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.

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