tony Blair and their bellicose supporters in Australia, John Howard and Kim Beazley, have argued that the bombing campaign on Afghanistan is not a war on the Afghan people and it is definitely not a racist war.
The central aim of these statements has been to attempt to block the ability of opponents of the war to mobilise public opinion against the war. This aim has been necessitated by the growth since the 1960s of a general sentiment against racism. This popular anti-racist sentiment means that racists do not always openly claim to be racist or speak in openly racist terms.
This raises the question ``what is racism?’‘ Racism is the view, expressed either overtly or covertly, which justifies social inequality between people based on fetishising superficial external physical features, most particularly skin colour.
Racism first emerged with the development of capitalism to justify the forcible transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas in order to provide a system of institutionalised forced labour on the plantations of the European settler colonies.
At the end of the 19th century, racism continued to provide justification by the capitalist rulers of imperialist countries, whose populations were predominantly white, for the economic and political subjugation of the non-white peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The current US bombing campaign against Afghanistan has been justified as necessary to ensure that terrorist attacks like that on September 11 in New York and Washington, in which more than 4000 people were killed, do not occur again. But the bombing has already been estimated to have killed 1000 Afghan civilians.
Moreover, aid agencies such as Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF, Doctors without Borders) estimate that at least two million Afghans (with upward estimates of seven million people), will die from starvation by the end of winter if the bombing does not stop and aid agencies are unable to deliver large-scale food aid. The widespread unchallenged implication is that the lives of at least two million people, 10% of the Afghan population, are of less value than those who died in the US on September 11.
Imperialism is a word that is often misused. Marxists use it to refer to a particular stage in development of capitalism that emerged in the industrially developed countries at the end of the 19th century. Nearly all branches of their economies came under the monopolist control of a few large corporations.
These large corporations were owned by super-rich capitalist families, like the Rockefeller and Morgan families in the United States, who also owned the big banks, insurance companies and stock exchange investment houses. These families were often financially and personally inter-related and formed a financial oligarchy that dominated not only the economy but the political life of the developed capitalist countries.
The corporations and banks in the developed countries took advantage of the uneven development of the world capitalist economy to preserve their monopoly of ownership of advanced technology and to use this monopoly to extract above-average profits from the underdeveloped capitalist countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As a result of the emergence of monopoly capitalism, the world was divided into a handful of predominantly white, rich nations dominating the economic and political life of the great majority of the world’s population.
The division of the world into rich and poor nations created a massive drive towards the militarisation of the imperialist nations. This was essential to ensure that they would be able to protect their investments and markets from challenges by their imperialist rivals. This was the central focus of both the first and second world wars.
Since the second world war, the imperialist powers have subordinated their rivalry to uniting behind the strongest imperialist power, the United States, to crush any challenges from the oppressed nations to throw off imperialist domination. This was the driving force behind the US-led military interventions into Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.
During the US-led war against Vietnam, anti-war sentiment became widespread in the United States and other imperialist countries like Australia. So too did anti-racist sentiment.
Widespread acceptance of the idea that it was racist for the governments of rich, white nations to wage war to stop the non-white peoples of the poor, Third World countries from choosing governments that US and its allies were hostile to, helped to limit the ability of the US and its allies to utilise their own armies to wage such wars.
Instead, the imperialist powers were forced to rely on the creation and support of right-wing proxies to attempt to maintain their domination over Third World countries. This is what the US did in the 1980s in Nicaragua with the contras, and in Afghanistan with the mujaheddin and the Taliban.
Since the September 11 terror attacks, the rulers of the imperialist countries have sought to regain public acceptance for the large-scale use of their own ground troops to impose on Third World countries governments that are totally subservient to the imperialist interests.
This is the real goal of the current “war on terrorism”. But it is being masked by claims that it is aimed at defending “civilisation”. Blair has even attempted to present the US-led war as part of a drive for a better world for “the starving, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor”.
The US government has increasingly made it clear that the “war on terror” will have no end, and has already identified more than 60 countries that it will take action against for allegedly harbouring “terrorist organisations”.
The imperialists’ “war on terror” aims to crush all resistance to their ability to exploit the peoples of the Third World, and thus to maintain global inequality between the rich, predominantly white, nations of the First World and the poor, predominantly non-white, nations of the Third World. That is why this is a racist war.
From Green Left Weekly issue #472
Wednesday, November 21, 2001
By Chris Latham
Saturday, April 14, 2001
By Chris Latham & Pip Hinman
On February 20 the "cease-fire" between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military (TNI) was extended for the third time since the so-called humanitarian pause in 2000. These declarations mean nothing, Syadiah Marhaban from the Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) told Green Left Weekly. That very night the TNI swept through four villages terrorising and killing people.
Following every previous cease-fire extension, attacks on unarmed Acehnese take place almost immediately; more than 100 people have been killed since January. Since GAM declared unilateral independence from Indonesia in December 1976, some 30,000 people have been killed.
Under the current cease-fire, GAM and the Indonesian government have agreed to a four-point code of conduct. However, given the lack of an enforcement authority, the TNI continues to hunt down GAM members especially in the rural areas. Ed Aspinall, who lectures in Indonesian studies at University of New South Wales and has recently returned from Aceh, told an Amnesty International forum in Sydney that the TNI routinely strafes whole villages in revenge attacks if even one of its soldiers comes under fire.
On February 15, the TNI announced an additional 6000 troops would be sent to Aceh, bringing the total deployment of combat troops to more than 30,000.
Aspinall described the northern-most city of Banda Aceh as being like a "war zone" in which there is an unofficial curfew as night falls.
"People are just too scared to leave their homes after dark. Local commanders are calling on the central government to call an all-out civil emergency", he said.
Aspinall described President Abdurrahman Wahid as pursuing a dual policy of negotiations with GAM while the TNI is allowed a virtual free hand to wage war.
And while the political situation in Indonesia remains unstable, the military is playing up their role as harbingers of peace and security.
The TNI's attempts to hunt down GAM members and terrorise its rural support base reflect the Indonesian government's unwillingness to engage in genuine negotiations over Aceh's future. The military have significant commercial operations in the gold, oil, gas timber and marijuana-rich state of Aceh.
Autonomy versus independence
Syadiah Marhaban told Green Left Weekly that a poll conducted by SIRA just before the November 8 referendum rally last year -- during which 48 people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands of public and private vehicles damaged by the security forces -- 92.6% said they favoured independence rather than autonomy.
Despite the overwhelming sentiment for independence, the Wahid government is only prepared to allow greater autonomy -- a position the Aceh People's Council has adopted. Wahid's government is pushing the Acehnese House of Representatives to prioritise deliberation of the autonomy law which ensures the central government maintains control over financial and security affairs.
While the new autonomy laws -- scheduled to take effect from May -- are supposed to decentralise decision-making and allow Aceh to retain a greater percentage of earnings from the exploitation of its natural resources, they say nothing about reducing the number of TNI troops in Aceh.
In an attempt to shift the balance of forces and provide some legitimacy to the autonomy demand, the Wahid government is seeking to include anti-independence groups in the negotiations. However this is unlikely to be successful given GAM's strong base of mass support, and the activities of pro-referendum groups like SIRA and the radical Student Solidarity with the People (SMUR).
On February 20 Indonesian defence minister Mahfud Mahmoddin declared he was tired of prolonged talks with the independence movements in Aceh and West Papua and threatened to become increasingly tough with "separatist groups".
SIRA has evidence that the TNI has started to train militia groups in the northern part of Aceh. "Jakarta is going to try to repeat what it did in East Timor", Marhaban warned. She said that the TNI is recruiting poor transmigrants from Java for six months of training. "This shows the Wahid government's desperation. It has been unable to contain or curtail the pro- referendum sentiment by military means, and is now resorting to inciting communal conflict to achieve its ends."
Following the forced resignation of the despot Suharto in 1998 the democracy movement forced a number of concessions from President Habibie's government and the TNI including the abolition of wide-ranging anti- subversion laws.
However, many restrictive laws remain on the books, including those dealing with freedom of speech (including the law banning the propagation of Marxism).
Last November Muhammad Nazar, chairperson of SIRA, was detained and charged with treason. After growing pressure he was finally set to go to trial last week. He looks set to be the first activist to be so charged since the Suharto days. According to Marhaban, some 500 extra soldiers have been deployed for his trial in Banda Aceh.
The Western powers' opposition to Aceh's independence is primarily motivated by a desire to maintain a politically stable environment for corporate investment throughout the Indonesian archipelago. There is a general fear within the ruling circles of the imperialist powers, in particular in Washington and Canberra, that if Aceh was to win its independence, the West Papuan independence struggle would be given added momentum and other provinces dissatisfied with rule from Jakarta would become similarly inspired.
US support is important for the Wahid administration to maintain control in Aceh. It gives political cover to Jakarta and helps keep the independence forces relatively isolated and serves to strengthen a weakening military position within Indonesia.
TNI and Indonesian police forces are increasingly stretched. It is estimated that half of Indonesia's 200,000 soldiers and 300,000 police are now deployed in provinces waging struggles for independence such as Aceh and West Papua or where communal violence is breaking out, such as in Kalimantan and Malaku.
Marhaban is under no illusions about how the fight for the right to a referendum would eventually be won. "International pressure on Jakarta, particularly from countries such as the US and Australia, is vital", she said.
US military training, or the stepping up of such training by Australia, will provide further legitimacy to the Indonesian government's effort to smash the independence forces. For this reason, she argued, the Australian and US governments must be forced to end all military ties to Indonesia.
SIRA is demanding the TNI and police leave Aceh. After that there's a need to conduct a campaign to raise consciousness among Acehnese about what a referendum would mean. "We have to be ready to take the consequences", Marhaban said, alluding to the likely difficulties a democratic government might encounter from multinational companies, such as Exxon (Esso), currently profiting from the Acehnese people's misery.
From Green Left Weekly issue #440