Wednesday, May 31, 2006


I've been meaning to write about East Timor for a number of weeks now. But I just haven't had the time to do the research on what is happeneing in East Timor at the moment. So instead I thought I'd write about something I did know a little bit about - the New Zealand left's response to the East Timor referendum back in 1999.

This was actually the post I was meaning to write, before New Zealand sent troops to East Timor again. I found this discussion really interesting and wanted to explore where I stood.

I'll give a brief history for those who don't feel like reading a indymedia page with 100 comments. In 1974 Indonesia invaded East Timor (this was just after the Portugese withdrew and East Timor declared itself independent). This was an important issue for the New Zealand left. I went on free East Timor demonstrations as a child (I also learnt to play Gamelan at the Indonesian embassy - but that was another story). There were people who were doing a lot of solidarity work in East Timor, they had a wide variety of contacts, and they'd worked on this issue for years. Then, in 1999 there was a UN sponsored referendum. I had a friend who went to East Timor as an observer in that referendum and the result was endorsement of East Timor's independence. Then the Indonesian army fought back, they sent militia over the border. Everyone I knew who any contacts in East Timor was really afraid for them, and certain that the East Timorese wouldn't be able to defend themselves from the East Timor military.

There were solidarity protests in that time. I didn't go to the organising meetings myself, but I remember hearing about the debates about the line. Eventually Australia and New Zealand forces went in to oppose the East Timor. It was clear to everyone who knew anything that the reason they did this was the East Timorese oil and gas reserves. It's very rare for troops to be sent anywhere unless there isn't some sort of economic advantage to it (or a perceived advantage to it, I don't think Iraq has worked out quite like how they planned). There were those who opposed New Zealand sending troops, on the grounds that there are many really good reasons for left-wing people to oppose New Zealand troops being (most of them come under the heading 'imperialism'*).

On the other hand the people who had spent the most time on the issue, who had the most - they all supported New Zealand troops going into East Timor (and a lot of these people had quite a long list of radical credentials). The reason they supported them was because that's what their contacts in East Timor were demanding.

I didn't pay much attention to the debate at the time. I was finishing Honours, I had heaps of essays to write. I went on the demonstration, and I didn't think anyone in New Zealand, Indonesia and East Timor cared whether I was chanting for Indonesian troops to get out or New Zealand troops to get in. I've thought it about recently - what position I'd take now, and what implication it has on other interventions in the pacific.

The local peace group's slogan is "peace with justice and self-determination". I think self-determination is important, and if you can't have self-determination in struggle then where can you have it. I think those involved in a liberation struggle should be able to choose between selling off their resources to rich and powerful resources and being slaughtered.

But I don't believe solidarity and self-determination mean that those in other countries need to suspend all judgements, I think we still have to make up our own minds. I think it would be a bad idea for a solidarity group to put up a demand that had no support in it's country of origin. But I think if you disagree with what you understand to be the demands of the liberation movements that you are supporting, then you have the right - actually the obligation - to stay silent.

If New Zealand was going to go into East Timor it wasn't going to go in because the East Timorese people called for it, or because the 300 people march in Wellington asked us to. They were going to go in because America said so and because it was in our economic interests. Given that I think calling for New Zealand troops to go in creates an illusion and a false impression of the role in New Zealand's troops.

I understand why those who were in contact with people in East Timor supported New Zealand troops. But I think they were wrong if they believed that the call to send troops would make any difference to anything, but the way New Zealand troops were perceived. My analysis of New Zealand's role in the pacific means that I don't support New Zealand troops being sent anywhere in response to things humans do.

*There was an argument on indymedia that Indonesia's invasion of East Timor wasn't imperialist - if there's any Marxist who reads this blog who could explain why I'd appreciate it - it'd save me reading Lenin.**

**I'm not going to read Lenin even if you don't explain it to me, so don't hold out on me on the grounds it might lead me to educate myself.

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