The whole of the 20th century has few finer stories of international working-class solidarity. On 4 September the United Nations announced that East Timor's 30 August referendum had produced a 78.5% vote for independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian army and its militias immediately launched a genocidal terror campaign. Almost equally fast, the Australian trade unions shut down almost all business links between Australia and its huge neighbour-nation, demanding that the Indonesian troops withdraw.
The Maritime Union banned all trade with Indonesia. Oil refinery workers refused to work with Indonesian oil. Transport unions took action against Garuda flights and air freight to Indonesia. Postal and telecom workers stopped services to Indonesian government and Garuda offices.
All this action was illegal under Australian law. Prime minister John Howard denounced it. Workplace Relations minister Peter Reith called on employers to take legal action against the unions, and the airline Qantas threatened to do just that. But so widespread was mass support for the East Timorese that Australian Council of Trade Unions president Jennie George, no daredevil, could confidently declare: "Any employer who seeks to penalise workers for participating in the campaign will be opposed by the whole union movement." Trade unions were also central in organising the larger of the many street demonstrations in support of East Timor. They ranged in size up to 25,000 on 10 September and 35,000 on 17 September in Melbourne, where there is a left-wing local union leadership and an East Timorese exile community of some thousands.
By 12 September the Indonesian government backed down, and said it would begin withdrawing its army and admitting a UN force to East Timor. This victory was won not just by the direct effect of the trade-union action on Indonesian business, but also by the ability of union bans and demonstrations to push governments into a firmer stand than the ordinary diplomatic protests they would otherwise have made.
John Howard is no consistent democrat - economic interests make him a solid supporter of China's claims over Tibet and Taiwan! - but the mass mobilisations pushed him into speaking out against the Indonesian army terror to a degree which may seriously disrupt business between Australia and Indonesia. The Far East Economic Review reported that: "While the IMF and the World Bank have both condemned the violence in East Timor, neither organisation wants to withhold aid to achieve a purely political objective." (Imposing poverty and misery on the Indonesian workers and peasants in order to secure the profits of international banks counts with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank only as an "economic objective", not political at all!) However, both the IMF and World Bank were pushed into suspending aid. Their official grounds for doing so were a financial scandal which had blown some weeks previously, but on 24 September IMF managing director Michel Camdessus "repeated that the fund would not resume loans to Indonesia until the Bank Bali affair was properly investigated and the situation in East Timor improved" (AFR 25 September, emphasis added).
The Australian unions have kept their strength in strategic sectors better than those in many other countries. Still, they are usually by no means radical. For 13 years, from 1983 to 1996, they placidly supported a Labor government which undermined their previous gains and their strength - and which continued an Australian state policy dating back to 1975 of full support for the Indonesian military and its rule in East Timor. Since the election of a fiercely anti-union Coalition government in March 1996, their stance has been defensive. How did they come to organise this tremendous solidarity action?
The tenacity of the East Timorese, continuing their battle for self-determination despite Indonesian terror which killed maybe one-third of the whole population in the 1970s, was one essential precondition.
Another was the rebellion of the Indonesian workers and students who toppled dictator Suharto in May 1998, discrediting all apologists for the Indonesian military. A third factor, however, must have been the efforts over many years of the Australian left to publicise the cause of the East Timorese within their labour movement. Thousands of leaflets, street protests, meetings, resolutions and so on finally bore fruit.
Particular credit here probably belongs to the Democratic Socialist Party, the biggest group of the Australian far left, which has made East Timor one of its most high profile causes. Sadly, the DSP blotted its record by switching, in the crucial week, to a fervent call for Australia to go to war with Indonesia as the only "immediate and practical" way to save the East Timorese. The situation was so urgent, said the DSP, that all the usual rules of socialist politics about looking to working class action and having no confidence in capitalist states ceased to apply - though, in a bizarre evidence of their confusion, they also said that Australia must first get the approval of the UN! The call for war was not "immediate" or "practical" assistance to the East Timorese at all - unless you think that just asking could get the UN and Australia "immediately" and "practically" to do what no capitalist state has ever done, launch altruistic war. And if Australia and Indonesia do stumble into war, it will be no less bloody than the NATO-Serbia war.
The Australian trade unions also called for UN troops to East Timor - as did all factions of the East Timorese themselves - but by agreement with the Indonesians. Against Indonesia, any democrat must support the right of the East Timorese to invite in UN troops; and therefore, so long as the East Timorese want the UN troops there, almost all the Australian left refuses, and rightly so, to call for "UN-Australian troops out" (although the ISO, sister-group of the SWP-Britain, writes denunciations which leave them hard-pressed to explain why they do not make that call). That does not mean that socialists should follow the conservative ACTU leaders in their "common sense" assumption that UN-Australian military rule is the best and only alternative to Indonesian rule in East Timor, and positively endorse the troops. Our job is to make international solidarity strong enough that the East Timorese feel confident enough to assert their right to a free East Timor.
Much of the Australian ruling class is furious that Howard has damaged business ties with Indonesia. The Australian Financial Review's Peter Hartcher writes: "For the sake of the national interest, John Howard should keep quiet. Australia cannot afford any more Howard policy successes." This sentiment will create huge pressure on the Australian government to do deals with Indonesia over East Timor.
For that reason, continued vigilance and distrust of the Australian state by the Australian labour movement is vital. Australia will also be concerned to secure its capitalist interests in East Timor and in the rich oilfields of the narrow sea which lies between East Timor and Australia.
For now, conflicts on this score are only potential. The East Timorese leaders have chosen to endorse the Timor Gap Treaty signed between Australia and Indonesia for the exploitation of the oilfields, reassure Australian and international investors that an independent East Timorese government would cherish their profits, and promise full compliance to the IMF. Nevertheless, socialists should advocate the full right of the people of East Timor to determine their own future and control the wealth of their own coastal waters.
In East Timor itself, the situation is changing from day to day. As we go to press on 7 October, the UN-Australian troops (Interfet) have secured Dili and a few other towns, receiving a warm welcome from the East Timorese. They have got some food aid to some regions, and disarmed a few militia people. Most Indonesian troops have withdrawn from East Timor. Only about 1500 remain. It looks as if Indonesia's "People's Consultative Assembly" will soon ratify East Timorese independence. The Indonesian government is expected to sign an agreement with the UN within a day or so to permit the East Timorese in the West Timor refugee camps to return. But the great majority of East Timorese are still outside the UN-Australian controlled area - in hiding, in the refugee camps in West Timor where they were driven by the Indonesian military and militia, or in militia-controlled areas. It must be likely that many East Timorese are starving.
Continued smaller-scale militia massacres are reported. Militia people disarmed by the UN-Australian forces are handed over to the Indonesian police, who then release them. The militias are very far from being destroyed, though whether they will risk serious armed conflict with the UN-Australian forces, retire to Indonesian territory, or remain a subdued (for now) but menacing presence in East Timor, we still do not know. The East Timorese guerrilla movement, Falintil, claims to have driven the militia out of eastern East Timor. The UN-Australian forces have said they will disarm Falintil, but for now an uneasy deal has been made. The UN-Australian forces agree that Falintil can keep its arms in areas outside UN-Australian control; Falintil says it will disarm once it is sure all Indonesian forces have withdrawn.
On current UN plans, the dominant military power in East Timor in the next few years will be a revised UN force. According to the latest statements by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, it will comprise 9000 troops, about 2000 of them Australian; it will take over from Interfet within three months, and it will remain for at least three years. A "transitional" UN administration is planned for East Timor. Full East Timorese self-determination is a long way down the track. East Timor, a desperately poor nation even before the terror campaign, will require large-scale aid.
It has been promised some. But now is the time to insist that the millions gained in profit by US, British, and Australian military suppliers to the Indonesian military, and by multinationals producing with army-police labour in Indonesia, should rightfully be claimed for this purpose - and that the people of East Timor have the unabridgeable right to political and military control over their own country. In Indonesia, the East Timor crisis has left president Habibie discredited both with the military and with the reform-minded. There have been anti-Australian demonstrations in Indonesia, but mostly, it seems, concocted by the military. Far larger and more militant - and, for now, successful - have been the student protests against the army's attempt to gain increased powers."
Indonesia's largest trade-union organisation, the SBSI, stated that it "supports the actions of the Australian trade unions to pressure the Indonesian government to stop the violence in East Timor and recognise its right to self-determination. Though we are opposed to sweeping economic sanctions, we believe these workers' actions are sharp political protests that can help force the Indonesian government to comply with the May agreement [with the UN, on self-determination for East Timor]. We are concerned about government economic sanctions because they can hurt workers and peasants and because the Indonesian military may use them to gain the upper hand in the domestic political struggle. Nonetheless, we very much support the pickets and industrial action by the Australian trade unions".
Another Indonesian trade union federation, the FNPBI, linked to Indonesia's main left party, the PRD, declared "full support for all the solidarity actions and strikes conducted by trade unions worldwide", and called for immediate withdrawal of the Indonesian army and police from East Timor and the disbanding of the militias". Substantial sections of Indonesian big capital had evidently decided that holding East Timor cost more than it was worth, and some of them did speak out (less militantly) against the army terror. The leaders of two large Islamic parties, the PAN and PKB, came out in favour of admitting UN forces to East Timor, and so did sections of Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P, though Megawati herself remained prudently silent.
A serious danger now in Indonesia is that Megawati, with her great popular support based on the vaguest of promises, and General Wiranto, chief of the army, will come together to form a new government which enables the army to restore its position.
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