This article has been reproduced from the Socialist Standard (October 2001), the monthly journal of The Socialist Party of Great Britain
The chain of over 13,000 islands stretching 3,600 miles from Malaya to Northern Australia have a long and chequered history. Evidence suggests humans resided on some of these islands over 50,000 years ago. From 3000 BC to 500 BC immigrants from South China mixed with, or displaced, the original Melanesians. Indian influence from AD 700 created a Buddhist and two Hindu empires co-existing among those islands. The introduction of Islam by Arab traders in the 13th century eventually destroyed these empires. Brunei became a powerful Islamic Sultanate, dominating the whole of Borneo and parts of the Philippines. The whole chain of islands were divided into many kingdoms but Arabs came to dominate trade and religion throughout.
The first Europeans to open a sea-route to Asia were the Catholic Christians of Portugal. Their ruthless hatred of Islam was welcomed by the island kingdoms who assisted in breaking the trade monopoly of the Arabs. The first half of the 16th century saw the demise of Arab trading as the Portuguese built fortified trading posts, not only among these islands but, throughout the whole of Asia in an attempt to monopolise commerce in that part of the world.
In the latter part of the 16th century serious European rivals appeared on the scene. The Protestant Christians from Holland hated the Catholic Portuguese and they proceeded to evict them entirely from the island chain. The Dutch set up their trading centre at Batavia on the island Java and they would eventually colonise the entire archipelago under the name of Dutch East Indies. In the meantime the British were eliminating Portugal from India and Malaya. It was the lust for the lucrative trade in eastern silks, porcelain, precious stones, perfumes, spices etc that drove these commercial ventures and caused so much bloodshed.
France squabbled with the British over India but later settled for claiming Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam). Borneo was partitioned and claimed by the Dutch and Britain while the Philippines were claimed by Spain. Way down in the south, Australia would become British and the large island to the north, New Guinea, would be partitioned and claimed by the Dutch (west), Germany (north-east) and Britain (south-east). After losing World War I, Germany would lose this colony to Britain and the whole eastern half of this island would be handed to Australia to look after. The sole remnant of Portuguese activity was the eastern portion of Timor, the Dutch claiming the western half.
The Japanese overran all these colonies, except India, during World War II and this prompted European colonies throughout the world to seek independence after Japan was defeated. The armed conflicts between foreign ruling classes and local ruling classes have done nothing to improve the lives of workers in any of these countries. 1945 saw the end of World War II, and Holland challenge the claim for independence by their East India colonies. The military expeditions and attrition of guerrilla warfare became economically unsustainable and independence was granted in 1949 when the Republic of Indonesia was formed. Centralised rule from Java was been opposed by several other islands and the Republic quickly became a seething mass of discontent. Ongoing revolts and dissent in Sumatra and in the original “Spice Islands” (the Moluccas) and other territories have been met with by excessive military brutality.
This authoritarian dictatorship embarked upon policies of expansion to extract wealth from surrounding resources, enabling the ruling elite to live on obscene opulence amongst the grinding poverty of the masses. West New Guinea (Irian Jaya) was invaded and forcibly annexed in 1963, adding another festering sore of discontent to the Indonesian collection.
In this same year, 1963, an aggressive Indonesia was lured by the lucrative oil in Northern Borneo. A secret war was fought when British and Australian interests in oil-soaked Brunei insisted that this area of land be incorporated into Malaysia. SAS units from Britain and Australia, and the 3rd Australian Regiment, made damaging and deadly incursions into Indonesian territory (Kalimantan) during this undeclared and clandestine war. Plans were made in 1964 to bomb Jakarta. This information was made available only recently, under the 30-year secret-file rule.
This conflict ended abruptly about 1965, as though an undercover political deal had been struck between the parties involved. Indonesian army officers were suddenly being trained in Australia for jungle warfare, and in the same year up to 700,000 Indonesians were massacred by their army for dissent. It was alter revealed that US Intelligence was also implicated in this slaughter.
The solitary Portuguese colony of East Timor, surrounded by a sea containing suspected riches in oil and natural gas, waited apprehensively for the outcome of independence wars being fought by Portugal against their African colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Indonesia also waited.
When both Portuguese colonies eventually won their independence in 1975, East Timor also announced their own freedom., they were immediately invaded by Indonesia and officially annexed in 1976. No action was taken by the UN against this act of blatant aggression or against the human violations in which tens of thousands of Timorese civilians died. In indecent haste, with Portugal now out of the way, Australia officially recognised the annexation and struck a 50/50 deal with Indonesia for the riches of the Timor sea. It seemed as though this had all been pre-planned, a political “pay-off” to Indonesia for backing down in Borneo perhaps?
Exploration since the late 1970s has revealed increasing riches of oil and gas in the Timor sea—a bonanza. Is it pure coincidence that the UN has shown increased interest, during the 1990s, in Timorese “Human Rights” in direct proportion to the increasing wealth reported lying beneath the sea “owned” by this island territory? Increasing pressure has been put upon Indonesia, by the UN, to introduce democratic elections, and in 1999 East Timor successfully voted for Independence.
An ever-opportunistic Australia, always a UN agent for Western capitalism, provided Timor with protection and peace-keeping troops on “humanitarian grounds”, after 24 years of inactivity and indifference to their plight.
A new agreement has been drawn up whereby Australia will now “manage” all the resources in the Timor Gap, worth billions of US dollars, without the need to pay any “aid”. Royalties from profits will be sufficient payment for East Timor with some left over for Australia to pocket. Indonesia will miss out completely.
All the usual major Western capitalist companies have moved into the area, among them the US giant, Phillips Petroleum and Australia’s Woodside Petroleum, etc, and—oh yes—the Dutch are back again with their Royal Shell Group.
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