In my 1994 film Death of a Nation there
is a scene onboard an aircraft flying between northern Australia and the island
of Timor. A party is in progress; two men in suits are toasting each other in
champagne. "This is an historically unique moment," effuses Gareth
Evans, Australia's foreign affairs minister, "that is truly uniquely historical."
He and his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, were celebrating the signing
of the Timor Gap Treaty, which would allow Australia to exploit the oil and
gas reserves in the seabed off East Timor. The ultimate prize, as Evans put
it, was "zillions" of dollars.
Australia's collusion, wrote Professor Roger Clark, a world authority on the
law of the sea, "is like acquiring stuff from a thief
the fact is
that they have neither historical, nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor
and its resources." Beneath them lay a tiny nation then suffering one of
the most brutal occupations of the 20th century. Enforced starvation and murder
had extinguished a quarter of the population: 180,000 people. Proportionally,
this was a carnage greater than that in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The United Nations
Truth Commission, which has examined more than 1,000 official documents, reported
in January that Western governments shared responsibility for the genocide;
for its part, Australia trained Indonesia's Gestapo, known as Kopassus, and
its politicians and leading journalists disported themselves before the dictator
Suharto, described by the CIA as a mass murderer.
These days Australia likes to present itself as a helpful, generous neighbor
of East Timor, after public opinion forced the government of John Howard to
lead a UN peacekeeping force six years ago. East Timor is now an independent
state, thanks to the courage of its people and a tenacious resistance led by
the liberation movement Fretilin, which in 2001 swept to political power in
the first democratic elections. In regional elections last year, 80 percent
of votes went to Fretilin, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, a convinced
"economic nationalist," who opposes privatization and interference
by the World Bank. A secular Muslim in a largely Roman Catholic country, he
is, above all, an anti-imperialist who has stood up to the bullying demands
of the Howard government for an undue share of the oil and gas spoils of the
On April 28 last, a section of the East Timorese army mutinied, ostensibly
over pay. An eyewitness, Australian radio reporter Maryann Keady, disclosed
that American and Australian officials were involved. On May 7, Alkatiri described
the riots as an attempted coup and said that "foreigners and outsiders"
were trying to divide the nation. A leaked Australian Defense Force document
has since revealed that Australia's "first objective" in East Timor
is to "seek access" for the Australian military so that it can exercise
"influence over East Timor's decision-making." A Bushite "neocon"
could not have put it better.
The opportunity for "influence" arose on May 31, when the Howard
government accepted an "invitation" by the East Timorese president,
Xanana Gusmão, and foreign minister, José Ramos Horta who
oppose Alkatiri's nationalism to send troops to Dili, the capital. This
was accompanied by "our boys to the rescue" reporting in the Australian
press, together with a smear campaign against Alkatiri as a "corrupt dictator."
Paul Kelly, a former editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch's Australian,
wrote: "This is a highly political intervention
Australia is operating
as a regional power or a political hegemon that shapes security and political
outcomes." Translation: Australia, like its mentor in Washington, has a
divine right to change another country's government. Don Watson, a speechwriter
for the former prime minister Paul Keating, the most notorious Suharto apologist,
wrote, incredibly: "Life under a murderous occupation might be better than
life in a failed state
Arriving with a force of 2,000, an Australian brigadier flew by helicopter straight
to the headquarters of the rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado not to arrest
him for attempting to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister but to
greet him warmly. Like other rebels, Reinado had been trained in Canberra.
John Howard is said to be pleased with his title of George W Bush's "deputy
sheriff" in the South Pacific. He recently sent troops to a rebellion in
the Solomon Islands, and imperial opportunities beckon in Papua New Guinea,
Vanuatu, and other small island nations. The sheriff will approve.