By Stephen de Tarczynski
MELBOURNE, Oct 15 (IPS) – Activists attending an international solidarity forum in Melbourne have been speaking out against what they regard as neo-colonial practices in the South Pacific region.
“It feels like we are not independent because the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund), they have a pretty major role in (East) Timor,’’ Thomas Freitas, director of the Timor Leste Institute for Research, Advocacy and Campaigns, told IPS.
Freitas was in Australia to participate in the Latin America and Asia Pacific International Solidarity Forum, held in Melbourne over four days from Oct 11, where he spoke at a session titled ‘Confronting Colonialism in the Pacific’. The forum aims to organise and struggle against neo-liberalism on a global scale.
Freitas — who has attended similar conferences in Brazil and Indonesia, as well in other South-east Asian countries — is critical of the involvement of the Bank and IMF in East Timor.
“They give advice to our minister and then they advise the wrong things as well,” he told IPS, adding that he is disappointed that the two institutions intervene in policy decisions taken by the East Timorese Government.
East Timor — also known as Timor Leste — is a former Portuguese colony. Annexed by Indonesia in 1976, the country achieved independence in 2002 following a referendum in which 78 percent voted for independence rather than greater autonomy as part of Indonesia.
But Freitas says that East Timor’s hard-won independence has also been undermined by its neighbours.
“Even Australia and America, they’re not willing (to) also have a look at giving opportunities, full rights to the Timorese people,” says Freitas.
Tim Anderson, a senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney and a participant, slammed Australia’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, which he argues is of an imperialist nature.
According to Anderson, the imperial ambitions “are most strongly evident in the (Australian) military and police interventions recently and particularly because the police and military interventions are strongly tied to the investment interests”.
Anderson cites Australia’s involvement in the Solomon Islands and East Timor — Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) personnel are deployed in both countries, with AFP also in Tonga, Nauru and Vanuatu — as examples of Australian forces protecting foreign investor interests.
“They’ve exerted very obvious political pressure in those countries and they’ve become associated with very partisan political interventions,” he says.
“For example, in Timor and in the Solomons now there’s a very clear alignment of the Australian forces with one side of politics,” Anderson told IPS.
But the Sydney-based academic also says that Australia is somewhat inhibited in its imperial ambitions in the region by several factors.
“Australia, for example, is constrained in Timor by the presence of the Portuguese, by the presence of some other influences. It has to coordinate with the big investment interests in the region. The U.S., Canadian, British, South African, other sorts of interests,” he says.
Mike Treen, national director of ‘Unite’, a New Zealand workers’ union, also spoke out against imperialism.
“Imperialism used armies to take land,” Treen told the audience at the conference, referring to the initial colonising of land in the Pacific region. “And they’re still being used today,” he said.
Treen said that the U.S., Australia and New Zealand all had similar interests.
Anderson argues that imperialism and neo-colonialism in the Pacific can only be opposed once their underlying themes are identified. He argues that the three main themes are the exclusive access to a country’s natural resources, open markets, and the patronage of military and paramilitary forces.
But Anderson says that Australians, in general, are not identifying the role played by their government “because there’s a great denial about it.”
“The government has issued an unprovoked denial that it’s a neo-colonial project. That’s what the overnment’s special line is,” says Anderson.
In a speech in August, Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, outlined Australia’s commitment to the Pacific. Downer said that Australia has “a particular relationship with the countries of the Pacific. A commitment to help them grow”.
The foundation of Australia’s Pacific policy, as described by the foreign minister, is the promotion of “good governance.”
“Australia’s integrated strategy of supporting good governance, economic development and trade, investing in human capital and working collaboratively with others is a positive way to help,” said Downer.
Anderson says that the notion of “good governance” has obscured the debate about the role played by Australia in the Pacific.
“What are the imperial themes? That is to say, to what extent is Australia trying to strategically and economically dominate the region in line with its own interests? We’re not really having that debate to a very great extent,” he says.
Anderson is critical of the Australian public for being largely unaware of what he regards as Australia’s neo-colonial actions, drawing similarities between the lack of debate surrounding Australia’s involvement in the Pacific and the relative silence in the U.S. regarding its interventions in Latin America a century ago.
“I’m sad to say it but it’s true. We have very highly educated populations here and in the US who are remarkably stupid about what their country is involved in with these sorts of interventions because they are stupefied by the types of media lines that they’re fed on their television and in their papers,” Anderson told IPS.
“Educated people should be able to look for other information sources these days, but people are very lazy and don’t want to do that sort of thing,” he says.
Anderson also argues that vested interests do not want Australia’s role in the Pacific to be questioned. “I think that unless we can move past these clichés of good governance and stabilisation by a benevolent hegemon, it’s difficult to have that discussion about imperialism.’’
“Of course, the important interests don’t want us to have that discussion in regards to what extent are these interventions really serving very powerful corporate interests,” he adds.