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The Canadian government has been taking flak lately for its arms sales.
Helicopters destined for the Philippines could be used for internal security in President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh crackdowns, critics charge.
The $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has also embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy.
In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to review both deals, suggesting Canada is toughening up arms sales restrictions based on human rights grounds.
But how did Canada get into the international arms trade, anyway?
A look at the history of how Canada started selling weapons overseas following the Second World War reveals that, contrary to Freeland’s implication, Canada actually used to be much more restrictive on arms sales than it is today.
Canada has not made human rights any more central to its arms export policy than it was in the 1940s — in fact, it’s reduced oversight and the consideration of human rights issues when it comes to selling arms.
“Canada’s export controls are among the most rigorous in the world,” the government states.
It “strives to ensure that, among other policy goals, Canadian exports are not prejudicial to peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country.” In the post-Second World War period, Canada did not exactly “strive to ensure” these things — but it did say no when there was a risk of any of them happening.
How Canada got into the arms trade
Indeed, Canada entered the arms trade cautiously and carefully. After the Second World War, Ottawa was willing to pass surplus military equipment in Europe to allied governments.
But sales to less reliable countries, and those who might actually use the weapons, always required approval by the full cabinet. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.”
The first test came in 1946, when cabinet agreed to sell six million 30-calibre cartridges and four million magazines to the Dutch army just as it was about to embark on a colonial war in Indonesia. But when the Dutch asked for 10,000 Sten machine guns for use in Indonesia, Canadian officials turned them down.
“We have no reason to believe that Canadian public opinion would support such a sale, nor would it be in the Canadian interest to make the sale,” according to one document from the day, now filed at Library and Archives Canada.
The guns would probably be employed in the “‘pacification’ of the native population,” exposing the government to “severe domestic and international criticism for supplying these arms” and potentially “prejudic(ing) for a long time our commercial relations with the Indonesians.”
Any further talk of helping the Netherlands — a close Canadian ally — was blocked by the Department of External Affairs
No to China
Cabinet did get to decide on a proposal in 1946 to sell warships to China, then a pro-American regime desperately fighting off the advances of Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists.
The Canadian government certainly sympathized with the Chinese Republicans. And the sale of 10 or 11 surplus Canadian frigates would have netted Canada some $2 million — the equivalent of $27 million in today’s money. Yet cabinet blocked the sale on the grounds that the ships “might be used in civil warfare.”
The same logic underpinned a Canadian decision to bar all military exports to Chinese Republicans in 1947.
In both cases, the logic was clear: Canada should sell arms only to close allies, and if there was any likelihood of use against civilians, no sale should be made.
Arming a dictatorship: Indonesia
By the 1970s, however, Canada had thrown early caution to the winds, becoming a keen seeker of arms exports. A recent analysis shows that Canada supplied $5.8 billion worth of arms over the past 25 years to countries classed as “dictatorships” by the human rights group Freedom House.
The example of arms sales to Indonesia curiously shows both a greater Canadian willingness to sell and the limits to that willingness.
Indonesia notoriously invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, with more than 100,000 Timorese perishing under the subsequent military occupation. From 1975 to 1991, Canada nonetheless was willing to sell arms to Indonesia.
Writing in the 1980s, Timorese leader José Ramos Horta described Canadian “double standards” in scathing terms: “These weapons play an important role in the war in East Timor. But how does the Canadian government explain the weapons exports to Indonesia if Canadian law states that export permits should be issued only for ‘non-conflict’ areas? Simply by asserting that there is no armed conflict in East Timor – knowing that to be a lie.”
Yet there were limits.
In 1991, a massacre in East Timor prompted Barbara McDougall, foreign minister in Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, to impose an arms embargo.
There was no suggestion that Canadian-made arms had been used in the massacre, but McDougall was taking no chances.
Arms sales to Indonesia resumed as Jean Chrétien’s government embraced Indonesia, but there was increasing dissent within the Department of Foreign Affairs about it.
“Any question of military sales to Indonesia, by definition, is a sensitive issue,” one divisional director wrote. After all, he noted acidly, “the Indonesian army is still killing people in East Timor.”
In September 1999, after extensive public pressure, foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy imposed an arms embargo as pro-Indonesia militia groups killed, forcibly relocated and terrorized the Timorese population. No evidence was required that Canadian-supplied weapons were being used against civilians. The government simply acted.
Bending away from justice
Some 80 years ago, British historian Herbert Butterfield criticized those who rewrite the past in order “to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”
This “Whiggish” view of history insists that things get better over time, in a progressive arc leading to general improvement.
It’s this sense that Chrystia Freeland invokes when she promises to ban the sale of a weapon “if there were a substantial risk that it could be used to commit human rights violations” — and describes that as progress.
In actual fact, if previous debates on arms sales are anything to go by, Canada is less vigilant on human rights than it was in 1946, or even in 1999. It has some way to go before it approaches the standards that once prevailed.
The arc of Canadian arms sales is long, but it seems to bend away from, not towards, human rights.
Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia is now available for free Open Access download, thanks to University of Calgary Press.
What is the experience of truth and reconciliation? What is the purpose of a truth commission? What lessons can be learned from established truth and reconciliation processes?
Flowers in the Wall explores the experience of truth and reconciliation Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, with and without a formal truth commission.
Poem by Abe Barreto Soares
1 Introduction: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and Melanesia
2 Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste
3 East Timor: Legacies of Violence
4 Shining Chega!’s Light into the Cracks
5 Politika Taka Malu, Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity and One’s Relationship to Truth and Memory
Jacqueline Aquino Siapno
6 Development and Foreign Aid in Timor-Leste after Independence
Laurentina “mica” Barreto Soares
7 Reconciliation, Church, and Peacebuilding
8 Human Rights and Truth
9 Chega! for Us: Socializing a Living Document
Maria Manuela Leong Pereira
SECTION I I
Memory, Truth-seeking, and the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia
10 Cracks in the Wall: Indonesia and Narratives of the 1965 Mass Violence
Baskara T. Wardaya
11 The Touchy Historiography of Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings: Intractable Blockades?
12 Writings of an Indonesian Political Prisoner
Local Truth and Reconciliation in Indonesia
13 Gambling with Truth: Hopes and Challenges for Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation
Lia Kent and Rizki Affiat
14 All about the Poor: An Alternative Explanation of the Violence in Poso
Where Indonesia meets Melanesia: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
15 Facts, Feasts, and Forests: Considering Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua
Todd Biderman and Jenny Munro
16 The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force to be Reckoned With
17 Time for a New US Approach toward Indonesia and West Papua
Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
18 The Solomon Islands “Ethnic Tension” Conflict and the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Terry M. Brown
19 Women and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands
Betty Lina Gigisi
Bringing it Home
20 Reflecting on Reconciliation
21 Conclusion: Seeking Truth about Truth-seeking
John Coast, Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence. Edited by Laura Noszlopy. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015. xxvi + 336 pp.
The Republic of Indonesia won its independence by combining perjuangan (struggle) and diplomasi. Combat took place both on the ground inside Indonesia, and in the global arena through diplomatic pressure on the Netherlands. In other words, the Indonesian revolution was both a domestic and an international event.
John Coast, later to become a British impresario who worked with such artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar, is not at first glance an obvious choice as chronicler of the Indonesian revolution’s diplomatic and military story. And yet, he embodies the revolution’s dual aspect well. Held as a Japanese prisoner in Thailand (then Siam) during the Second World War, he fell in love with Indonesian culture, and especially Balinese dance. Soon after Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Coast was a supporter. By 1949, when the Netherlands finally recognized Indonesian independence at the bargaining table, he was handling the Indonesian Republic delegation’s press relations. In the years between, he worked first as a British government information officer and then as an advisor to the Republic of Indonesia. In this latter role, Coast handled everything from running the Dutch blockade of the Republic’s trade by air, to trouble-shooting bad press that accused the Republic of opium smuggling.
Laura Noszlopy has made a valuable contribution by editing a re-issued and enhanced edition of Coast’s 1952 classic of his journey as pro-Indonesia partisan, Recruit to Revolution. This book follows her editing of Coast’s earlier account of his days as a Japanese prisoner-of-war, Railroad of Death. Originally written for a mass audience, Coast’s work will now interest scholars of Indonesian history. The tale through his eyes is one of adventure, personal political journey, and one man’s experience of the Indonesian revolution. It both entertains and sheds light on less-studied aspects of that revolution. Coast’s key roles were to establish an air route around the Dutch blockade, flying in and out people and supplies between Siam and the Republic’s capital, Jogjakarta (now Yogyakarta). He positions himself as both insider and outsider, as confidante of Indonesian leaders and as independent observer of their own and their new country’s foibles. Fascinating character sketches of President Sukarno, vice-president Mohammad Hatta, and such leading figures as Sutan Sjahrir, Amir Sjarifuddin, and Haji Agus Salim offer useful additions to the narrative.
Although Jogjakarta features, it does not always come across as a city that Coast enjoyed – still less his Sumatra stopovers in Bukittinggi and elsewhere. Coast’s portrait of Indonesian leaders and their Republic mixes admiration and advocacy for their cause with criticism. He was based in Siam for most of the period in question, and the book thus features a series of looping arcs from Siam to Jogjakarta and back to Siam (three times), from Siam to Britain (where he travelled, twice, on missions for the Republic), and finally from Siam to Jakarta, capital of the new independent state established in 1949. So although the material on the Republic’s struggle is useful, this book may make its strongest contribution to historical study of the Indonesian revolution by its examination of the far-flung (if poverty-stricken) overseas diplomatic network of unofficial Indonesian embassies and offices outside the country. These both funneled cash to the Republic and carried its message, with impressive success, to global audiences. If diplomasi and struggle were both needed, Coast is one of the minority of writers who tells us things about diplomasi’s contribution to Indonesian independence.
In this new edition, Noszlopy has added much. The text is unchanged, but footnotes explain references to individuals and contexts that a 1952 reader might know well, but which may leave a 2017 reader in the dark. A postscript tells the tale of what happened after the book’s story finishes, detailing the futures of the major protagonists. Three historical documents – two reports by Coast, a British Foreign Office dispatch, and a radio broadcast by Coast, round off the book. An insightful introduction by Noszlopy puts it all in context. The book, in sum, is a model of how to edit a historical classic by bringing it back into the historiography, adding value, and respecting the original text.
Originally published as David Webster (2018) Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics during the Indonesian Struggle for Independence, History: Reviews of New Books, 46:2, 52-53, DOI: 10.1080/03612759.2018.1412762. This version is the author pre-print.
When does the humanitarian impulse to provide aid and relief contribute to activism to promote human rights? When does it prompt avoidance of activism in favour of quietly enduring access to places and people in need?
This is one of the questions I am trying to answer in current research on relations between Canada and East Timor. Under Indonesian military occupation from 1975 to 1999, Canadian aid agencies tended to shy away from criticizing Indonesian actions in order to make sure they could deliver aid supplies. Humanitarian impulses dictated a quiet stance on human rights from a range of Canadian NGOs. But there was an early exception, in the work of Oxfam Canada.
The small half-island country of East Timor was invaded by the army of Indonesia, the regional giant of Southeast Asia, at the end of 1975. Under Indonesian military occupation, more than 100,000 people died in what some observers called “tantamount to genocide.” Canada was among the many Western governments that backed Indonesian rule as “an accomplished and irreversible fact.” It wasn’t, of course: East Timorese fought on with guerrilla resistance, clandestine non-violent organizing, and diplomatic struggles, until they won the right to hold a referendum in 1999. After the vote went overwhelmingly for independence, an interim United Nations administration took over the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste formally regained its independence in 2002.
When are the beginnings of Canadian support for East Timor? Finding an answer to this sort of question requires interrogating both government and non-government archival sources. It’s only in 1983 that protest letters start to appear in the Timor file of Canada’s Department of External Affairs (after several name changes, External is now part of Global Affairs Canada). But it turns out that relying on the government records comes up with the wrong answer.
In fact, Canadian efforts to send humanitarian aid to East Timor began in 1975 before the Indonesian invasion, continued afterwards, and included efforts to lobby the Canadian government. These were not successful efforts – and there is no trace in the External Affairs documentary record – but they laid the groundwork for subsequent Canadian support for East Timor amongst humanitarian networks.
This early campaigning began through Oxfam Canada, which backed the aid work of Oxfam’s Australian affiliate, Community Aid Abroad, to get humanitarian supplies into East Timor. Specifically, CAA tried to send a ship with medical supplies shortly after Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975. People were dying on Australia’s doorstep, and Australian humanitarian groups wanted to assist. They called on the global Oxfam network for support. Oxfam Canada made an immediate pledge of $10,000 and stood ready to offer more, director Helen Forsey-Conteras informed CAA.
The ship did not make it through. Instead, Australia’s government acted to prevent the ship from sailing and undercutting Australian government efforts to remain on good terms with Indonesia – regardless of the cost in Timorese lives. “Unfortunately the project to which part of your money was directed has come to a sudden and dramatic end,” CAA informed Oxfam Canada. “The medical supplies which we had purchased and organised to be shipped to East Timor were impounded by Australian navy vessels which arrested the boat and its crew on their way to Timor.”
CAA and other Australian humanitarian groups opened with a standard humanitarian logic: they wanted to help people in need. But the logic of what was happening in East Timor soon moved them into overtly political stances of opposition to Indonesian killings and other mass atrocities, and opposition to Australian government acceptance of Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor. The same process happened within Oxfam Canada. “100,000 killed since Dec. 7, beginning of fighting. 1/6 of population,” Forsey-Conteras wrote in her notes on a phone strategy session with CAA. She added that “Austr[alian] business community passed resol’n that govt should stop oppos’n to Indonesia among NGOs – danger of info flow.”
Here were the lines of debate: business and government on one side, seeking to avoid headlines about mass killings; humanitarian groups on the other, trying to get the word out and alter government policy. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Oxfam’s efforts are not recorded in the Canadian Department of External Affairs file for East Timor.
Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec did try (without success) to shift the Canadian government’s policy of silence and abstention on the occupation of East Timor. Forsey-Contreras contacted other groups. Oxfam Canada lobbied the government – as did the director’s father, Senator Eugene Forsey, who seems to have provided advice. (Oxfam documents refer to him as “Dad.” I’m grateful to John Foster for confirming who “Dad” was, in this case.) The campaign also involved Oxfam Quebec, which in a letter to External Affairs minister Allan MacEachen deplored the way most Western governments were “washing their hands” [s’en lavent les mains] of the East Timor situation.
Oxfam’s campaign was abortive, with no apparent effect on Canadian government policy. External Affairs ignored groups like Oxfam, and did not start to pay much attention to letters from the public until the formation of the Nova Scotia East Timor Group in 1985, a campaign by Amnesty International launched in 1985, actions by the Ottawa-based Indonesia East Timor Programme starting in 1986, and finally the creation of a national East Timor Alert Network backed by Canadian churches in 1987. But the beginnings of Canadian solidarity for East Timor, it turns out, go back to 1975.
What I draw from these materials is that humanitarianism and the urge to solidarity with an oppressed people intertwined. This is a common phenomenon, but suggests that aid organizations are one more group that needs to be written into the story of Canadian action for human rights on East Timor. Second, there is much more going on than the government files reflect. To write a full history of Canadian interactions with East Timor – as I’m trying to do this year – requires looking at government and non-governmental organization records, with many of the latter found in unexpected places. Third, the story can’t be written from NGO files alone – the government documents are a good indication that no one was listening to Oxfam Canada in 1976, but officials in Ottawa were listening keenly to the pressure that began in the 1980s, and by the 1990s felt compelled to respond to it. But rights groups picked up on the same sort of language used in the earliest Oxfam-authored letters. There was a legacy: Oxfam’s lobby shaped later lobbying efforts.
Relevant Oxfam documents appear in my recent history in images recently produced with support from the Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee of the Association for Asian Studies, https://canadatimor.wordpress.com/
Originally published by the UN History project, Feb. 2017.
In 1955, a team of government officials from India toured the Soviet Union, examining everything from coal mining to civil aviation. Distinctive in their group photograph was Australian Eleanor Hinder, the only woman and the only non-Indian on the mission. She is identified with a ruled indicator line in pencil on this photograph of the group posed in front of the Kakhova Dam construction site, part of the great Donbass industrial complex taking shape in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The photo comes from the official trip report submitted by the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration, sponsor of the study tour. The pencil was wielded by Viola Smith, Hinder’s partner in life and love, on the copy of the report housed in Hinder’s personal papers. The image draws together several threads: the way the United Nations bridged development and diplomacy in its technical assistance work; the role of countries seen as less central in postwar international politics; and the occasional visibility of key actors like Hinder whose names are seldom recalled when stories of international politics are penned.
The UN was founded with a strong Security Council partly in order to avoid the perceived security failures of its predecessor, the League of Nations. In the event, the Security Council’s permanent members failed to work together. Unable to act as it wished on peace and security, the UN found a more satisfying global mission in economic development. In the early years of the 1950s, this took the form of technical assistance, a scheme for wealthier and more technically advanced countries to send experts to less developed countries, where they would share their knowledge and skills. It established a Technical Assistance Administration within the UN Secretariat under the leadership of Canadian administrator and diplomat Hugh Keenleyside.
But technical assistance, like so much of the UN’s work, was caught up in the global Cold War. The USSR initially rejected technical assistance as a tool of American imperialism – no surprise, since technical assistance was first mooted as “point four” of US president Harry Truman’s foreign policy agenda. But in 1953, the USSR offered to contribute the equivalent of a million American dollars. Soviet officials insisted that this money would be entirely in unconvertible roubles, causing the United States and its allies to block the offer. In response, Keenleyside flew to Moscow and brokered a deal that brought the Soviet Union into the UN technical assistance plan, removing technical assistance at least a little bit from the Cold War.
The next step was to put flesh on the bones of the deal by starting to explore what sorts of help the USSR could offer. India was the first country to be considered as a Soviet aid focus. Although she had just retired, the TAA tapped Eleanor Hinder for the “very important” job of accompanying this group, giving her the title of Ambassador without Portfolio. Six sub-groups in fields from water power development to heavy chemicals crisscrossed the country to great interest, heightened by the parallel arrival of Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Moscow for a state visit.
Hinder’s travelogues, mostly written while in flight with a special ink pen designed to work at high altitudes, reflect her impressed fascination with the new Soviet Union, flushed with the success of its postwar reconstruction and the sense of opportunity after the death of Stalin. Women held positions of authority everywhere, far different from in the West, she wrote. Four thousand women had started building a mighty dam on Ukraine’s Don River during the Second World War and finished soon after the war’s end, launching a heroic tale in which the region now generated 10-million kilowatt-hours of power – and the Soviet Union added 4-million kilowatts more each year. Here was a signature project, featured in the image above.
Development in the USSR, Hinder reported, was pushed forward by popular dedication and hard work and a vast range of specialist institutes. She was especially impressed by great canal in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The contrast with hardscrabble Afghanistan, its women all clad in burkhas, struck her most of all. “On the Uzbek side – fine strapping women, all of them working it seems, striding along freely.”
In Moscow, Hinder “felt indeed that I was participating in a historic moment, that the sharing of technical knowledge between these two peoples through the United Nations had significance beyond even the great benefits involved in the sharing.” The “wider significance” included the value, for many other countries, of impressions that India’s team would bring back. There was the possible relevance of models for development offered by the constituent republics such as Georgia and Uzbekistan. The chances for Soviet technical assistance, with the UN as channel, were much more favourable in the new Soviet Union of the mid-1950s. And so, Hinder urged Keenleyside, “if we have the wisdom to grasp it, an opportunity is at hand.”
The tour emerged as triumph. The Soviets were happy with the new avenues open to non-communist Asian countries. Indian officials were happy at the new chances to draw on a major new source of aid. And aid officials at the UN were happy that they had opened a new channel for technical assistance and begun to in integrate the Soviet Union into the multilateral technical assistance world. Here was no small accomplishment: the TAA, headed by a Canadian and through the agency of a trip headed by an Australian, was taking steps that might cool global confrontation as well as boost economic development. Hinder, previously TAA bureau chief for Asia, was not given the Ambassador title idly. She was crucial in negotiations and throughout this story acted as both capable aid administrator and canny diplomat.
There was also a more personal side. The photograph of Hinder among the Indian officials is the visible side of this story. The less visible side is told in Viola Smith’s pencil line, carefully indicating Hinder’s position in the photograph. The addition was part of Voila Smith’s stewardship of Hinder’s papers, now in the State Library of New South Wales in Australia. It does not appear, of course, in copies of the report housed in the UN’s own archives in New York.
So who was Eleanor Hinder? She started work as superintendent of welfare at a department store in her native Sydney, then in 1925 moved to Shanghai to run social welfare operations in the International Settlement. There she met American diplomat Viola Smith. Alongside her social welfare work in Shanghai factories, Hinder was named by the League of Nations as Protector of mui tsai, “girl slaves” working in the city. She went on to various posts with the British Foreign Office, UNRRA, and as an advisor on welfare and labour to Burma, Malaya, and Hong Kong, ending up with an OBE awarded by the British government. When Smith returned to the United States after consular and trade posts in Asia, Hinder sought work at the UN. She rose to important roles at the TAA partly because she had expertise in international development, but also partly because her “life-long friend,” as she phrased it, was an American and the couple wanted to keep living together.
The 1955 Indian study tour of the USSR allowed Hinder to retain residency in the United States as a UN ambassador even after her formal retirement. When final retirement came, Smith joined Hinder in Australia. Borders constrained the couple. Both made career choices that sacrificed opportunities in order to be together, even as both could point to impressive careers. The personal and the political intertwined. Hinder was an early proponent of UN official Margaret Anstee’s dictate for women at the UN: “never learn to type.” In common with many visitors to the USSR, she saw Soviet industrial muscle – but she also saw that women workers were as much a part of that as men, a far less common observation. The complex life stories of diplomats like Eleanor Hinder need to be seen to understand the diplomatic events swirling around them. A pencil line on a photograph in an official report can reveal as much as the report itself.
“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.