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How Australia orchestrated "regime change" in East Timor

Posted in the database on Saturday, July 29th, 2006 @ 12:04:10 MST (2253 views)
by Peter Symonds    World Socialist Web Site  

Untitled Document

Part One

Within six weeks of Australian troops landing in East Timor on May 24, the country’s prime minister Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign and the former foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, who has made no secret of his sympathies for the US and Australia, had been installed in his place.

If one were to believe the Australian media, Canberra had no hand in these events. Acting out of the purest of motives, Prime Minister John Howard dispatched military forces at the end of May to protect the East Timorese from a sudden and largely inexplicable eruption of ethnic violence between “easterners” and “westerners”. Since then, the story goes, Australia has remained a neutral arbiter, standing above the political conflict in Dili. It is simply fortuitous that the new prime minister, is, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, the “right man” for East Timor.

In reality, what has taken place is an Australian-inspired political coup. As troops were landing, Howard’s public declaration that East Timor had not been well-governed gave the signal for a deluge of propaganda in the Australian media demonising Alkatiri as aloof, an autocrat and a Marxist. Insistent demands that he take full responsibility for the violence and resign were counterposed to high praise for Ramos-Horta and President Xanana Gusmao, both of whom backed the Australian-sponsored campaign to remove the prime minister.

Alkatiri refused to immediately cave in and Gusmao lacked the constitutional power to sack him without the support of parliament, where Alkatiri’s Fretilin party had a large majority. So a new approach was taken. The government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired a “Four Corners” program on June 19, which dredged up lurid allegations from Alkatiri’s political enemies that the prime minister had approved the formation of a “hit squad” to murder his opponents. Quite apart from the dubious and unsupported character of the claims, the program conveniently ignored the fact that the rebel soldiers and police officers who were making the charges were clearly guilty of taking up arms against the state.

Gusmao and Horta were “sympathetic” to rebel leaders such as “Major” Alfredo Reinado, a dubious character who had trained in 2005 at the Australian defence academy in Canberra and who had become a favourite of the Australian press. Reinado had pledged his allegiance to Gusmao and welcomed the arrival of Australian troops. He was also openly threatening civil war if Alkatiri were not sacked. No-one in Dili, Canberra or the Australian media even broached the suggestion that Reinado and his fellow rebels should be charged with treason. Instead Gusmao sent a tape of the ABC program, with its unsubstantiated allegations, to Alkatiri, with a letter demanding his immediate resignation.

Just a week later, on June 26, Alkatiri resigned. But since Fretilin remained the largest party in parliament, with the constitutional right to nominate a new prime minister, the issue of who was to replace him remained. To force Fretilin into submission, Gusmao threatened to ignore the constitution, dismiss parliament and select his own interim government, pending fresh elections. Once again Fretilin capitulated. Ramos-Horta, who, like Gusmao had not been a Fretilin member for many years, was included among its three nominees. On July 10, he was duly sworn in.

While the Howard government has been rather coy about acknowledging its role, Murdoch’s Australian newspaper has been less so. In a comment on June 3, foreign editor Greg Sheridan bluntly declared: “Certainly if Alkatiri remains Prime Minister of East Timor, this is a shocking indictment of Australian impotence. If you cannot translate the leverage of 1,300 troops, 50 police, hundreds of support personnel, buckets of aid and a critical international rescue mission into enough influence to get rid of a disastrous Marxist Prime Minister, then you are just not very skilled in the arts of influence, tutelage, sponsorship and, ultimately, promoting the national interest.”

In his own crude fashion, Sheridan was simply foreshadowing what subsequently took place. Canberra shamelessly exploited and manipulated the factional divisions within the East Timorese political elite to install the man it wanted. Ramos-Horta’s first actions were to insist that Australia should lead any new UN mission to East Timor and, most importantly, to pledge that the parliament would rapidly ratify a stalled agreement between East Timor and Australia over the division of proceeds from the Greater Sunrise gas field. Among other concerns, the Australian government’s hostility to Alkatiri stemmed from his refusal to cave in totally to Canberra’s plans for the estimated $30 billion worth of oil and gas reserves under the Timor Sea.

Inter-imperialist rivalries

The events of the past weeks have flowed organically from Australia’s past relationship with East Timor, in which concern for the welfare of the East Timorese people has never been a factor. Howard, like his Labor and Liberal predecessors, backed the Indonesian Suharto dictatorship’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and its subsequent annexation of the former Portuguese colony. Canberra’s interest was centred on control of the substantial Timor Sea oil and gas reserves, which it secured in 1989 under the Timor Gap Treaty.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Australia faced the prospect of the treaty being declared null and void. The former colonial ruler, Portugal, in league with East Timor’s leaders, was pushing for the country’s independence, as a means of regaining influence. Since the UN had never formally recognised Indonesia’s annexation, a separate state of East Timor might well abrogate Canberra’s deal with Jakarta, particularly as it ran counter to international law. The Australian ruling elite made the necessary calculations and effected an abrupt about-face. Suddenly, it became an advocate for the rights of the East Timorese people and a supporter of “independence”. Utilising the violence carried out by pro-Indonesian militia both before and after the UN-supervised independence referendum in 1999 as the pretext, the Howard government dispatched troops to East Timor. Its real aim was to preempt Australia’s rival, Portugal.

The perspective of “independence” for East Timor was never viable. In the era of globalised production, any nation, no matter how large, is subject to the dictates of the major transnational corporations and internationally mobile capital. A tiny statelet on an impoverished half-island, with a population of less than a million, could never be “independent” of the regional and global powers, or of the various international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF. The inter-imperialist rivalry for East Timor’s lucrative resources only intensified after the country was transformed into a UN protectorate. Its “Special Representative of the Secretary General,” the late Sergio Viera de Mello, had all the powers of a colonial governor.

At stake was not only the Timor Sea oil and gas, but the island’s strategic location astride key naval and shipping routes between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Washington’s support for Canberra’s ambitions in East Timor was bound up with the growing rivalry between the US and China for influence in Asia. The Pentagon has long regarded the deep-water Ombei Wetar Straits as one of the crucial naval “choke points” in any military conflict in the Asia Pacific region. Likewise Portugal, backed by the European Union, viewed East Timor as an important outpost in the struggle for influence in Asia, a region that has assumed critical importance with China’s and India’s emergence as the world’s main cheap labour platforms.

The inter-imperialist rivalries found their expression in Dili’s factional politics. The Fretilin leadership had always looked to Portugal. Fretilin itself was forged, not in a struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, but rather against the Indonesian annexation of East Timor and its repressive military rule. The party’s leaders were drawn from the Portuguese-educated elite, and they used East Timor’s so-called “Portuguese identity” in their campaign for “independence” from Indonesia. Fretilin’s program was not Marxist, but it did advance basic democratic and social reforms that rested on a nationally-regulated capitalist economy.

Opponents of Fretilin’s agenda included Horta and Gusmao, who broke with the party and regarded its limited reformist program as too radical. Gusmao oriented directly to the most rightwing and reactionary political forces in East Timor, including the Catholic Church and the UDT, which had supported the country’s incorporation into Indonesia. UDT leader Mario Carrascalao, the island’s largest coffee plantation owner, served as provincial governor for a decade under the Indonesian dictatorship. These layers regarded the “Marxist” Fretilin as an intolerable barrier to foreign capital and to their ambitions for the unfettered exploitation of the island’s resources and cheap labour.

Immediately prior to Suharto’s fall in 1998, Gusmao, with the support of Portugal, engineered a grand coalition of “national unity”—the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT)—which included Fretilin as well as the UDT, church leaders and individuals such as Horta. Fretilin, however, remained the dominant force within the CNRT, because it was popularly recognised as having led the difficult and courageous struggle against the brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation.

Having achieved its objective of a UN referendum, the CNRT began to fracture under UN rule. Despite Gusmao’s efforts to maintain the broad coalition on which his influence rested, Fretilin increasingly came to play the dominant political role.

This outcome produced seething resentment in Australian ruling circles. Even though it had provided the majority of troops for the UN military intervention in 1999, Canberra found that rival Portugal was gaining the political upper hand through its ties to Fretilin. In the political manouevring that took place in the lead-up to formal independence in May 2002, the Howard government increasingly relied on Fretilin’s opponents. Both Gusmao and Ramos-Horta had longstanding connections with Australia—Horta during his exile and Gusmao through his Australian wife, Kirsty Sword.

Gusmao made a conscious appeal to the various anti-Fretilin layers on the basis of “national unity”. Around him gathered those whose positions were threatened by Fretilin’s ascendency—former officials and police in the Indonesian provincial administration, businessmen wanting immediate access to be provided to foreign investors, and the Catholic church, which opposed Fretilin’s secular demands for a separation of church and state. Insofar as any geographic divide existed, it reflected the fact that Fretilin’s base had traditionally been in the eastern areas of the island—those more conducive to guerrilla warfare—rather than the more developed western regions, with their links to the Indonesian province of West Timor. Gusmao, who had established close ties with the Indonesian regime during his imprisonment in Jakarta, called for reconciliation with Indonesia.

The political differences erupted into the open in the election for a constituent assembly in August 2001. Fretilin won an absolute majority—55 of the 88 seats. Its closest rival, with seven seats, was the Democratic Party (PD), formed just prior to the election. The PD appealed to younger, disaffected people who saw few opportunities for advancement in a Fretilin-led state, where Portuguese, spoken by few East Timorese, would be the official language. Mario Carrascalao’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) gained just six seats.

Fretilin proposed a secular parliamentary constitution, which would ensure the party’s continued dominance. Its opponents backed Gusmao’s push for a presidential system, based on a “national unity” front, in which he would hold overall power. Fretilin prevailed and, with UN backing, transformed the constituent assembly into the first parliament. The factional bitterness re-emerged during elections for the presidency in April 2002. Fretilin did not stand a candidate, allowing Gusmao to win an overwhelming majority. But Alkatiri pointedly announced that he would be casting a blank ballot, while other Fretilin leaders gave tacit support to Gusmao’s nominal opponent.

As far as Canberra was concerned, the outcome of the UN-supervised process was disastrous. Those in Dili most sympathetic to Australian interests had been largely sidelined. While Gusmao had become president, he had limited constitutional powers. Moreover, the Fretilin government quickly made clear it would not simply acquiesce to Canberra’s diktats. In the week prior to formal independence, the Howard government flew Alkatiri to Canberra by VIP jet to pressure him into finalising a deal ceding most of the largest Timor Sea gas field—Greater Sunrise—to Australia. But Alkitiri refused to cooperate.

Australian journalist Maryann Keady, in a recent article entitled “Imperialist Coup in East Timor”, points out that the moves against the new government began as soon as “independence” was declared. “The campaign to oust Alkatiri began at least four years ago,” she wrote. “I recorded the date after an American official started leaking stories of Alkatiri’s corruption while I was freelancing for ABC Radio. I investigated the claims—and came up with nought—but was more concerned with the tenor of criticism by American and Australian officials that clearly suggested that they were wanting to get rid of this ‘troublesome’ prime minister.... After interviewing the major political leaders, it was clear that many would stop at nothing to get rid of Timor’s first prime minister.”

Part Two

In the aftermath of “independence” in May 2002, political tensions continued to escalate between Prime Minister Alkatiri and his Fretilin-majority government on the one hand, and the anti-Fretilin forces led by President Gusmao and Foreign Minister Horta on the other. They were soon to explode in scenes that bore a remarkable similarity to the ones that erupted this year.

In an extraordinary speech on November 28, 2002, Gusmao seized on clashes between police and supporters of a shadowy organisation known as CPD-RDTL in the town of Baucau to issue a vitriolic attack on the government, including a demand for the resignation of Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato. He also renewed his call for a government of national unity and, echoing the rhetoric of the various opposition parties, declaimed: “The party of government has been placing itself above national interests and the interests of the people and its intention to seize power in all its forms is clear.” Alkatiri emphatically rejected Gusmao’s demands, declaring “our government was formed for five years, not six months.”

Just days later, on December 3-4, rioting erupted in Dili. While it originated in a student protest against heavy-handed police methods, the initial demonstration was quickly subsumed into riots by gangs of unemployed youth, egged on by anti-Fretilin opposition groups. In the subsequent investigations, witnesses testified to seeing agitators directing the mob towards prominent symbols of the government. Alkatiri’s house, and those of two of his relatives, were burnt to the ground and the Dili mosque (Alkatiri has a Muslim background) was also attacked. Two people were killed and more than 20 injured in clashes with police before a curfew was imposed.

There is no doubt that the country’s deepening economic and social crisis helped spark the riots. But Fretilin’s opponents also played a role. Lobato accused the CPD-RDTL of “an orchestrated manoeuvre to topple the government.” CPD-RDTL, which included disgruntled guerrilla fighters in its ranks, claimed to be the genuine Fretilin. But it was also associated with figures who had connections to the pro-Indonesian militia, which had ransacked the country in 1999.

Significantly, Mario Carrascalao, a major coffee plantation landowner, who had served as governor under the Indonesian junta and headed the Partido Social Democrata (PSD), a UDT breakaway, issued a warning of civil war: “We were united against the Indonesians, now we are divided. That is the responsibility of those who are in power and the dangers are great if we don’t recognise where this could be leading,” he said.

The investigations failed to uncover who was responsible for the rioting. There was no question, however, that Carrascalao’s PSD and Democratic Party, the Catholic Church, disenchanted Falantil fighters and Dili youth gangs were all deeply opposed to the government. Neither Fretilin nor its opponents had any solution to the deep social crisis plaguing the country—the legacy of economic backwardness produced by centuries of Portuguese and Indonesian rule. But the opposition parties were able to appeal to the growing sense among ordinary people that “independence” had failed to bring jobs, education and an improvement in living standards. In fact, following the departure of many well-paid UN officials in the wake of the declaration of independence, Dili’s artificially inflated economy nose-dived.

The 2002 riots also raised questions about the role played by Australian troops and police, who were criticised for their failure to act. In another recent article entitled “East Timor: A New Cold War,” journalist Keady observed: “Just after the 2002 unrest, I interviewed local witnesses as well as the head of the UN and Australian forces about complaints that they did nothing to stop the chaos. After much investigation, I was told that a UN representative ‘unofficially’ went to the office to ask Prime Minister Alkatiri to resign, an interesting response to civil disturbance and one that makes a mockery of the UN pretence of apolitical humanitarian efforts.”

There was no doubt where the Howard government’s sympathies lay. In December 2002, East Timorese officials complained to the media that Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had been “abusive and aggressive” in negotiations with Alkatiri over Timor Sea oil and gas. Downer voiced particular objections to advice obtained by the Dili government from UN adviser Peter Galbraith to the effect that it had a strong legal case for a far larger share of the energy resources.

On December 9, 2002, in words that directly foreshadowed the recent denunciations of Alkatiri, the Australian Financial Review published an article entitled “Gusmao must take control” declaring: “There is widespread disillusion at the performance of Alkatiri and his clique of old Fretilin leftists, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since their days in Mozambique’s failed socialist state more than 30 years ago.” The article concluded that, on the contrary, the president [Gusmao] was “a national hero, a modest and decent man” who “should be more than a national figurehead in these critical circumstances”.

Australia’s involvement in Dili’s power struggle was transparent. In May 2003, an article in the Australian-based Bulletin magazine commented: “Fascinating too, is the diplomatic struggle between Lisbon and Canberra for influence in East Timor. Neither side say they are in a battle, but it’s clear each have their own agendas. In shades of the former Soviet Union, Portuguese government radio blares out from speakers across the main square as the families of old colonial government officials count their $US300 monthly pensions sent from Lisbon. Where Australia’s fortress-like embassy is halfway to the airport for an easier getaway if things turn ugly again, Portugal’s is next door to the government offices, where Alkatiri and his clique are said to lead the anti-Australian lobby.”

While the European Union backed Portugal’s bid for supremacy, Canberra relied on Washington, which was also actively involved in Dili politics. In an article entitled “Taming the ‘Banana Republic: The United States in East Timor”, Ben Moxham, a research associate with Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy organization based in Bangkok, Thailand, pointed out that the US-based organizations, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republic Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute were engaged in “democracy promotion” programs in East Timor. These organisations were all directly involved in fomenting the pro-US “colour revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “The [Republican Party-aligned] IRI, in particular, has been training the country’s fledgling political parties in the tricks of the trade. Through circumstances both deliberate and coincidental, they have ended up helping only the Washington-friendly opposition. While IRI sees itself as ‘life support’ for the country’s opposition, the ruling party, Fretilin, sees it as interfering,” Moxham wrote.

In 2003, tensions over international meddling erupted when the government proposed an immigration bill that barred foreign citizens from engaging in political activities. The legislation was bitterly criticised by opposition parties and various Non-Government Organisations. It became the subject of a legal battle and was eventually vetoed by President Gusmao. Moxham wrote: “Many saw it [the legislation] as a direct response to IRI activities. Fretilin even threatened to deport IRI staff under the law after IRI sponsored an opinion poll that Fretilin felt was deliberately worded to undermine them. An interview with IRI for this article yielded nothing but ‘off the record’ comments, but it’s safe to say that they view Fretilin through the paranoid haze of Cold War goggles.”

Eruption of neo-colonialism

The activities of Washington and its Australian ally in East Timor were part of the inter-imperialist rivalries that erupted in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2002, the struggle for supremacy in Dili was taking place as the Bush administration was ratcheting up its broader international offensive under the banner of the “global war on terrorism”. Not surprisingly, in the lead up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the political factions in East Timor lined up with their international backers. Fretilin echoed the positions of France and Germany, which were publicly insisting that the UN weapons inspectors be given more time, while in February 2003, Horta penned a scurrilous piece in the New York Times arguing that the imminent war would bring peace and democracy to the Iraqi people.

The Howard government joined the illegal invasion of Iraq to secure Australian interests in the Middle East and to win Washington’s backing for its ambitions in the Asian Pacific region. In July 2003, just four months after the “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq, Canberra followed suit with its own “pre-emptive” military intervention. Howard seized on the social and political crisis in the Solomon Islands to declare it a “failed state” and bullied the government into permitting the landing of more than 2,000 troops and police—predominately Australian—and allowing Australian officials to take over the main levers of state power for the next decade. At the same time, Australia used the Solomons intervention to threaten and intimidate other small Pacific Island states, insisting on norms of “good governance” and inserting Australian bureaucrats into top positions in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

In East Timor, however, unlike the other Pacific countries, the Howard government faced determined opposition. It responded by waging a barely-disguised subterranean political war, in alliance with Washington, and through its political proxies in the anti-government opposition, against Alkatiri and his Fretilin backers. Hostility to Fretilin intensified after Alkatiri refused to accept loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and turned, instead, to China, Cuba and Brazil for investment, financial aid and other forms of assistance.

While its Australian opponents continually refer to Fretilin as “Marxist”, none of the measures it has implemented has anything to do with Marxism or socialism. An unnamed diplomat recently described the Dili government as “the best bunch of neo-liberals” that could be wished for. The real target of US and Australian hostility has been Fretilin’s relations with their strategic and economic rivals, with Washington particularly concerned about the growth of China’s influence.

In September 2003, a “Dateline” program entitled “Timor’s President Under Siege”, aired on Australian SBS television, again highlighted the growing animosity towards Alkatiri. Joao Saldanha, head of the US-oriented East Timor Study Group, complained: “We are trying to isolate East Timor from the rest of the world. We are a small country. I don’t think we can afford to do that ... There is a shift in this government. There’s some attention, not much going to Australia, to the US, to Japan, but I think it is going to China.” Foreign Minister Horta criticised Alkatiri for rejecting World Bank loans, saying: “I would move faster to enter into these matters which are a potential for investors, privileges, so that they beginning [sic] investing, you know.”

Fretilin’s opponents offered the false panacea of market reforms. It gathered together under the anti-Fretilin umbrella former Falintil fighters, disgruntled at the government’s failure to provide due recognition for their past services, unemployed youth with no prospect of a job or a future, officials formerly employed under the Indonesian junta and villagers lacking even the most basic health and education services. Alkatiri’s “Muslim” background and Fretilin’s insistence on making Portuguese the national language, provided further grist for the opposition’s mill. In his end-of-year address in December 2003, Gusmao once again openly criticised the Fretilin government. This time, he made a bid for additional powers, calling for the establishment of two presidential consultative bodies, the Council of State and the Superior Council for Defence and Security.

Part Three

In an article entitled “East Timor: Alkatiri speaks” published last month on the New Matilda website, well-known Australian freelance journalist John Martinkus investigated Prime Minister Alkatiri’s claims that his political opponents had sought to gain control of the country’s army and foment a coup against the government.

Speaking to Martinkus, the prime minister said: “They were always trying to get command of Falintil-FDTL [East Timor’s Defence Forces]. They tried to convince the command to order and participate in a coup. They failed. When they failed to bring the command to join their forces in a coup then what they did is they tried to break F-FDTL and they did it by bringing out of their barracks almost 600 which they called the petitioners.”

The strike and protests carried out by 600 soldiers over pay and conditions in February and March; their subsequent sacking by the Alkatiri government; and the suppression of violent protests involving soldiers, young gangs and opposition politicians on April 28, were repeatedly cited in the Australian media as the reasons for sending in Australian troops.

Having spoken to the East Timorese military about these events, Martinkus wrote: “Senior sources within the command of F-FDTL confirmed that Alkatiri’s claims were genuine. They say three separate approaches had been made to the leadership to launch a coup against Alkatiri in the past 18 months.

“I was able to confirm that in April 2005, following weeks of mass demonstrations against Alkatiri’s Government, the commander of the F-FDTL, Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak, had been approached to lead a coup by senior figures within East Timor’s Catholic church. He rejected the offer. He was approached again early this year and asked to lead a coup in a meeting with two prominent East Timorese leaders and two foreign nationals. Again he refused, reportedly telling them it was against the Constitution and would set an unacceptable precedent.

“One of his leading deputies, Lieutenant-Colonel Falur Rate Laek, a veteran of the war against Indonesia, was also approached by the same two local leaders and foreign nationals. He also refused.

“Due to the sensitivity of the information, the nationalities of the foreigners were not revealed.”

The military officers involved, as well as Alkatiri and the Fretilin leaders, clearly know who made these approaches, including the names and nationalities of the foreigners concerned. Their failure to name names was not surprising. It flowed directly from Fretilin’s continuing refusal to openly oppose the Australian-led invasion of the country. Fearing it could lose control of a mass movement against the military occupation, Alkatiri bowed to pressure and agreed to “invite” the Australian troops. He then resigned his post as prime minister and, not long after, gave his blessing to the installation of Horta.

The church’s hostility to Fretilin

It is not difficult to fathom who was behind the moves against the Fretilin government. Since 2001, the political opposition drew sustenance from the US and Australia, with Washington according the leading role to Canberra. If the “foreigners” were not Australian or US officials or agents, they were certainly acting in the knowledge that the ousting of the Alkatiri government would be welcomed by Howard and Bush.

The claims made to Martinkus are certainly credible. The hostility of the Catholic church to the Fretilin government emerged in the debates over the new country’s constitution, when church officials and opposition politicians argued for the reestablishment of Catholicism as the state religion. While their bid was unsuccessful, Bishop Belo nevertheless forced the removal of a clause expressing the basic democratic tenet of “separation of church and state” and another referring to the right to divorce.

In April 2005, church leaders organised a protracted campaign lasting several weeks to oppose the Fretilin government’s decision to make religious education in schools optional rather than compulsory. This elementary democratic step provoked bitter denunciation from the church, which demanded the ousting of Alkatiri. Speaking at a Dili rally on April 19, 2005, Father Benancio Araujo denounced the “dictatorship of Alkatiri” and warned that the church would summon people from beyond the capital to “topple the anti-democratic regime”. According to a report in Asia Times, the US ambassador to East Timor openly supported the church’s protests, even attending one of the demonstrations in person.

In late April, Alkatiri accused the church of acting like an “opposition party”, then backed down and withdrew his plans to make religious education voluntary. The retreat only emboldened the Catholic priests. In January 2006, a leading Fretilin parliamentarian, Francisco Branco, denounced a prominent priest for waging a campaign to bring down the government. According to Branco, the priest had told churchgoers that a decision to send students to study in Cuba would turn East Timor into a communist country. Moreover, Fretilin had a plan to kill nuns and priests if it won the next election.

Rival contracts

There were at least two other reasons why the anger of Australia and the US with the Fretilin government deepened at the start of 2006. In January, Canberra and Dili finally signed a deal over the joint exploitation of the oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea. While the lion’s share still went to Australia, Alkatiri had forced the Howard government to make limited, but significant, concessions to East Timor. Moreover, Dili was also examining proposals to cooperate with China and several European countries, rather than Australia, to explore and develop other potential energy resources in East Timorese territory.

In February, the Dili government called tenders for its own Timor Trough fields, after a Chinese-Norwegian survey estimated that the area held half a billion barrels of light oil, and some 10 trillion cubic feet of gas (about 10 percent of the total estimated Timor Sea reserves). By the April 19 deadline, five companies had submitted bids, either individually or in consortia. They were Italy’s ENI, Portugal’s GALP (in which ENI is the majority shareholder), Brazil’s Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobas), Malaysia’s Petronas and India’s Reliance.

At the same time, the East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) released a comprehensive report about the crimes of the Indonesian dictatorship in East Timor between 1975 and 1999 and the responsibility of the major powers, especially the US and Australia, for their complicity. The report, which was funded by the UN, cut directly across efforts by Gusmao to bury the past and to effect reconciliation with Indonesia. In formally presenting it to the UN Security Council, Gusmao opposed the document and attempted to suppress its findings.

The report was eventually leaked to the media. The US and Australia both reacted angrily to its conclusions, which, while limited, nevertheless held the two countries responsible for supporting the Indonesian junta and called on them to pay reparations to East Timor. As far as Canberra and Washington were concerned, the CAVR report constituted, not only yet another black mark against the Alkatiri government, but also against the UN. Their hostility to the UN stemmed from the fact that, in attempting to carry out its mandate, the organisation had helped install and maintain the Alkatiri government. The Bush administration had repeatedly opposed the extension of the UN presence in East Timor and, in mid-2005, succeeded in having the size and aims of the mission wound back considerably. In January 2006 and again in May, in the midst of the political crisis, the US and Australia both opposed any further UN presence in East Timor.

The military option

Given its long record of intrigue, there is no doubt that Australia had a direct hand in the political events leading up to its May 24 military intervention. The Howard government’s close relations with Gusmao and Ramos-Horta were undoubtedly augmented by a network of contacts established by Australian diplomatic staff, military personnel and intelligence operatives in Dili with opposition politicians, rebel soldiers and police, and even gang leaders. Canberra not only knew who was involved in the army protests in March, but, in all likelihood, encouraged them.

During questioning before a Senate committee, Defence Deputy Secretary Strategy, Michael Pezzullo, admitted that 28 Australian military personnel had been in East Timor well before May 24 and had daily contact with Timorese officers. The Greens, who fully supported the dispatch of Australian troops, asked what these Australian officers had been doing. “I want to know if Defence had any role in the sacking of troops that precipitated the current crisis. I want to know what communication and cooperation Defence has had with the rebel leader Major Reinado,” Greens Senator Kerry Nettle asked. No further details were forthcoming.

East Timor’s opposition leaders stridently demanded a UN investigation into the violent protest that took place on April 28 in Dili, which ended in police killing several demonstrators. However, commenting in her article “Imperialist Coup in East Timor”, journalist Maryann Keady wrote: “I arrived in Dili just as the first riots broke out on April 28 this year and as an eyewitness at the front of the unrest, the very young soldiers seem to have outside help—believed to be local politicians and ‘outsiders’. Most onlookers cited the ability of the dissident soldiers to go from an unarmed vocal group, to hundreds brandishing sticks and weapons, as raising locals’ suspicion that this was not an ‘organic’ protest. I interview many people—from Fretilin insiders, to opposition politicians and local journalists—and not one ruled out the fact that the riots had been hijacked for ‘other’ purposes.”

Even Horta had to acknowledge in his report to the UN Security Council on May 5 that Osorio Lequi, the leader of a newly formed opposition party, the PDRT, had been involved in heightening tensions. Horta reported that the clashes on April 28 were not carried out by dissident soldiers, but by a mob of youth and some political elements, including PDRT members, who attacked the police and went on a rampage. Significantly, at the same UN session, US and Australian officials vehemently opposed any further extension, let alone an expansion, of the UN mission, which was due to end. A compromise was finally struck extending its remit for a month.

There is every reason to believe that the Howard government, with the backing of the Bush administration, had already set in motion plans for a military occupation of East Timor. On May 12, as he was about to leave for Washington, Howard confirmed that the Australian military had ordered three warships to sail to waters off the coast of East Timor, without informing the Alkatiri government. Canberra’s gunboat diplomacy was aimed at intensifying pressure on the Fretilin leadership. Howard was well aware that plans were underway to oust Alkatiri at a Fretilin congress being held from May 17 to 19. The dissident faction, led by East Timor’s ambassador to the UN and the US, Jose Luis Guterres, and the former ambassador to Australia, Jorge Teme, was receiving open backing in the Australian media.

But Guterres’ move collapsed when the overwhelming majority of Fretilin delegates re-endorsed Alkatiri on May 19. As soon as the congress ended, clashes rapidly erupted between pro-government security forces and dissident soldiers, police and youth gangs in and near Dili, providing the necessary pretext—the collapse of “law and order”—for the Australian military to be sent in. Two of those involved in the clashes—“Major” Alfredo Reinado and Vincente “Railos” da Conceicao—have all the characteristics of agents provocateur.

Reinado spent his exile in Australia and trained last year at the Australian defence academy in Canberra. Controlling a handful of military police, he moved on May 23, with SBS reporter David O’Shea in tow, to the outskirts of Dili where he provoked a firefight with government troops. Feted in the Australian media in subsequent days, Reinado made no secret of his desire for Australian “peacekeepers” to take control, and of his insistence that Alkatiri resign and be put on trial.

On May 24, under pressure from Gusmao and Horta, Alkatiri finally agreed to endorse a formal invitation for troops and police from Australia, Portugal, Malaysia and New Zealand to enter the country. Within hours, the first Australian soldiers began to land at Dili airport. But the clashes in Dili continued as Australia pressed for final agreement on the extent of its involvement and the rules of engagement. In his interview with journalist Martinkus, Alkatiri explained that Reinado and Railos joined forces that day for a joint attack on a pro-government military base at Tacitolu. Interestingly, Railos was to emerge just a fortnight later with allegations that he was the leader of a pro-Fretilin “hit squad,” armed by interior minister Lobato with Alkatiri’s agreement! This completely unsubstantiated claim quickly became the pretext for demands that both leaders resign.

Howard cut short his visit to Ireland to arrive back in Australia on May 24, in time to publicly announce the dispatch of troops to East Timor. As news came in of the escalating clashes at Tacitolu and elsewhere, Howard gave the order for the intervention to proceed “full steam ahead” without waiting for final agreement from the Alkatiri government. Within days, the full force of 1,300 Australian troops and police, backed by armoured vehicles and attack helicopters was on the ground. At the insistence of Australian diplomats and military officials, the Fretilin government conceded wide powers to these “peace-keepers,” allowing them to effectively impose martial law in Dili.

The chronology of events over the past five years demonstrates that the Australian military occupation of East Timor, the subsequent removal of Alkatiri and the installation of Ramos-Horta as prime minister, were not the outcome of the unforeseen breakdown of “law and order” in Dili. They were, on the contrary, the product of long-hatched plans for “regime change”, aimed at protecting the vital economic and strategic interests of Australian imperialism. Having failed since 2002 to secure its objective of ousting the Alkatiri government through more indirect means, the Howard government, with the support of the Bush administration, opted in May-June 2006 for the more direct military approach.


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