These days Australia likes to present itself as a helpful, generous neighbour of East Timor, after public opinion forced the government of John Howard to lead a UN peacekeeping force six years ago. East Timor is now an independent state, thanks to the courage of its people and a tenacious resistance led by the liberation movement Fretilin, which in 2001 swept to political power in the first democratic elections. In regional elections last year, 80 per cent of votes went to Fretilin, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, a convinced "economic nationalist", who opposes privatisation and interference by the World Bank. A secular Muslim in a largely Roman Catholic country, he is, above all, an anti-imperialist who has stood up to the bullying demands of the Howard government for an undue share of the oil and gas spoils of the Timor Gap.
On 28 April last, a section of the East Timorese army mutinied, ostensibly over pay. An eyewitness, Australian radio reporter Maryann Keady, disclosed that American and Australian officials were involved. On 7 May, Alkatiri described the riots as an attempted coup and said that "foreigners and outsiders" were trying to divide the nation. A leaked Australian Defence Force document has since revealed that Australia’s "first objective" in East Timor is to "seek access" for the Australian military so that it can exercise "influence over East Timor’s decision-making". A Bushite "neo-con" could not have put it better.
The opportunity for "influence" arose on 31 May, when the Howard government accepted an "invitation" by the East Timorese president, Xanana Gusmão, and foreign minister, José Ramos Horta – who oppose Alkatiri’s nationalism – to send troops to Dili, the capital. This was accompanied by "our boys to the rescue" reporting in the Australian press, together with a smear campaign against Alkatiri as a "corrupt dictator". Paul Kelly, a former editor-in-chief of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian, wrote: "This is a highly political intervention . . . Australia is operating as a regional power or a political hegemon that shapes security and political outcomes." Translation: Australia, like its mentor in Washington, has a divine right to change another country’s government. Don Watson, a speechwriter for the former prime minister Paul Keating, the most notorious Suharto apologist, wrote, incredibly: "Life under a murderous occupation might be better than life in a failed state . . ."
Arriving with a force of 2,000, an Australian brigadier flew by helicopter straight to the headquarters of the rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado – not to arrest him for attempting to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister but to greet him warmly. Like other rebels, Reinado had been trained in Canberra.
John Howard is said to be pleased with his title of George W Bush’s "deputy sheriff" in the South Pacific. He recently sent troops to a rebellion in the Solomon Islands, and imperial opportunities beckon in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and other small island nations. The sheriff will approve.