Paul Foot

Oil’s not well in East Timor

(17 November 1990)

From Socialist Worker, 17 November 1990.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 217–219.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The people of the tiny Indonesian province of East Timor are excited about events in the Gulf, the Financial Times reported last week. How can that be?

How could anyone possibly be excited about the Gulf? Well, Financial Times correspondent Claire Bolderson has the answer: ‘If the world will rally to save the Kuwaitis from their aggressive next door neighbour, they say, surely it will do the same for them.’

This is logic. The United Nations says it has a duty to protect the integrity of every member state. If one state is attacked by another, the entire world community must join forces to see the aggressor off.

The logic is specially powerful in East Timor. The people of that sad country have hardly known a single day of independence.

It is the eastern half of a large island in the South Seas. A bloody deal was struck between the two imperial powers – Holland took the west, Portugal the east.

After a time the Dutch, who were rather quicker than the other imperialists to realise the game was up, handed over their half to an independent Indonesia, while the Portuguese clung to East Timor every bit as ruthlessly as they clung to their colonies in Africa: Guinea, Angola and Mozambique.

As in Africa, Portugal was eventually forced out of East Timor in 1975. There was nothing but chaos, civil war and conquest to follow. The Indonesians invaded and the Timoreans fought with tremendous (and almost wholly unreported) courage and sacrifice.

In the terrible wars and famines which followed, probably a third of the population, nearly 200,000 people out of 600,000, were killed.


The Indonesian dictators followed up their slaughter with the most ghastly exploitation and the most revolting terror. This has been going on pretty well without a pause now for 15 years.

East Timor is a model of the kind of country which ought to be protected by the international community. If there really was a world government with a sense of duty to the underprivileged and the oppressed East Timor would have been rescued long ago from the dragon which devours it.

Yet the issue of sending troops to beat back the aggressors and allow a new free country to develop from the ruins of East Timor has never even been discussed at the United Nations.

Now and then a resolution deploring the invasion and the atrocities of Indonesia is discussed, and usually traded in exchange for a ‘helpful’ vote from Indonesia about some other part of the world where big companies or states make profits. No one, in short, has lifted a finger to help the wretched people of East Timor, who must imagine that no one has ever heard of their plight.

Now that aggression and oppression are suddenly unpopular at the United Nations (and now that American imperialism, Russian imperialism, Chinese, French and British imperialism have responded to the invasion of Kuwait with huge forces, and talk of widespread war) it is hardly surprising that the hopes of the people of East Timor begin to rise.


For if the world moves against a monster in Baghdad, might it not do so against a monster in Jakarta? There is after all nothing in logic to separate the two monsters.

The regime in Baghdad is hardly more savage than its counterpart in Jakarta. It can hardly be argued that the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 was any more intolerable than the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia 15 years earlier. By every measure possible, the barbarism in East Timor has been as bad, if not far worse, than anything yet experienced in Kuwait.

No wonder the East Timoreans are hopeful. But they have misread the reasons for the war in the Gulf. They have to do with the cheap supply of oil. The Americans and their ‘allies’ (what romantic memories that word conjures up) want to get rid of Saddam because he is seen by them as a threat to the stability of the region and the price of oil.

The people of East Timor, as they hope and pray for a similar force rescue their country, have only to ask one question to discover whether or not they will be ‘rescued’ by ‘allies’ across the sea.

Is there oil in East Timor? If yes, which is possible, it won’t be long before the US cavalry comes over the hill. If no, the people of East Timor, as far as the ‘allies’ are concerned, can rot in hell.

Last updated on 30 June 2014