Bob Gould, 2003

An open letter to Jose Ramos Horta
Supporting the Iraq war does East Timor no favours

Source: Self-published pamphlet, February 28, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

I write as an old agitator against imperialism and its various wars. I’ve never met you, although I’ve heard you speak on a number of occasions at public meetings during your long and frequently lonely campaign for self-determination for your oppressed homeland, East Timor.

At different points I attended demonstrations and meetings over the years in support of the cause of East Timor, which for a very long time appeared a rather forlorn hope, and I marched along with many tens of thousands of other Australians during the final upheaval in support of East Timorese independence, which had, the unusual slogan, for many of us, of Send Australian Troops to East Timor.

I’m glad and proud that we did this, and the subsequent development of a small, independent state of East Timor is a considerable achievement for our common humanity. I respect your long personal struggle for East Timor’s independence.

I was also one of the million or so Australians who marched a couple of weeks ago against George Bush’s impending imperialist assault on the peoples of Iraq, and it’s in this framework I wish to take sharp issue against you adding your prestige to this vengeful, unjustified, imperialist war project of the US, Australian and British ruling classes.

It’s worth saying that at the core of the very large demonstrations against Bush’s war plans were the many thousands of people, almost all of them in fact, who marched in Australia in support of East Timorese independence, whom you accuse by implication, of naivete, in your well-publicised New York Times article supporting Bush’s war.

You insult us even further by asserting that you didn’t see any slogans attacking Saddam Hussein. Well, I saw plenty and I don’t know anybody opposed to the war against Iraq who isn’t also extremely hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussein. It’s sad to be subjected to this kind of demagogy by someone in whose support many of us have campaigned quite vigorously.

In passing, you absolve the ruling classes of the US, Britain and Australia for their 25 years of total neglect of the rights of the East Timorese people, and say they redeemed themselves by the intervention in 1998.

You seem able to be magnanimous in this respect, but it is a great deal more useful to examine the Realpolitik behind the behaviour of these ruling classes, rather than suddenly absolve them of guilt.

Your repetition of the Bush administration’s story is altogether too simple, and I urge you to carefully consider the sequence of events as you lived through it. Quite clearly, the decisive turning point in the fortunes of East Timor independence was the mass upheaval inside Indonesia against the ruthless and brutal Suharto regime, which suppressed both the East Timorese and Indonesian peoples for so many years with the active support of the US and Australian ruling classes.

The primary factor that ultimately led to East Timorese independence was the courageous and explosive mass mobilisation of the Indonesian people that toppled the Suharto regime. This produced a political crisis in Indonesia that led to the interim government of Amin Rais authorising the referendum on East Timorese independence.

In this referendum, despite enormous pressure and brutality from the Indonesian military, and at great peril and blood cost to themselves, the East Timorese people grasped the opportunity and voted for independence. This produced a political crisis for the policies of the US and Australian ruling classes. It was at that moment that, metaphorically speaking, the Pentagon helicopter gunships hovering over Jakarta relayed from Washington the brutal message: “We’ve done as much as we can for you, the game is up, get out of East Timor.”

Faced with this clear but implicit change in US and Australian government Realpolitik the Indonesian military were forced to recognise the inevitable and depart from East Timor.

I put it to you, brother Horta, that the decisive element in these events was the mass upheaval in Indonesia and the heroic resistance of the Timorese people. Those were the factors that caused the reversal in policy of the Australian and US governments.

Many thousands of progressive Australians who marched and campaigned for East Timor’s independence were relieved and moved by the subsequent developments, as your small, poor former colony constructed the elements of a state.

From where I sit, and I’m sure I share this view with most of those who had any concern for Timorese independence, despite its contradictions, weaknesses and limitations, the new independent state of East Timor beats the hell out the circumstances that prevailed under the brutal Indonesian rule.

As a socialist, labour movement activist and democrat, the fact that the East Timorese people have the right to form trade unions, engage in public political agitation, publish newspapers, etc, is a very important improvement over their previous situation, and in fact over the situation of the masses in many other countries in Asia and the ex-colonial world.

Returning to the question of Australian demonstrators, just about everybody of my acquaintance who marched for East Timorese independence, including the necessary demand for Australian peacekeepers in East Timor, which was appropriate in the circumstances, also marched on February 16 against Bush’s impending war on Iraq. How can this be if your condescending attitude to the peace demonstrators is correct?

In a superior way, you accuse the advocates of peace in Iraq of naivete, and more significantly you take up the Bush-Blair-Howard demagogy, accusing them of insensitivity to the plight of the Iraqi masses oppressed by the dictator Saddam Hussein.

How dare you! The demonstrators I know are few of them naive, and they are all opposed to the brutal practices of Saddam Hussein. None of them, however, believe the mealy-mouthed rhetoric about the US world hegemon being a guarantor of human rights.

If the core question in the Iraq war is human rights, why doesn’t the Bush administration take immediate steps against the brutal Turkish oppression of the Kurds, or the nuclear-armed military dictatorship of Pakistan, or the 40-year military dictatorship in Myanmar, or the feudal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Kuwait? If the immediate issue in Iraq is democracy and human rights, why does the CIA and the US administration put such immense effort into trying to overthrow an elected government in Venezuela?

Most of the millions of marchers you accuse of naivete can see the brutal core fact that you avoid: the thing that brings together Bush’s democratic rhetoric about Iraq and anti-democratic actions in opposition to the elected government of Venezuela is the struggle over the world’s declining oil resources.

The marchers you call naive can see what you can’t see, apparently: that the military assault on Iraq will result in many, many thousands of civilian casualties. In addition to this, if from the point of view of US imperialism, the Iraq issue is really one of democracy and self-determination, as they say, what about the right of the oppressed Kurds to their own national state?

The 30 million Kurds live in a contiguous area with only small minorities of other peoples in that area. They have as strong a claim to an independent national state as do the people of East Timor, and yet any consideration of their claim to independent statehood is deliberately excluded from any of the Bush-Blair-Howard rhetoric about Iraq.

To make mattes worse, the arrangements for the invasion of Iraq are made with the most brutal opponent of Kurdish independence, the Turkish state. What the 10 million marchers against this war around the world can see is what you can’t see: that this war, like most wars, is an extension of politics, as Clausewitz said, and the politics in this instance are about control of the biggest oil reserves in the world.

This is also something that can be clearly seen by other imperialist and bureaucratic states, such as Germany, France, Russia and China, which have different global interests, sometimes in opposition to those of British, US and Australian imperialism.

Those states are very reluctant to give control of the oil to the US, Britain and Australia, which is why this war now seems likely to proceed without the support of the United Nations.

In 1915, in opposing the imperialism of both sides in World War I, Lenin pointed out that if that war was really being fought for the self-determination of Belgium there might be reason to support it, but since that was not the case, the interests of the working class lay in opposing both the imperialist blocs in that conflict.

In politics as in life, there is often not much automatic reciprocity. You may not be impressed by my pointing out to you that the overwhelming majority of progressive people around the world who supported East Timor now oppose this war. Like the representatives at the UN of many small states subjected to the enormous diplomatic and economic pressure of the US — the carrot and the stick — you clearly feel obliged by those circumstance to repeat the story of the US ruling class almost word for word.

I might at this point introduce another element of Realpolitik that you might need to consider in your role as East Timor’s senior global diplomat. In East Timor there is a conflict between parts of your government and many youth over the language question. A section of the government, educated a long time ago (of which I understand you are one) want to revive Portuguese as the national language. A large part of the youth want Tetum supplemented by English and Bahasa Indonesia (in which they were educated) as major secondary languages.

The youth recognise that fluency in Bahasa Indonesia is of value to East Timor because it has to live in the midst of the overwhelmingly Malay and Muslim state of Indonesia. Even in Australia, many of those marching against Bush’s war make the point that our major neighbour is Indonesia, a mainly Muslim country, and that joining in an imperialist venture that is viewed clearly by Muslims worldwide as an assault on Islam is to unnecessarily sharpen conflicts with Muslim neighbours, with incalculable consequences.

There is a large element of geopolitical truth in these considerations. As East Timor’s senior diplomat, you should weigh those considerations against the pressure on you to reflect the interests of your great and powerful US and Australian allies.

You do the infant state of East Timor no favours by emerging personally as an ideological policeman for the US ruling class in the Southeast Asian region.