The 1999 Australian intervention in East Timor

Following the bombing of Serbia beginning in April that year, September 1999 witnessed the launching of another neo-colonialist operation by the imperialist powers: the Australian-led and US-backed intervention in East Timor.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, Washington and Canberra shifted away from their decades-long support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, concluding that their economic and strategic interests would be best served by granting “independence” to the resource-rich territory.

Under pressure from the US and its Australian “deputy sheriff” (as Prime Minister John Howard notoriously styled himself), Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie, organised a referendum on August 30. After the Timorese masses voted for independence, the Indonesian military and its proxy militias retaliated by killing hundreds of civilians and displacing hundreds of thousands—thereby providing the major powers with a “humanitarian” pretext to intervene and secure their interests.

In response, the World Socialist Web Site issued a series of statements opposing the imperialist intervention, and the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) organised public meetings exposing the predatory nature of the operation. The WSWS explained that the major powers were seeking control of the oil reserves in the Timor Sea and greater access to the geo-strategically crucial Indonesian archipelago. It also reviewed the historical record of imperialist intrigue in the island, perpetrated by successive US and Australian governments that were complicit in the crimes of the Suharto regime, including Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, costing an estimated 200,000 lives.

A critical feature of the WSWS coverage was its exposure of the role played by the petty-bourgeois “left.” A number of these groups organized “troops in” protests calling on the right-wing Howard government to intervene. East Timor was a further stage in the shift to the right among the middle-class “left” groups, who openly embraced imperialism under the banner of “human rights.”

On the basis of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, the WSWS outlined a socialist perspective for the Timorese and Indonesian populations, exposing the East Timorese nationalist group CNRT, which refused to defend the population against the onslaught of the Indonesian-backed militia. The CNRT leaders instead used the civilian deaths to agitate for an imperialist intervention that would place them in power in a new capitalist statelet, where they would work in behalf of Timorese bourgeois layers and the major imperialist powers.

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