Oxfam Canada and relief to East Timor, 1975-76

1.2.1Originally published by the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History, 13 April 2017.

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.

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