John Pilger: East Timor – a lesson in why the poorest threaten the powerful

From the Chagos Islands to Pakistan, innocent civilians are pawns to America, backed by Britain. In our compliant political culture, this deadly game seldom speaks its name.

East Timor, election
People pray during Sunday mass as they wait for the presidential election results. Dili, East Timor, 17 March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Milan Kundera’s truism “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” described East Timor. The day before I set out to film clandestinely there in 1993, I went to Stanfords map shop in London’s Covent Garden. “Timor?” said a hesitant sales assistant. We stood staring at shelves marked “South-East Asia”. “Forgive me, where exactly is it?”

After a search, he came up with an old aeronautical map with blank areas stamped “Relief Data Incomplete”. He had never been asked for East Timor. Such was the silence that enveloped the Portu­guese colony following its invasion by Indonesia in 1975. Yet not even Pol Pot succeeded in killing, proportionally, as many Cambodians as the Indonesian dictator Suharto killed and starved in East Timor.

In my film Death of a Nation, there is a sequence on board an Australian aircraft flying over the island of Timor. A party is in progress, and two men in suits are toasting each other in champagne. “This is an historically unique moment,” babbles one of them, “that is truly uniquely historical.” This is Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister. The other man is Ali Alatas, Suharto’s principal mouthpiece. It is 1989 and they are making a symbolic flightto celebrate the signing of a piratical treaty that allowed Australia and international oil and gas companies to exploit the seabed off East Timor. Beneath them are valleys etched with black crosses where British- and American-supplied aircraft have blown people to bits.

Zillions of dollars

In 1993, the foreign affairs committee of the Australian parliament reported that “at least 200,000”, a third of East Timor’s population, had perished under Suharto. Thanks largely to Evans, Australia was the only western country that formally recognised Suharto’s genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus trained in Australia. The prize, said Evans, was “zillions” of dollars.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, Suharto died peacefully in 2008 surrounded by the best medical help his billions could buy. He was never at risk of prosecution by the “international community”. Margaret Thatcher told him, “You are one of our very best and most valuable friends.” The Australian prime minister Paul Keating regarded him as a father figure. A group of Australian newspaper editors, led by Rupert Murdoch’s veteran retainer Paul Kelly, flew to Jakarta to pay their tribute to the dictator; there is a picture of one of them bowing.

In 1991, Evans described the massacre of more than 200 people by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor’s capital, as an “aberration”. When protesters planted crosses outside the Indonesian embassy in Can­berra, he ordered them torn up.

On 17 March, Evans was in Melbourne to address a seminar on the Arab spring. Now immersed in the busy world of “think tanks”, he expounds on great-power strategies, notably the fashionable “responsibility to protect”, which Nato uses to attack or threaten uppity or out-of-favour dictators on the false pretext of liberating their people. Libya is a recent example. Also attending the seminar was Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, who reminded the audience of Evans’s long and crucial support for Suharto.

As the session ended, Evans, a man of limited fuse, stormed over to Zunes and yelled, “Who the fuck are you? Where the fuck are you from?” Zunes was told, Evans later confirmed, that such critical remarks deserved “a smack on the nose”. The episode was timely. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of an independence Evans once denied, East Timor is in the throes of electing a new president.

For many Timorese, their children malnourished and stunted, the democracy is notional. Years of bloody occupation, backed by Britain, the US and Australia, were followed by a relentless campaign of bullying by the Australian government to manoeuvre the tiny new nation out of its proper share of the seabed’s oil and gas revenue. Having refused to recognise the Law of the Sea, Australia even unilaterally changed its maritime boundary.

Shot by the sheriff

In 2006, a deal was finally signed, largely on Australia’s terms. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, a nationalist who had stood up to Canberra and foreign interference, was in effect deposed in what he called an “attempted coup” by “outsiders”. Australia has “peacekeeping” troops based in East Timor and had trained his opponents.

According to a leaked Australian Defence Force document, Australia’s “first objective” in East Timor is for its military to “seek access” so that it can exercise “influence over East Timor’s decision-making”. One of the two current presidential candidates is Taur Matan Ruak, an army general and Canberra’s man, who helped see off the troublesome Alkatiri.

One independent little country astride lucrative natural resources and strategic sea lanes is of great concern to the United States and its “deputy sheriff” in Canberra (George W Bush actually promoted Australia to full sheriff). That helps explain why the Suharto regime required such devotion from its western sponsors. Washington’s obsession in Asia, past and present, is China, which today offers developing countries investment, skills and infrastructure in return for resources.

Visiting Australia last November, President Barack Obama issued another of his veiled threats to China and announced the establishment of a US marine base in Darwin, just across the water from East Timor. He understands that small, impoverished countries can often present the greatest threat to predatory power, because if they cannot be intimidated and controlled, who can?