Shifting Spheres - The Redivision of Imperialist Power in East Timor

East Timor appeared in the news media once again April and May of 2006. The conflict between factions within the regime erupted into full scale rioting and the suppression of a military rebellion. Since the founding of the newest and poorest country in the world, they have been embroiled in an ongoing dispute with Australia over the exploitation of gas fields in the Timor strait. Australia, now exercising greater latitude of ambition in regional affairs seeks the most favorable division of the spoils of the Timor strait and has thus been pressing the East Timorese government for greater concessions and a larger direct share of the profits from these gas fields.

This role of Australian mini-imperialism has the tacit consent of the US.

In the wake of the US defeat in Vietnam, the Ford administration allowed the Indonesian army to invade East Timor in order to shore up US power in the region. With the end of the Soviet Union so to came an end to many previous power alignments, Indonesia no longer had the importance to US imperialism that it once had. Even in the findings of the UN sponsored East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) report, that the very powers once supporting Indonesian occupation of East Timor supplying the Indonesian government with diplomatic cover and military support and who now were overseeing its independence under the auspices of the UN flag and who are playing out a new redivision of imperialist power in the region.

Regardless of which power has dominated this tiny territory, the end result has been one of dire poverty for the oppressed workers and peasants of the region and one of economic wrangling and imperialism that appears as periodic erupting crises in this poorest of countries, it appears in the democratic and humanitarian cloak of the UN revealing itself as a ‘robbers den’ of imperialist thieves intriguing against each other and jockeying for position and influence in the youngest, and one of the poorest nations on earth. One can see the players most active in this drama in the nationalities of the troops sent to the region in the latest bout of violence. National liberation here lies exposed as yet another way of expressing the endless shifting of spheres of imperialist influence and power.

According to the UN Development Programme’s Timor-Leste Human Development Report of 2006, right in the beginning in the executive summary, that in fact annual wages for East Timorese workers currently stand at about $370us and are falling. This isn’t surprising, the reward for workers in newly liberated East Timor, has been falling wages under the watchful eye of UN troops. East Timor itself is very much a UN protectorate. Rather the interests of Australian mini-Imperialism now dominate under the auspices of the UN. Australia too was one of the powers deeply implicated in support for the 1975 Indonesian military takeover of East Timor and subsequent occupation providing key military support to the Indonesian government.

The Australian and Indonesian governments as far back as the early seventies had agreed to the drawing of the boundaries of the seabed in the Timor Strait when East Timor was still under Portuguese colonial rule. Indonesia gave over much of its control over the exploitation of the seabed to Australia in exchange for recognition and even military assistance in the occupation of East Timor. The new state of Timor was in no position to challenge the Treaty as it was negotiated in February of 2000 and signed by the likes of the UN’s Portuguese representative Sergio Vierra de Miello acting as representative of East Timor but in actuality exercised all the powers of a colonial governor, and the Australian consul in East Timor James Batley. In 2001 U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor and Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri signed the Timor Sea Arrangement with Australia that increased East Timor’s share of upstream oil and gas revenues from the Joint Petroleum Development Area to 90 percent. Finally the East Timor government managed to get a further treaty signed in January of 2006, known as the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS). This treaty raised East Timor’s share of the revenues of the Greater Sunrise field from 18% to 50% but that also pushed any final settlement for a permanent maritime boundary thirty to fifty years into the future.

Last July Jose Ramos-Horta was sworn into the office of Prime Minister replacing the former PM Mari Alkatiri. This new leader chosen specifically for his vigorous support for US and Australian interests in the region. Ramos-Horta, who supports giving the church a role in government and is a die-hard nationalist bourgeois reaction and living proof of the concretely reactionary nature of national liberation movements in the present period, like the President Xanana Gusmao who urged the East Timorese not to defend themselves from the 1999 Indonesian militia massacres so as to attract attention and UN support for the future mini-state of Timor-Leste. This appointment of new leaders can do nothing to stop the reaction of homegrown nationalists from among the discontented layers of the population and the fact that leaders of the most recent rebellion like Major Alfredo Reinado are still at large.

The East Timorese proletarians have nothing to gain from the exploitation of Timor Gap oil and gas, any more than they have something to gain by allowing themselves to dragooned into fighting for any disgruntled faction of bourgeoisie in East Timor. The long suffering and exploited of the countries on the periphery of capitalism, on the frontiers of competing spheres of influence under capitalism can only look forward to poverty, misery and war.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the first chapter of her work The National Question that:

The nationality question cannot be an exception among all the political, social, and moral questions examined in this way by modern socialism. It cannot be settled by the use of some vague cliché, even such a fine-sounding formula as “the right of all nations to self-determination.” For such a formula expresses either absolutely nothing, so that it is an empty, noncommittal phrase, or else it expresses the unconditional duty of socialists to support all national aspirations, in which case it is simply false.

Under modern capitalism in its advanced imperialist phase the old bourgeois “right of nations to self-determination” is a phrase that has no meaning other than as a cover for the ongoing intrigues of imperialist powers both great and small. The bourgeois left, the left nationalists of all stripes have no answers and when it comes to the concrete realities of the national liberation movements that they support there is only silence. The nation is today as it always was from the start of the capitalist epoch the form chosen by the ruling bourgeois class to mediate and suppress class struggle and disenfranchise the working class while using the empty phrases borrowed from the enlightenment about “rights” and “democracy”. Ultimately proletarians must impose their own order over that of the bourgeoisie on a global scale. Workers in all countries have as their first task taking up struggle against capitalism not allying itself to some supposedly “progressive” faction of the bourgeoisie.