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“Academics are too caught up in comfort and too often afraid,” George Aditjondro told me in Vancouver back in 1997. It’s not a trap he fell into.
Friends are marking the death of George Aditjondro this month. The Indonesian professor and activist taught many people formally and, I imagine, even more people informally. I didn’t study with him, except on a rather makeshift course in Portugal one summer in which he tried to free a group of human rights activists of some of our illusions about Indonesia. But in remembering him this month, I’m recalling some informal lessons.
George Aditjondro taught me that Canada and Indonesia were more enmeshed than I’d imagined on the level of daily life. He grabbed a package of instant noodles and showed how the noodles tied Saskatchewan wheat farmers to Javanese farm labourers through a chain running from the prarie farm, through the Canadian government’s wheat marketing board, to buyers in Indonesia dominated by one of President Suharto’s cronies, to Indonesian labourers needing a quick and cheap snack while they worked the rice fields. The result? Indomie, or Indonoodles, easy to make and cheap to buy, and owned by PT Indofood Sukses Makmur, itself part of the Salim Group controlled by Indonesia’s Liem family, one of the world’s richest families – which got its start when Fujianese migrant Liem Sioe Liong became quartermaster to an Indonesian soldier named Suharto, who in 1965 led a slow coup and plunged Indonesia into three decades of dictatorship.
As George Aditjondro told this story, it was 1997 and we were getting ready to protest the arrival of Suharto in Vancouver for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit. I thought noodles were just about noodles. In a few minutes, George Aditjondro taught me they were also about global capitalism and how trade linked the everyday to global politics, and farmers across oceans to each other, and economics to human rights. I was just trying to finish off a B.A. and doing a bit of East Timor support work on the side. “Have you read Gramsci?” he asked. It’s not a name I knew. “Antonio Gramsci,” he explained. “Read some Gramsci, and then maybe we can talk about this again one day.”
“George was known as a passionate critic of what he saw as corrupt power,” reads his obituary in the Jakarta Post. “During the Soeharto regime he researched the business empire of the ‘Cendana family’, referring to Soeharto’s family that resided on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta.” Earlier, and the obituary is quieter on this, it meant he spoke up for human rights in East Timor and Papua (then officially called Irian Jaya). That cost him a safe academic postings, though (through the work of some supporters in the academic world) it also brought him a new post in Australia. For me he was an example of solid research connected to his “research subjects,” and of the sort of teaching outside the classroom that’s an all too rare skill.
Two offerings from the files of George Aditjondro’s work: a piece he wrote in the 1980s on Indonesian NGO collaboration with indigenous Papuan communities, and a table laying out the details of Indonesian monopolies in East Timor that he produced in the 1990s.
Digging into the archival records isn’t purely academic. It can tell us why governments make the decisions they did – and suggest ways to influence future government decisions.
The Santa Cruz massacre, when Indonesian troops shot a crowd of unarmed pro-independence protesters in East Timor (now independent Timor-Leste) serves as an example. Film footage captured by British journalist Max Stahl, along with reports from US journalists Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, led to a wave of outrage and activism in Western countries which had supported Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor for years. As Timor-Leste president Taur Matan Ruak noted in his speech commemorating the 25 anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre: “The images recorded by those journalists and the articles they wrote travelled the world and spread news of the crime committed in Santa Cruz on 12 November 1991.”
Archival records show that governments were sensitive to this pressure and wanted to give the appearance of responding to it in some fashion.
But there was another, much more hidden lobby. Western corporations that were doing business – highly profitable business – in Indonesia also lobbied governments. Much of this was visible. The East Timor Action Network/US pointed to the role of US business lobbies and public relations firms, for instance. But it is difficult to track this lobbying and determine how intense it was.
Archives can help here. The Canadian government archives give one example. Other countries are likely to have a similar pattern of corporate lobbying visible. After the Santa Cruz massacre, as pressure for sanctions against the Indonesian military regime grew, business lobbied to prevent any effective action being taken by the government, calling instead for verbal pressure only.
Canadian companies lobbied hard for “business as usual” with Indonesia in the month after the massacre, the archival record indicates. There are many more letters on the Canadian government’s East Timor file from companies than is normal on foreign policy files. A few examples from November and December 1991 follow.
Power generation company Babcock and Wilcox wrote to Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who had just declared Canada would do more on human rights. Saying they were expecting nearly a billion US dollars in business in the coming year, the company pleased for the government to do nothing that could harm these anticipated profits. The letter: babcock-1991-11-28.
That letter led to a stiff note from the Ontario International Corporation to the Canadian government’s Department of International Trade. The OIC was an agency of the government of Ontario, Canada’s largest province and home to Babcock and the largest number of corporate head offices in Canada. At the time, Ontario was governed by the New Democratic Party led by Premier Bob Rae. The OIC letter said that any reduction of Canadian aid would cause Indonesia to “invoke punitive counter measures which will severely threaten Canada’s (in large part, Ontario’s) commercial interests.” OIC letter: oic-1991-12-09
The Canadian ambassador to Indonesia invited Canadian business representatives in Jakarta to breakfast at her residence, to brief them on Canada’s plans to review aid to Indonesia as a means of human rights pressure over East Timor. This drew lobbying letters from the associations and representatives of Canadian companies operating in Indonesia. “If Canada chooses to be one of the first countries to cut off aid to Indonesia [it] will set back Canada’s position in Indonesia [and] have very serious economic consequences on Canadian companies,” wrote the Canadian Investment Advisor in Indonesia. (This letter is dated December 7, the 16th anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.) The Advisor’s letter: investment-advisor-1991-12-07
The Canadian Business Association in Jakarta sent a similar letter to Brian Mulroney. If Canada suspended aid without waiting for the findings of an internal Indonesian government inquiry into the Santa Cruz massacre, the Association wrote, “then Canada is guilty of meddling in the internal affairs of this country.” This was an odd conclusion, given that very few countries recognized Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor (certainly the United Nations did not). It was odder still in arguing that reducing or even reviewing Canadian aid programmes was a function of Indonesian sovereignty. The association argued that Canadian business in Indonesia was booming and that helped to advance human rights, and asked Ottawa to do nothing until the Indonesian internal inquiry was complete. CBA letter: cba-1991-12-06
Meanwhile in Ottawa, foreign minister Barbara McDougall met with the Canadian Exporters Association, the umbrella group for Canadian companies selling products to other countries. The influential CEA repeated its stance that political pressure for human rights overseas not interfere with Canadian trade. Nothing should be done to harm the “innocent” in Indonesia -a group within which the CEA included Canadian companies there. Cutting Canadian aid to Indonesia, the CEA said, “would irreparably damage Canada’s long term dedicated and committed efforts to penetrate Indonesian-ASEAN markets.” In other words, for the CEA promoting human rights was fine, but protecting Canadian trade was more important. CEA letter: cea-1991-12-06
Another Canadian company, CAL, joined the lobby with letters to the ministers of foreign affairs, international trade, and international development. CAL expressed support for the idea of human rights but said cutting aid would risk $500-million of business the company expected in Indonesia in the coming five years. Instead, it called for a round table conversation among Canadians, with no concrete action taken for the moment. CAL letter: cal-1991-12-06
As the Canadian government prepared to review its aid programme to Indonesia, Canadian business interests mobilized to lobby against this plan. They had no objection to verbal expressions of concern to the Indonesian government, but they wanted to make sure that the Canadian government did not reduce its aid to Indonesia, for fear this would affect potential profit.
It would be surprising if the same was not happening in other Western countries with business interests in Indonesia. At the time, activists claimed that Western governments were putting trade ahead of human rights. A slice of the Canadian archival records, for one month in 1991, shows that yes, business was certainly lobbying hard to prevent strong pressure on Indonesia, and using arguments about profit to make their case.
This sentence has been written a thousand times: On 12 November 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, killing more than 250 people and injuring many more. The massacre was neither the first nor the last in the period of Indonesian military occupation, which lasted from 1975 to 1999, but one thing was different: it was the first time international journalists were present as witnesses, the first time a massacre in East Timor was captured on film, the first time that foreign citizens were among those killed and beaten. The film footage screened around the world, leading to a wave of outrage and activism. The fuller story has been told many times – Clinton Fernandes’ Companion to East Timor being one of the most accessible.
25 years later, East Timor is independent as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (first declared days before the Indonesian invasion in 1975). In the final days of Indonesian rule, some outside governments started to support Timorese self-determination (Canada did so in 1998, for instance).
At the time of the Santa Cruz massacre, however, those governments did not. Documentary evidence continues to emerge and much is still hidden. But what there is shows that Western governments knew very well what had happened; that it was a cold-blooded act of revenge (in the words of one US State department official days later, speaking to a Canadian counterpart) by Indonesian soldiers; and that many more were killed than the Indonesian government would admit. Some outside governments raised concerns with the Indonesian government, but none shifted to support the Timorese right to self-determination. In the days following the Santa Cruz massacre, only one G7 country – Canada – suspended any aid. Denmark and the Netherlands were the only other Western countries to link aid to human rights. No country linked trade or went further than raising concerns on human rights grounds.
As documents continue to emerge, I share here two new documents from the days immediately after the Santa Cruz massacre, from Canadian government archives. The first is an initial report on what happened that day, from the Canadian embassy in Jakarta. The story was much worse than had been thought, the embassy reported. The army’s story was false, people in Timor were “terrified,” and it seemed that army officers had decided deliberately to shoot protesters in cold blood. The document indicates that Western governments knew, almost immediately, that the massacre was deliberate and that the Indonesian army was being dishonest.
Canadian embassy report on Santa Cruz massacre, dated 14 Nov. 1991: cej-massacre-report-1991-11-14
Despite this knowledge, few Western governments planned anything more than verbal protest to the Indonesian government. A second report from the Canadian embassy one week after the massacre indicates that no Western embassy in Jakarta had received any instructions to take any concrete action, other than words of concern. After a meeting of 12 Western and ASEAN embassy political counsellors, “general impression was business as usual.” Only Canada had decided to review its aid to Indonesia. Only 4 of the 12 countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) had made official protests over the massacre. No country had altered plans for official visits to Indonesia or East Timor, including military visits.
Canadian embassy report on meeting of embassy political counsellors, Jakarta, dated 20 Nov. 1991: cej-embassies-meeting-report-1991-10-20
International support for Timorese self-determination began to increase after the Santa Cruz massacre, but the inclination of most governments in the days that immediately followed the massacre was, in the words of the Canadian embassy in Jakarta, to carry on with “business as usual.” It is only as Timorese resistance continued and public protest in the Western countries mounted that any Western government started to look at taking action any stronger than words.
Where did United Nations technical assistance advisors in the early years come from? Where did they go? A comprehensive “experts list” from 1954 provides the data to answer.
The UN created a Technical Assistance Administration (TAA) and started sending out technical assistance advisors in the early 1950s. I’ve written about the TAA’s short, strange history elsewhere. But what nationality were the “experts” chosen to go overseas? Which countries were the darlings of the TAA, receiving the most advisors? The 1954 list helps to answer those questions.
In August 1954, the TAA had 398 experts on its list. Of those, 70 held American nationality. The UK followed with 63 and France stood third, with 49. Canada (23), the Netherlands (22) and Sweden (18) led a large number of other countries. But this is a crude measure. One advisor was listed as “stateless.” One man listed as British was in a long-drawn out process of obtaining Canadian citizenship. Others were dual citizens. What stands out is the domination of Europe and North America, of course, but also a striking diversity within this – no country approached 20%.
Where did they go? The TAA favoured middle-sized countries seen as having good potential for the sort of economic development the TAA appreciated. Some advisors were posted to UN headquarters or regional projects. Of the 352 working in defined countries, the largest group (28) was in Burma, followed by Turkey (25), Bolivia, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia (24 each), and then Iran and Pakistan (21 each).
While India led the way as the biggest recipient of aid dollars in the 1950s, TAA advisors spread out. (India tried to be a source of experts, especially in Asia, contributing to a pattern in which lower-income countries sent advisors within their region – Latin American and Middle Eastern states sent quite a few advisors to their neighbours.)
In those seven biggest destination countries for TAA advisors, no country was dominant enough in experts to dominate the technical assistance field. The largest national contingent stood at 8 (French advisors in Iran). British in Bolivia, Americans in Turkey, Swedes in Yugoslavia – none over a third in any destination country.
The TAA tried to paint itself as diverse. In the range of its advisors’ home and destination countries, it did better than many to reach that goal.
If the media wrote about wealthy countries the way they write about the Third World:
CANBERRA — The unstable South Pacific nation of Australia has had another chaotic election that leaves the strife-torn country’s future in doubt.
Notorious for its defiance of international law in the contentious and oil-rich Timor Sea, Australia supreme leader Malcolm Turnbull is presiding over a time of economic uncertainty. After a tension-wrought election in which he changed the electoral rules in order to sweep out members of the country’s upper chamber who were thwarting his will, the fractious island country faces the prospect of a fifth prime minister in six years as Turnbull’s party colleagues sharpen their knives against him.
Mr Turnbull came to power in an internal coup against his party colleague Tony Abbott, a practice so common it is known in Australia by the tribal term “leadership spill.” He toppled rival Tony Abbott in a bloodless putsch some years after Abbott had done the same to him. The opposition Labor party (which spells its name using the spelling system of Australia’s main international patron, the United States) was equally prone to internal coups during its own time in power. Australian politics is uniquely prone to this sort of lightning coup, though the country’s parties have succeeded in removing violence from the “leadership spill.”
The international community now fears further instability and tensions post-election as factions unhappy with the result mobilize. The government – an uneasy coalition of at least four parties formed for electoral convenience – furiously accuses its Labor rivals of dishonest campaigning. Labor leader Bill Shorten has demanded that Mr Turnbull resign after his promise to deliver “stability” led to yet another chaotic and ungovernable parliament. The two men represent the two largest states in the diverse federation, raising the prospect of tensions between New South Wales and Victoria – a rivalry so fraught that a former government was forced to build a new capital city halfway between the two states. Can the Australian federation, rife with ethnic tensions which have seen the rise of the European tribalist One Nation party, survive as a united country?
Australia’s vote counting goes on slowly, days after people went to the polling booths to mark the complex voting papers that law requires them to fill out.
Australia seems likely to remain the “anchor of instability” providing regional troubles for more mature regional democracies such as Timor-Leste. As Australians face the prospect of another early election and await the slow counting of their votes to see which of the two major factions will govern them in the weeks to come, calls are mounting for greater international scrutiny of this beautiful but tension-torn island.
Opening section of my chapter in the new book From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective, just out from University of Calgary Press. This is a free e-book available for download in e-book format or chapter-by-chapter as pdf.
Canada’s approach to failed and fragile states has been linked to the wave of decolonization that swept Asia and Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and its often chaotic aftermath. One decolonization that made small but still noticeable ripples in Ottawa was the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, normally referred to as East Timor. This small half-island state joined its fellow Portuguese colonies Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in starting on the path to independence in 1974. After an internal conflict, it declared independence on 28 November 1975. Yet, just over a week later, on 7 December, Indonesian troops launched a full-scale invasion. The subsequent twenty-four years of military occupation cost some 200,000 lives out of a population of 680,000 people, a bloody toll that, along with the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, knows few parallels in modern Southeast Asian history. In 1999, finally, a United Nations (UN) referendum saw the Timorese vote overwhelmingly for independence. Under an interim UN administration, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste regained its independence in 2002, using the same name and flying the same flag as the short-lived state of 1975. Amidst some post-independence troubles, it celebrated the tenth anniversary of regaining independence in 2012, a year also marked by its third free election and a peaceful transition of power. The government changed again peacefully in 2015, when the prime minister stepped down in favour of a leading member of the major opposition party.
In 1975, East Timor was called an impossible state, too small and poor to do anything but fail. Similar rhetoric preceded East Timor’s passage to independence in 1999, and continues into the twenty-first century. Constructivist political scientists have pointed out that rhetoric matters: the languages used to describe overseas conflicts often shape how Western publics view faraway lands and underpin government policy decisions about them. The argument of this chapter is that this rhetoric of state failure is derived from outside, not based on any reality on the ground. More importantly, the rhetoric of “failure” has helped to construct the very thing it warns against. If a state like East Timor is a “failed” state, the “failure” comes from outside.
It is worth taking into account some of what has been written to challenge the prevailing notion of “failed states.” With regard to Haiti, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin has suggested “that ‘failed’ could also be used the way ‘disappeared’ is now used in Latin America: as an active verb. Countries can ‘fail’ other countries, the way the police or army ‘disappear’ protesters.” This does not suggest a simple failure to act; it means that at times the “international community”—meaning, usually, Western governments—works actively to ensure failure through intervention, economic pressure, or other means. The constructed image of a state as “failed” can then be used to justify intervention, as it has been in Afghanistan.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently declared that Canada lacked the “baggage” of a colonial past, he was taking a step beyond his predecessor Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada had “no history of colonialism.” Trudeau conceded that the Canadian government had acted in colonial ways towards Indigenous peoples, but that it had not done so outside its borders.
As Christo Aivalis has recently written on activehistory.ca, there is plenty of baggage in Canada’s history in the British Empire and its colonial-style relationships with the global South. In fact, Canada once debated obtaining a colony, coming close to ruling over Armenia after the First World War. This was a time when several countries grabbed new colonies under a “mandate” from the League of Nations: Britain took Palestine, Iraq, Tanganyika, and other African territories; France took Syria, Cameroon, Togo, and more; Japan grabbed some Pacific islands. The British dominions got in on the act as well, carving up piece of the former German colonial empire: Australia took a slice of New Guinea; New Zealand took Samoa; and South Africa grabbed Namibia. There were no German colonies near Canada, but policymakers in Ottawa speculated about taking over some British-ruled pieces of the West Indies, perhaps even the Falkland Islands.
Canada’s colonial gaze fell most directly, however, on Turkish-ruled Armenia. This part of the former Ottoman Empire experienced a brutal genocide during the First World War. Genocide in Armenia engaged Canadian church and public sympathy, and considerable Canadian charitable aid. Armenia had been slated for a potential League of Nations mandate administered by the United States. When the United States remained outside the League, the search was on for other possible mandatory powers. First-choice Norway proving unwilling, British delegate Lord Curzon informed a League meeting that Canada would take the mandate. The news came as a surprise in Ottawa, which issued a swift denial that any such proposal was under consideration.
There is more to the story, however. As Aram Adjemian recounts, the fact that Canada could be announced as committed was the result of extensive campaigning by missionaries and The Globe newspaper for relief aid to Armenians facing mass killings. The relief campaign drew on images of Turkish cruelty and the persecution of Armenian Christians. George Munro Grant and other stalwarts of Canadian imperialism had raised $30,000 for Armenian relief in the 1890s; a campaign in The Globe in the early months of 1920 raised $300,000. As Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa assumed colonial mandates under League of Nations auspices, it was natural that some Canadians considered taking on the same “duty.” The Globe, for instance, ran a front-page cartoon suggesting that Canadian troops might have to accompany Canadian relief supplies.
Elite voices in Canada called for the country to take up the “duty” of a mandate. Canada, argued H. F. Angus in The University Magazine, had the qualities needed for a mandatory power: strength adequate to the task, disinterestedness, enterprise, responsibility, idealism, and reasonableness. The Canadian cabinet fuelled expectations that it might take on the mandate by noting that it was “absolutely opposed to return of any Armenian provinces of Turkey to Turkish rule.” (This and other Canadian documents are available in the print editions of the marvellous series Documents on Canadian External Relations.) That month (April 1920), Curzon made his claim that Canada stood ready to take on a mandate. In November, the League passed a resolution calling for an armed force to halt hostilities in Turkish Armenia and invited Canada among others to take part; in a one-sentence telegram, Prime Minister Arthur Meighen’s government refused to do so. Meighen was soon out of power, but Mackenzie King was no keener to deploy troops to Turkey. Meighen’s government did respond to public sympathy for the Armenians by voting (with just seven others, and in opposition to Britain and the other Dominions) to admit Armenia to the League of Nations in December 1920.
Advocacy of the Canadian mandate proposal continued. A mandate would be “a fine thing,” in the words of one typical appeal from 1921, penned by L.P. Chambers in The Globe:
Such an act would put Canada “on the map” in international affairs; would give Canada a new sense of nationhood arising out of the assumption of a new responsibility; would place on Canada her share of the “white man’s burden” and thus serve to justify the fast-waning confidence of the Armenian people in the humanitarian idealism of the Anglo-Saxons, and finally would give Canadian enterprise, political, industrial and commercial, a fine field for effort and adventure.
Canadian debates over the possibility of taking on a colonial mandate over a Third World territory underlined the link between empire and an emerging Canadian diplomatic self-image as an advocate of justice. Only the conclusion of a new treaty more favourable to Turkey ended talk of a mandate for Armenia once and for all. Canada, however, had very definitely considered becoming a colonial power overseas. The pressure to do so had drawn on images of a backward and barbaric Turk and on the duties that fell to noble humanitarian Anglo-Saxons—Canada as much as other colonial powers.
(An earlier version of this post appears in my chapter in the book Canada and the Third World: Overlapping Histories. Thanks for research assistance go to Jessica Morais.)