Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 5, 2010

East Timor report

Filed under: East Timor — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Last night I heard Clinton Fernandes speak on the situation in East Timor at 339 Lafayette Street, a movement center where I used to attend Nicaragua Solidarity steering committee meetings in the 1980s. Despite the Latin-sounding name, Clinton is from Goa, India, a former Portuguese colony just like East Timor that has such names bequeathed upon the citizenry, including the president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta.

Clinton Fernandes

As a leader of the East Timor solidarity movement in Australia for the past 10 years or so, Clinton did not become an activist by the normal route. In the late 1990s, he was an intelligence officer in the Australian army where he was assigned to cover Indonesia and East Timor as part of his duties. Since this included keeping track of what the new movement in Australia was up to, Clinton began collecting their pamphlets and leaflets. As he learned more about the horrors of Indonesian occupation, the connivance between the US, Australia and the occupiers, as well as the tendency of the solidarity movement to tell the truth about the situation, he eventually switched allegiances and became an outspoken critic of Australian policy in the region. While in the military, he began work on a PhD in political science and would eventually begin teaching at the University of South Wales. His dissertation became a bone of contention with his superior officers, as this excerpt from an Australian radio show would indicate:

AM – Thursday, 13 October , 2005  09:12:33

Reporter: Nick McKenzie

PETER CAVE: The Defence Force is being accused by one of its own of misusing national security and secrecy laws to stop the publication of a book, because it was deemed overly critical of the Federal Government.

AM has learnt that Major Clinton Fernandes has complained to the Defence Inspector General that the Government was behind efforts to stop him publishing a book about East Timor’s road to independence. And while that attempt failed, he’s complained that his career has since been sabotaged.

In letters obtained by the ABC, Major Fernandes accuses senior Army figures of intimidation and ignoring his assertion that he wrote the book in an entirely personal capacity and relied only on open sources.

Nick McKenzie reports.

NICK MCKENZIE: In 2004, Major Clinton Fernandes completed a four year PhD project the Army had approved. He approached a publisher, who in turn asked him to turn his PhD thesis into a book.

He completed the manuscript of Reluctant Saviour, an extended essay on Australia’s role in East Timor’s struggle for independence, and sent his Army superiors a copy.

Major Fernandes also sent an assertion that the book relied solely on publicly available information.

The resulting correspondence between Major Fernandes and some of the Army’s most senior officers became increasingly heated and it ultimately prompted the 36-year-old major to complain to the Defence Force’s Inspector General that the Army had inappropriately invoked national security and information secrecy laws to stall or stop him publishing the book.

Read entire transcript here: http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2005/s1481113.htm

Clinton’s talk helped me to focus on past discussions about East Timor as well as learn about the current situation. In 2006 the Marxism mailing list I moderate was divided sharply over whether the left should have supported Australian military intervention in East Timor, an operation that some—including me—viewed as a violation of self-determination. Clinton and all of the Democratic Socialist Party members on Marxmail saw otherwise. They saw Australia as only making the decision to intervene under the pressure of the mass movement.

One Marxmail subscriber named Joaquin Bustelo supported Clinton and the DSP’s position by analogizing it with Eisenhower’s decision to send federal troops to defend Black students attempting to attend Arkansas high schools. Eisenhower clearly made this decision under the impact of an aroused Black community first beginning to demand protection by the government against racist terror.

I don’t think I would change my position today, but I do find myself reviewing the arguments I made in support of Pinochet being extradited to Spain in order to face charges of murder in Judge Garzón’s court. For some Marxmail subscribers, this was also a violation of sovereignty. They argued that it was up to the Chileans to bring the killer to justice, not a Spanish court.

After reading an article that Clinton wrote on “the right to protect”, a term sometimes referred to as R2P in academic circles, I have a better sense of his approach to the problem. It is clear that there was a genuine grass roots movement to force Australia to intervene. He writes:

Just before the invasion, Australian activists took decisive steps to protect some East Timorese leaders who would play an important role in the independence struggle. David Scott, a 50-year old father of two who was Founding Director and Chairman of Community Aid Abroad, was in East Timor before the invasion. His personal links with East Timor went back to his father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leggatt. Leggatt had commanded the 2nd/40th Battalion at Kupang (West Timor), and had gone to Portuguese Timor where he organised the landing of Australian commandoes in December 1941. Scott was evacuated to Darwin just before Indonesia invaded East Timor. Once in Darwin, Scott realised that Jose Ramos-Horta, Rogerio Lobato and Mari Alkatiri were still trapped in Dili. As key members of the East Timorese leadership, they would certainly be singled out for a swift death. He and other activists applied every available means of pressure to ensure the evacuation of these men. A frantic round of lobbying began, culminating in one final evacuation flight for the three men being personally ordered by the new Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock. Scott flew back to Melbourne, and – although he did not realise it at the time – would work for the independence of East Timor until he was 74 years old.

During his talk, Clinton alluded to the diverse nature of the East Timor solidarity movement that included veterans of WWII from Bill Leggatt’s generation. These men were sheltered from the Japanese by the East Timorese to whom they now felt a debt. As I said before, I am still committed to the ‘absolutist’ position on military intervention by imperialist nations (even when they are a junior variety like Australia) but I have a much better sense of the case that was made by the other side.

There was some very useful discussion of East Timor’s present and future prospects that grew out of my question of how the government lined up on the “leave it in the ground” campaign that South African left scholar Patrick Bond participates in. Essentially, Bond views oil as more trouble than it is worth. In an article on the Copenhagen conference on climate change that appears on the Climate and Capitalism website, he states: “Uncivil society will have to take up the slack and apply direct pressure, starting with the slogan ‘leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole and the tarsand in the land!'”

While there is some sympathy for this perspective in East Timor, the government—at least for the time being—has a development perspective much more in line with Venezuela’s, namely to use oil revenues to develop the country. As President Horta has said, it is inappropriate for NGO’s to advise East Timor to eschew oil extraction when its employees have electricity and other benefits of development.

This is not to say that East Timor is not wary of the pitfalls awaiting countries that used oil revenues in a profligate manner. As a negative example, Clinton cited Gabon, a country that basically squandered its oil wealth and now stands exhausted of mineral wealth and any kind of future.

Perhaps the optimum outlook for East Timor is as a kind of ecotourist attraction that draws people interested in seeing a great variety of birds and other natural beauty. The government is committed to this goal, at least verbally, but has given the green light unfortunately to the typical large hotels seen in the typical tourist trap. Such hotels tend to be used by a criminal element bent on laundering money, selling drugs and other anti-social behavior. As might be obvious from Cuba’s willingness to put up with such projects, beggars can ill afford to be choosers.

With a population of about a million, East Timor might seem to defy the typical expectations of conventional Marxist thought. In my view, perhaps the best that can be expected is a mixed economy like Kerala’s with a heavy emphasis on social spending.

Clinton had some amusing remarks about the movie business, gleaned from his experience as a consultant to the production company involved with “Balibo”, a movie based on the murder of a journalist in East Timor in 1975. He met the director at a party and offered his services on a pro bono basis in the hope that his input could guarantee that the movie told the truth. Indeed, if you go to the film’s website, you will find a link to Clinton’s website.

When Clinton began working with the crew to educate them about the East Timor struggle, he found them prone to flatter him with remarks like “you are wonderful”. At first he allowed this to go to his head, but after a while he discovered that people in the movie business are always calling everything fabulous, etc. including the Subway sandwiches that were ordered for lunch one day.


  1. Great story! Interesting indeed, not only the enemy switching sides but the particularly nuanced question of 1st World intervention, in which my view is like yours, highly skeptical.

    Clinton’s story kind of reminded me of when Howard Zinn was speaking at a Campus Peace Rally during the mid 60s and he noticed all the undercover cops taking pictures, etc, and so he started speaking to them openly from the podium, asking them to stop & think for a moment about what exactly they were doing and why. Maybe it caused one or two to think like Clinton did?

    Who says a small group of thoughtful people cannot change the world?

    Funny also the part about the Hollywooders saying “you are wonderful” going to his head. Reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in the Hampton’s where the young, single pediatrician doctor tells Elaine that she’s quite “breathtaking” which went to her head until the next morning when he commented that the ugliest baby in the world was also quite “breathtaking.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 5, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  2. An interesting report. Clinton’s stand against the authorities was and is very admirable.

    Our annual on line journal Marxist Interventions will be publishing a critique of Clinton’s argument, however. It’s alas going to take a while to get the next edition out as both of us editors are immersed in finishing books at the moment, but watch this space. What I’d like to mention here is that the 1941 Australian incursion into East Timor was not some noble action. As Clinton also points out somewhere, it violated Portuguese neutrality, which is significant not because I have any respect for the legal rights of these colonisers — but rather because the Japanese were actually prepared to respect that neutrality in Timor, as part of a wider desire keep Portugal out of the war. It was Australia that brought war to E Timor, resulting in at least 40,000 dead. Neither did all the E Timorese support Australia. There is a photo of Australian troops burning a Timorese village Vietnam-style.

    None of which is to denigrate the personal sentiments of soldiers who feel a debt of gratitude to Timorese who helped them. These sentiments were certainly a factor in building the solidarity movement. But sepia-toned images of the 1941 intervention also tend to legitimise Australian imperialism in its 1999 form.

    Comment by Tom O'Lincoln — February 6, 2010 @ 2:25 am

  3. Interesting story. I love it when people leave the dark side. There definitely was a grass root movement for the liberation of East Timor from Indonesia. Most Australians could never understand why the government held the position it did. Resource interests of course. Then as now. The movie Balibo is a mixed bag. It covers the deaths of the newsmen well enough but is otherwise a bit of a fairytale. I think John Pilger has done an review on it.

    Comment by Magda — February 6, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  4. Louis refers to the discussion on marxmail at the time of the first miltary intervention and position of the DSP. That is also covered at http://links.org.au/node/155 “The left and UN military intervention in East Timor”.

    Comment by Terry Townsend — February 7, 2010 @ 10:35 am

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