Failing Fragile States: Canada and East Timor 1975-99

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.

Click over to UCP to read the rest of the chapter or the whole book.

Colonial baggage: Canada considers a colony in Armenia

armenia cartoonWhen 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.)

 

Appealing to the League of Nations

The League of Nations can’t get no respect. Among academics this is changing, as researchers tell redemptive stories about the League and the end of empires or the emergence of international society in this period, for instance. But the League’s image, for those who think about it, still tends to be mostly that of the useless talking shop that could not prevent military aggressions leading up to the Second World War.

Back in the League’s day, though, it was the chosen court of appeal for people seeking independence during a “Wilsonian moment” of self-determination. That’s true even for people living in territories ruled by such “non-colonial” powers as Canada, New Zealand, and Turkey. A quick skim of League of Nations archival materials in Geneva reveals appeals to the League for justice from places as diverse as Korea (seeking freedom from Japan), the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations Confederacy (1924), the Maori of Aotearoa / New Zealand (1925), Turkish-controlled Kurdistan (1925), Scotland (1928), the Vietnamese community exiled in Thailand (1930), and Baluchistan (1933) from whence came the assertion that the Baluch people had always been independent, never part of India.

Documents can help tell these stories, and show that these claims for independence are far from new, that claims to be free from British imperial control pre-date the foundation of post-British states like Canada and New Zealand. (Thanks to Bishop’s University undergrad Matthew Robinson for research assistance in finding these documents in Geneva.)

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Some of the documents related to the appeal of the Six Nations Confederacy to the League in the early 1920s,  appear at a special blogspot site on the Six Nations Appeal that I created to support a forthcoming book chapter. This one shares documents from three archives on  how the Six Nations used images of ‘picturesque Indians’ to win European sympathy and the backing of the governments of Estonia, Ireland, Panama and Persia (a collection of countries without much in common other than a sympathy for the Six Nations cause and an unimpressed attitude towards Canada’s actions at the League).

drummondThere are many more.

When a Maori delegation arrived in Geneva in 1924 asking to see League Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond, he dodged the group and asked a subordinate to deliver the bad news that the League could not help them – but not before noting the case was “very similar to that of the Chief of the ‘Six Peoples'” in its nature.

One that resonates the most may be from a group of Kurds in Baghdad, then controlled by the British Empire. The Kurdish appeal speaks of terrors committed by the Turkish government upon Kurds living in Turkey. The petitioners to the League felt the “national existence” of the Kurdish people was in threat from “ignoble killings” and asked “the civilized world” to help end “the bloody violence of the Turks against our oppressed nation.”

kurdistanTime heals no wounds: these are mostly ongoing struggles, whether non-violent (Six Nations or Scotland) or all too violent (as in the case of the Kurds in Turkey). If the League had been able to provide justice, or even a hearing, might these disputes have been less visceral today?

Eyeing the Indies: Canada-Indonesia relations, 1945-99

“Can you boil down your book to 7,500 words?” A question every author likes to hear.

When asked to do so for a textbook on Modern Canada, though, I tried. It summarizes the main points of my book Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World. And I had the chance to add back in some material that was cut from Fire and the Full Moon.

Here’s the opener; click through at the end to read the whole article (15 pp).

WHEN IN 1958 Theodore Newton became Canada’s second ambassador to Indonesia, his reaction summed up his new station’s peripheral place in Canadians foreign relations:

“Indonesia? The other side of the world! Visions of watery islands, brown hordes struggling to assert themselves, equatorial jungles, smoking volcanoes, gorillas and other bizarre forms of life flashed through my mind…. The die was cast, but my ignorance of my future parish was colossal and what little knowledge I possessed of it was bookish and remote.”

Indonesia mattered: it was the fifth most populous country in the world, the largest Muslim-majority country, and a trailblazer of non-alignment. Yet as Newton noted, even the capital city of Jakarta was a ‘confusing South Seas metropolis,’ pioneer territory for Canadian diplomats.

Canadian involvement with Indonesia began when Canada’s Security Council mission played a significant role in the UN-brokered peace settlement that saw the Netherlands accept the independence of its Indonesian colonies in 1949. The two countries exchanged embassies in 1953 and Canadian development aid commenced in the 1950s. Cordial if low-key relations continued until 1963, when the remaining British colonies in the region joined the Federation of Malaya to form a new independent Malaysia. This angered President Sukarno, who embarked on a ‘confrontation’ with the new Commonwealth member state.  The Canadian government lent strong support, even including some military aid, to Malaysia, and suspended aid to Indonesia. It welcomed the military coup that toppled Sukarno in 1965-66 and began to seek closer trade and aid ties with the authoritarian ‘New Order’ regime headed by General Suharto. Ottawa made Indonesia a ‘country of concentration’ for development aid in 1970; Indonesia rose as high as second among bilateral aid recipients in the years that followed. Canadian governments increasingly cultivated closer economic relations. Human rights, by contrast, were not a major factor. Only after the fall of Suharto in 1998 did any Canadian government press very hard on rights issues, giving support to the 1999 decolonization of East Timor. Human rights were again been subordinated to economic interests in Canadian policy towards the democratizing governments of Indonesia in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

For most of this period, Indonesia was important globally, but peripheral to Canadian policymakers’ perceptions of their country’s national interest. Their mental maps, their ways of picturing the world, placed the North Atlantic at the centre of the zone of ‘civilization,’ as Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called it, with most of the world as periphery. This was the natural result of their upbringing in a Canada that was very much part of the British Empire. Lester Pearson considered that Canada could be most effective as ‘honest broker’ in areas on the periphery of cold war clashes. Examining a relationship peripheral to the imagined interests of Canadian governments permits a clearer look at the themes of Canadian foreign policy. The idea that Canada played the role of an idealistic ‘middle power’ has been debunked thoroughly by historians who have identified the importance of alliance politics. If there was indeed a strain of idealistic mediation running through Canadian foreign policy, it might be expected to be more visible in areas at the edge of the cold war, as Pearson suggested. In Indonesia – a land almost impossibly distant to many in Ottawa – it was not. Part of the reason was that Asia and the rest of the less developed world were seen as peripheral. Racialized perceptions underpinned and reinforced mental maps.

Many Canadians have spelled out their own diplomatic self-image of Canada as benevolent peacemaker and humanitarian internationalist power with respect to relations with the global South. In a 1960 Dominion Day speech delivered on Radio Indonesia, Newton offered as clear a statement of the Canadian sense of mission as any: ‘Canada is then more and more taking a world role in the interests of peace, in the development and the protection of the under-privileged, and in the fight against hunger, poverty and injustice… We aim to be considered honest brokers in world affairs. We wish to help the less developed and the less fortunate nations of the world toward a fuller life.’  A case study of Canadian policy towards Indonesia, however, shows that policymakers made decisions about Indonesia in ways that would serve the interests of Canada’s alliances and multilateral associations – the Commonwealth and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization above all. Over time, it increasingly meant serving the interests of Canadian capital by promoting trade and investment.

Eyeing the Indies full text.

Indonesia’s New Frontier: the Kennedy administration and the Indonesian annexation of West Papua

jfk-doll_convertedUnited States presidential elections still have the power to make some people wistful for the days when presidents got some respect. Barack Obama entered office on a wave of “hope” that was felt as much globally as within the United States itself. No president has been so revered globally since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy is hailed for a firm hand in foreign policy, a willingness to change course and move towards peace where warranted, and nimble “crisis diplomacy.” One apparent success came in Kennedy administration mediation of the Indonesia-Netherlands dispute over control of West Papua (then known as West New Guinea, and later renamed Irian Jaya by its Indonesian rulers). Although the administration’s mediation efforts leading to Indonesian control of the colony are generally hailed as a success, they failed to address the roots of the conflict, which continues today.

Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives. Here, as in so many of Kennedy’s initiatives, the New Frontiersmen concentrated on short-term crisis management. Their failure to consider local aspirations – a failure rooted in inability to see the “primitive” dark-skinned Papuans as legitimate international actors – created the conditions for an ongoing insurgency. Histories of the dispute have only been able to see it as a Kennedy success because they, too, have ignored the Papuans themselves

The Netherlands had retained West New Guinea as a colony when it recognized Indonesian independence in 1949; Indonesia demanded the territory be “returned to the fold of the motherland” and threatened an irredentist war. By pressuring both sides into an American-authored agreement, the Kennedy administration felt it had managed to avoid a Dutch-Indonesian clash, which would have benefited only the Soviet Union, and also hoped to maintain stability in Southeast Asia at a time when it was increasing American commitments in the region.

American involvement in the dispute ignored the local population entirely. Yet West New Guinea remains in dispute between the Indonesian government and a nationalist movement among the indigenous Papuan population, a conflict rooted in the aborted decolonization process. Apart from the removal of Dutch colonial rule, the dispute today remains similar to that in the years 1960–1962: should the territory be part of Indonesia, or an independent country? Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives.

Fifty years after the 1955 Bandung Conference of 29 Asian and African governments, considered to be the birth of the “Third World,” the Indonesian government celebrated the anniversary of its first major international conference. Papuan nationalists delivered a letter to most foreign embassies in the Indonesian capital, calling their land’s struggle an issue of unresolved colonialism. There are regular Papuan suggestions that the US role in the Indonesian annexation of West Papua implies a responsibility for the outcome, half a century later.

In the attached article, originally published in the journal Diplomatic History in 2009, I explore the conflict from U.S., Indonesian and indigenous standpoints, and address background influences on Kennedy administration policy. These include the influence of mental maps derived from the cold war and colonial anthropology, perceptions of race that equated the inhabitants of West New Guinea with ideas of stone age primitivism, gendered perceptions that privileged vigorous action and crisis management, and modernization theory that defined stages and places of development.

David Webster, “Regimes in Motion: The Kennedy Administration and Indonesia’s New Frontier, 1960-1962,” Diplomatic History 33 no. 1 (January 2009): 92-123.

A crime against humanity confirmed: Indonesian use of napalm against Timorese civilians, 1983

In 1983, an Australian newspaper reported that Indonesian forces had used incendiary devices in bombing runs over East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that they invaded and occupied in 1975. This was the height of a brutal counter-insurgency war which, human rights groups said, claimed as many as 200,000 Timorese lives.

After the report in The Age, Australian officials denied the story. Yet Timorese leaders and human rights groups continued to insist that the Indonesian armed forces had used napalm in bombing runs.

After East Timor gained its independence, eyewitness testimony delivered at the new country’s truth and reconciliation commission again repeated the allegations about napalm use. A version known as opalm was reportedly purchased from the Soviet Union and used in bombing runs by American-supplied aircraft. The story is summarized by Clinton Fernandes in his online Companion to East Timor. 

The Indonesian government promptly denied the use of napalm.

This week, the Australian media began to report another discovery by Clinton Fernandes: newly declassified Australian documents from 1983 confirmed that napalm was used, Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade was aware, and Australia’s government did nothing.

In research on contemporary history, corroborating sources can be important. A look at new Canadian government documents confirms the use of opalm, confirms that the Indonesian and Australian governments were aware, and also shows that Canada’s department of foreign affairs knew — and chose not to act on the information or share it with members of the Canadian parliament.

The relevant Canadian documents, declassified at my request, appear below. Thanks to Jamie Bowbrick for research assistance with these documents.

1) Canadian diplomat J. Scott sent a personal and confidential letter from Jakarta to the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa on 10 Oct. 1983, reporting that “reliable sources confirm that bombing runs with napalm and cluster bombs began on September 23.” In general, “reliable sources” in Canadian embassy reporting from Jakarta included the Indonesian foreign ministry, military sources, and/or the Jakarta-based CSIS think-tank, close key figures in the Indonesian regime.

Scott to Drake

2) Canadian embassy in Canberra, telegram to Canadian Department of External Affairs, 3 Nov. 1983. The Australian Department of External Affairs informed Canadian diplomats that allegations in The Age of napalm use were true – and that in fact napalm had been used, and Australian officials were aware of this. The chemical used was opalm, “a more virulent form of napalm.”

CEJ-1 CEJ-2 CEJ-3

3) Canadian Department of External Affairs response to napalm reports, confidential letter to embassy in Jakarta, 15 Nov. 1983. The DEA first learned of napalm from the embassy in Jakarta, and then confirmed it with other sources. Presumably this means Australian counterparts: although the United States government was aware of napalm use, there is nothing on the DEA file to indicate that US sources shared this intelligence with Canada.

Drake to Scott

4) Canadian embassy in Jakarta to Department of External Affairs, 22 Nov. 1983. A full report on current situation in East Timor which confirms “air strikes including napalm bombing” (page 2 of this lengthy report).

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5) A briefing note for Canadian members of parliament issued in early 1984 (the first public document following the reports on napalm) made no mention of the “air strikes including napalm bombing” and instead defended Canada’s UN vote on the side of Indonesia.

Briefing note 1984