East Timor: The Coup the World Missed

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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.

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 Timor Gap.

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.

22, 2006

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2006

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