The African-Asian Conference Bulletin as historical source

AACB 9.1 coverOriginal publication by Canadian Network for Humanitarian History.

The Asian-African Conference Bulletin, published daily during the African-Asian conference at Bandung in April 1955, 65 years ago, is a significant and unused source in international history. In its pages, as much as in the conference hall around it, was born the idea of Asian-African solidarity and non-alignment. The Bulletin and other sources from the conference are now digitized as an e-dossier.

The creation of an idea of a “Third World” was one of the major themes of the 20th century. That “world” was born in Bandung, Indonesia, 65 years ago. Yet too few 20th century historians spend much time talking about the Asian-African conference and the world it gave birth to. The study is left to important networks outside the Western (and West-centric) historical mainstream, such as the Afro-Asian Networks project and the Bandung Spirit group, though there’s been an admirable revival in recent years with multiple perspectives on Bandung’s legacy – a literature too extensive to list here.

The conference was enormously important. It came at a time when the superpowers and their followers – Canada at the fore – were trying to divide the world into two sides. The Soviet Union’s chief ideologue, Andrew Zhdanov, spoke of “two camps.” So did the enormously influential US evangelist Billy Graham, using the same words. You were either with us, or against us. Or so thought the leaders of both camps.

AACB 9.7 AliSo when Indonesia, for instance, was seeking its independence from Dutch attempts to recolonize the former Netherlands East Indies, the issue turned on alignment. The United States supported Indonesian independence after President Sukarno crushed a communist uprising. Canada aimed to avoid US conflict with the Netherlands as NATO was being formed. The independent Indonesia that emerged and joined the United Nations in 1950 was supposed to be pro-Western despite the socialist leanings of its leadership. (The first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir, spoke of living in “the sphere of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and imperialism, as I discuss in my book Fire and the Full Moon.) Canada’s Security Council representative even managed to do an end-run over a Soviet veto against the new Republic.

Continue reading

Landscapes of Development in Timor

(Revised final publication on NiCHE Canada)

In the late 1970s, Remexio sub-district in Timor-Leste lay at the heart of a devastating famine. Today, Seed Change Canada works with the Timorese NGO Raebia in a village in Remexio to promote agricultural self-reliance, biodiversity and ecological sustainability.

The landscape of Timor-Leste varies from breathtaking mountaintop and rain-blasted hillside to flat cropland and sandy beach. It is in turns green and dry, shifting colours with the season. Its people move in the sunbaked tropical space of Dili, the main city, in villages, through forest.

Remexio 2

Yet the diverse landscape is overshadowed, when people talk about the development of what is perhaps Asia’s poorest country, by outsiders’ images, not by the land itself. What Timorese call “Rai Doben,” the beloved land, becomes a blank canvass on which foreigners dream their fantasies of what Timor is.

Never was this truer than during the devastating Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste (East Timor) that lasted from 1975-99, when foreigners piled on to explain how it was bleak, unable to support much life – still less any real prosperity. Timor became, in these fevered imaginings. a semi-wasteland.

crosses

Roadside cemetry, Remexio sub-district, Timor-Leste, July 2019 (David Webster)

“What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” asked the poet T.S. Eliot. If Timor was barren, it could never be viable, never be independent. Its “dead trees” could give no shelter, its “dry stone[s] no sound of water.” Counter-images were offered, green shoots on a bleak canvass, but could not break through. As Timorese poet Abe Barreto Soares writes, even after everything is crushed, broken, made dusty, still “new buds [may] appear, flourishing the flat land.”

Shortliffe

Images of the landscape rendered any thought of Timorese independence, in the minds of policymakers, hopeless. Thus many policymakers sided with the Indonesian army during two and a half decades of occupation – in spite of massive and systematic human rights violations and a near-genocide.

In 1978, Canadian ambassador Glen Shortliffe visited the country (I tell this story in more detail in my new book Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-99.) Shortliffe saw famine and a huge need for development, perhaps through such Canadian NGOs as “Unitarian Services of Canada.” He blamed the landscape for the “major humanitarian problem” of famine and displacement:

East Timor is one of the most desolate areas I have seen in Southeast Asia…. The soil is dry, sandy and infertile. The mountains are rugged, some of them are over 2,000 meters high and, from what we saw, seem incapable of retaining moisture without artificial assistance…. From the air, East Timor appeared scored during the present dry season with great scars up to a mile or more wide which constitute the rivers during the rains…. In the mountains, rather than jungle or even green foliage, there is a kind of uniform brown bush. Whilst maize and rice can be grown in some areas, productivity is low and absence of moisture is a constant problem. In all, it is a foreboding, dry, desolate area. Allowing for the major difference in overall climate, it reminded me of some of the more remote parts of the Canadian Shield during the fall or spring, in terms of the ruggedness of the terrain.

Informed by this sort of account, Canada remained a fairly reliable Indonesian supporter until 1998, when General Suharto’s regime collapsed after more than three decades in power and pressure grew for a solution to the “East Timor problem.” In a subsequent referendum, the vote was massively for independence. Pro-Indonesia militia groups, acting as proxies for the Indonesian army, stepped up their violence. It took major international pressure to ensure that violence ended and the referendum results were respected.

Continue reading

When Canada did – and didn’t – stand up for human rights

David Webster, Bishop’s University

Justin Trudeau’s government is under fire not only from Saudi government officials, but also from some Canadians who have implictly criticized Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for being too aggressive in advocating for the release of Saudi human rights activists.

A tweet from the minister expressed her support for the activists, while her department followed up the next day with another seeking the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

None of it was anything unusual: Western diplomats call for the “immediate release” of political prisoners all the time.

Canada’s Parliament unanimously called for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (Samar’s brother) in 2015. That followed a similar unanimous motion for Badawi’s “immediate release” by the Quebec National Assembly.

The same U.S. State Department official who now asks Canada and Saudi Arabia to sort out their dispute called on Russia earlier this year to “immediately release” Ukrainian prisoners. Navi Pillai, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Saudi authorities in 2014 “to immediately release all human rights defenders.” Saudi Arabia imposed no sanctions on the U.N. – instead it stayed in, and soon afterwards sought and won a seat on U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown,” nine U.N. experts added in June 2018 — again prompting no Saudi attack on the UN or its Human Rights Council (of which the Saudi kingdom remains a member).

Nothing remarkable

So there’s little remarkable in Freeland’s anodyne call on Twitter for the “immediate release” of two Saudi activists. It is typical diplomatic language, and actually falls short of what the United Nations human rights system has said on several occasions.

What is remarkable is that Saudi government reaction has allowed Canada to be portrayed as a human rights champion even as it continues to arm Saudi Arabia and thus implicitly accepts Saudi human rights violations.

Continue reading

How world powers abandoned self-determination for West Papua

 

Sukarno_and_Guntur_in_Disneyland,_Aneka_Amerika_102_(1957),_p32

Sukarno and son at Disneyland. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Opening section of D. Webster, “Self-Determination Abandoned: The Road to the New York Agreement on West New Guinea (Papua), 1960–62,” Indonesia, January 2013, Cornell SEAP. DOI: 10.5728/indonesia.95.0009

“My Country favors a world of free and equal states …. Within the limits of our responsibility in such matters, my Country intends to be a participant and not merely an observer in this peaceful, expeditious movement of nations from the status of colonies to the partnership of equals. That continuing tide of self-determination, which runs so strong, has our sympathy and our support.”  – John F. Kennedy to UN General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961

“We must meet our oft-stated pledge to the free peoples of West Berlin …. We have previously admitted our willingness to remove any actual irritants in West Berlin, but the freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’… The solemn vow each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger.” – John F. Kennedy’s report to the nation on the Berlin crisis, July 25, 1961

“Oh, that is entirely different because there are something like two and a quarter million West Berliners where there are only seven hundred thousand of those Papuans. Moreover, the West Berliners are highly civilized and highly cultured, whereas those inhabitants of West New Guinea are living, as it were, in the Stone Age.” – Kennedy in conversation with Netherlands Ambassador J.H. van Roijen, 1962

In 1960, the Dutch colony of West New Guinea (later known as West Papua, West Irian, Irian Jaya, and Papua) embarked on a ten-year plan slated to end in self-determination for its indigenous Papuan population. This plan was presented explicitly within the framework of international decolonization and at the same-time as the United Nations was working out its self-determination law, first enshrined in the UN declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (Dec. 14, 1960). WNG was in many ways the first test case, and the international community failed abysmally. The reason was realpolitik, the strategic cold war imperative of the United States. The US while extolling self-determination as a high and holy principle for West Berlin and elsewhere, abandoned it for WNG. But it should be noted that the principle was also abandoned by the international community and all the players directly involved: Indonesia, Australia, and even the Netherlands. The sole exceptions were a group of African states who saw parallels to their own (then very recent) experience of political decolonization.

WNG was handed over to Indonesia in 1962 with the promise of an “act of free choice” to be held by 1969. That this act was a stage-managed whitewash is generally accepted. But the principle of self-determination was in fact abandoned earlier, in the three-way Dutch-Indonesian-American negotiations of 1960-1962. Self­-determination was by no means impossible after this point, nor were Papuan rights to self-determination extinguished, but the path to self-determination was made much harder. After 1962, no major power would take it seriously in the Papuan case, and thus it was no surprise when the international community rubber-stamped the 1969 “act of free choice” and accepted WNG’s incorporation into Indonesia, an incorporation that is shaky under international law. This article traces the abandonment of the principle of self-determination leading up to the Dutch-Indonesian New York Agreement of August 1962, which put an end to Dutch rule and to the self-determination process.

Click to view on Kudos

Click to download entire article

Book review: John Coast, Recruit to Revolution

John-Coast-Recruit-To-Revolution

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.

Continue reading

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.)