Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Death and destruction in Dili (2000)

From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1996 (Socialist Standard, March) we reported, and commented upon, Indonesian repression in East Timor and Australian interest in, and control of, the vast oil deposits under the sea between Australia and East and West Timor. Much has happened since then.

East Timor is now “independent”. The Indonesians have gone. But not before they had killed thousands of Timorese and largely reduced the capital, Dili, to a burned-out ruin. Much of this has been levelled against Eurico Gutterres, a former Indonesian militia leader, now living under an assumed name in Jakarta. According to the West Australian (18 December), “the Indonesian military recruited and trained Guterres who commanded a paramilitary group called Aitarak, or Thorn, which was given the responsibility for security in Dili”. He ordered the destruction of East Timor, “carrying out his threat to turn East Timor into a wasteland if the Timorese voted to rejected Jakarta’s rule”. He now says that he does not feel guilty. He was only carrying out orders, he said.

In what the West Australian (15 January) calls “the razed capital” of Dili, “thousands of the deeply religious East Timorese Catholics turn out for Mass to thank god for delivering them from the horror of 24 years of Indonesian occupation”. But just outside Dili there are hundreds of children starving. Of the situation, reports the West Australian of the same date:
“Stagnant pools of sewage lay nearby, mixing with the regular afternoon rains, virtually ensuring that all open wounds would become infected. A girl, aged about five, stands half-naked except for a skin of massive, infected lesions which stretch from under her jaw to her waist.”
“A blackmarket for food and goods has sprouted in Dili, with tonnes of rice and noodles being imported and held under guard in warehouses in the razed capital.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Timorese are starving in West Timor refugee camps. President Clinton is said to be concerned about a possible military coup, and the spread of religious violence in Indonesia; and Richard Holbrooke, the US Ambassador to the UN, “accused pro-Jakarta militias of blocking the return of about 125,000 East Timorese remaining in camps in West Timor. Responsibility for this lies primarily with the Indonesian military who continues to support the militia in the camps, he said” (West Australian, 17 January).

By last September, 75 percent of East Timor’s population had been displaced, and 70 percent of its houses, public buildings and essential utilities had been destroyed by the Indonesian-backed militias and military (West Australian, 8 January). However, Australian companies “have a chance to grab a slice of the $800 million which will be spent on rebuilding on East Timor over the next three years”. Indeed, more than £300 million will have been pumped into reconstruction by June this year.

There are, of course, problems for Australian capitalists, if not exactly the same as for Timorese workers and peasants. Land ownership was a problem, as records had been destroyed; and it was impossible to know who owned what. ” Conditions in Dili were tough, but foreign businesses were working there,” said Malcolm Murray, the international projects team leader with the Australian Department of Trade and Commerce. Nevertheless, Australian construction businesses have moved into Dili “with gusto”. There were many unemployed Timorese workers; but “the Australian Council for Overseas Aid also warned that pay rates for local workers could lead to gross inequality in wealth” (West Australian, 17 January).

Meanwhile, reported Agence France-Press (17 January), Australian, international and East Timorese officials held a conference to discuss a new Timor Gap oil treaty to replace the “illegal” treaty signed in December 1989, between Australia and Indonesia over the oil-rich waters between northern Australia and East Timor (see Socialist Standard, March 1996). However, Indonesia said that it would “accept a review or a cancellation of the treaty with Australia”, presumably as it now has little choice.

The UN made it clear in 1979 that the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony, and its subsequent occupation, was illegal and that therefore so was the so-called oil treaty. But “the Australian government has always maintained that the treaty is legal”, reports the West Australian of 18 December. As of December last year, Australian companies BHP, Santos and Petroz had already extracted 32,500 barrels of oil daily from three wells in the zone jointly controlled by Australia and Indonesia. BHP, however, have since sold its assets to the US company, Phillips Petroleum. There have been, it would seem, disputes over a number of as yet unstarted fields, including the Woodside’s Laminaria field and BHP’s Buffalo field which “would fall into an area which might be claimed by East Timor as well as Australia” (West Australian, 18 December).

East Timor has now replaced Indonesia as Australia’s partner in the Timor Gap oil treaty, according to the West Australian (12 February). The official ceremony was held in Dili at the beginning of the month, James Batley, Australia’s resident consul in East Timor, who signed the new treaty, said that “there are important investment prospects here, and this has smoothed the path for those to go ahead”. Of course! And the United Nations secretary-general, who recently visited Dili, said how pleased he was at Australia’s quick response to the UN’s call for troops to go to East Timor. Yes; of course, of course!

Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken, propertyless, often starving workers and peasants of East (and West) Timor watch, sometimes pray, and hope that things will get no worse.
Peter E. Newell

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