25 years after the Santa Cruz massacre: did corporations influence Western government policy?

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.

25 years since the Santa Cruz massacre

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Monument to Sebastiao Gomes, killed in 1991, Dili, Timor-Leste (2015 photo)

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.