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.

This early campaigning began through Oxfam Canada, which backed the aid work of Oxfam’s Australian affiliate, Community Aid Abroad, to get humanitarian supplies into East Timor. Specifically, CAA tried to send a ship with medical supplies shortly after Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975. People were dying on Australia’s doorstep, and Australian humanitarian groups wanted to assist. They called on the global Oxfam network for support. Oxfam Canada made an immediate pledge of $10,000 and stood ready to offer more, director Helen Forsey-Conteras informed CAA.

The ship did not make it through. Instead, Australia’s government acted to prevent the ship from sailing and undercutting Australian government efforts to remain on good terms with Indonesia – regardless of the cost in Timorese lives. “Unfortunately the project to which part of your money was directed has come to a sudden and dramatic end,” CAA informed Oxfam Canada. “The medical supplies which we had purchased and organised to be shipped to East Timor were impounded by Australian navy vessels which arrested the boat and its crew on their way to Timor.”

CAA and other Australian humanitarian groups opened with a standard humanitarian logic: they wanted to help people in need. But the logic of what was happening in East Timor soon moved them into overtly political stances of opposition to Indonesian killings and other mass atrocities, and opposition to Australian government acceptance of Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor. The same process happened within Oxfam Canada. “100,000 killed since Dec. 7, beginning of fighting. 1/6 of population,” Forsey-Conteras wrote in her notes on a phone strategy session with CAA. She added that “Austr[alian] business community passed resol’n that govt should stop oppos’n to Indonesia among NGOs – danger of info flow.”

Here were the lines of debate: business and government on one side, seeking to avoid headlines about mass killings; humanitarian groups on the other, trying to get the word out and alter government policy. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Oxfam’s efforts are not recorded in the Canadian Department of External Affairs file for East Timor.

Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec did try (without success) to shift the Canadian government’s policy of silence and abstention on the occupation of East Timor. Forsey-Contreras contacted other groups. Oxfam Canada lobbied the government – as did the director’s father, Senator Eugene Forsey, who seems to have provided advice. (Oxfam documents refer to him as “Dad.” I’m grateful to John Foster for confirming who “Dad” was, in this case.) The campaign also involved Oxfam Quebec, which in a letter to External Affairs minister Allan MacEachen deplored the way most Western governments were “washing their hands” [s’en lavent les mains] of the East Timor situation.

Oxfam’s campaign was abortive, with no apparent effect on Canadian government policy. External Affairs ignored groups like Oxfam, and did not start to pay much attention to letters from the public until the formation of the Nova Scotia East Timor Group in 1985, a campaign by Amnesty International launched in 1985, actions by the Ottawa-based Indonesia East Timor Programme starting in 1986, and finally the creation of a national East Timor Alert Network backed by Canadian churches in 1987. But the beginnings of Canadian solidarity for East Timor, it turns out, go back to 1975.

What I draw from these materials is that humanitarianism and the urge to solidarity with an oppressed people intertwined. This is a common phenomenon, but suggests that aid organizations are one more group that needs to be written into the story of Canadian action for human rights on East Timor. Second, there is much more going on than the government files reflect. To write a full history of Canadian interactions with East Timor – as I’m trying to do this year – requires looking at government and non-governmental organization records, with many of the latter found in unexpected places. Third, the story can’t be written from NGO files alone – the government documents are a good indication that no one was listening to Oxfam Canada in 1976, but officials in Ottawa were listening keenly to the pressure that began in the 1980s, and by the 1990s felt compelled to respond to it. But rights groups picked up on the same sort of language used in the earliest Oxfam-authored letters. There was a legacy: Oxfam’s lobby shaped later lobbying efforts.

Relevant Oxfam documents appear in my recent history in images recently produced with support from the Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee of the Association for Asian Studies, https://canadatimor.wordpress.com/

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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.

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.

Memory, truth and reconciliation in Southeast Asia

This fall’s major project is a workshop on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation in Southeast Asia, looking at conflict and conflict resolution in historical perspective in Timor-Leste (East Timor), Indonesia, and (West) Papua. The draft schedule is now posted. Undergraduate researchers at Bishop’s University have posted some valuable background material too, including an analysis of media coverage of the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in Canada and an overview of past truth commissions in the Asia Pacific region for comparative purposes. The workshop aims to produce two products by combining academic and advocacy perspectives: a policy brief for the Canadian government and a book based on presentations made in Ottawa and other contributions from people who are not able to come.

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