Can Canada make a difference in international affairs? Can middle powers matter when a global crisis hits? The story of the East Timor independence referendum, held 20 years ago this Aug. 30, says yes.
Canadian documents tell the story of Canadian actions during the 1999 referendum. Two decades on, they show that bold and sustained Canadian action can pay off. Archival documents tell stories; those stories have lessons for today.
Timor-Leste, as it’s been called since independence, was never expected to gain independence from Indonesia. Experts — politicians and journalists alike — called its freedom a lost cause.
Canada, the United States and Australia all gave Indonesia economic and military support. In one rare instance of superpower co-operation, Indonesia bought napalm from the Soviet Union and dropped it on Timorese civilians from American-supplied bombers. Canadian officials knew about this crime against humanity, but concealed the information.
There was also a global citizen movement in support of East Timor’s right to self-determination. Canada’s East Timor Alert Network (ETAN), along with activists in churches, student groups and trade unions, ultimately managed to change Canadian policy, as I recount in my forthcoming UBC Press book Unseen Diplomacies.
In 1998, Canada’s foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and Raymond Chan, secretary of state for the Asia Pacific region, consulted Timorese resistance leaders and finally backed ETAN’s longstanding call for Canada to support self-determination for East Timor. Chan did so publicly under parliamentary questioning from the NDP.
When Canadian diplomats proposed mediating between Indonesia and Timorese leaders, the Canadian embassy in Jakarta replied that the offer would very likely be rejected since:
“Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas has stated that Canadian NGOs are the most ferociously anti-Indonesian in the world and he is skeptical, therefore, of the Canadian government’s ability to resist domestic political pressure and maintain its neutrality.”
Timorese leaders, on the other hand, wanted Canada involved. From an Indonesian prison, top independence leader Xanana Gusmão wrote to Axworthy, saying that Canada, as an incoming member of the United Nations Security Council, was “in a unique position to play a lead role during the upcoming transition in East Timor, which I believe is inevitable.”
When Indonesia’s government offered a referendum, the Indonesian army objected. It created and armed vicious militia groups that carried out a sustained campaign of violence and intimidation, documented by the Timorese Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.
One Canadian on the ground, Jess Agustin of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, reported “a terrified population” with killings “almost expected” as part of a “total cleansing” operation that included loyalty oaths accompanied by the drinking of dogs’ blood, the killing of local resistance leader Manuel Carrascalão’s son, the ransacking of newspaper offices and a host of other attacks.
“It is clear that the military is orchestrating this campaign of terror,” Augustin wrote.
Irish foreign minister David Andrews confirmed that Indonesian authorities backed “the flagrant activities of the militia.” With this link confirmed, Canada backed Timorese self-determination at the UN in February 1999, and called for an international security force to keep the peace. Larger powers — including the United States — objected. Security remained with the Indonesian army, the architect of violence.
The result was many more deaths. Xanana wrote in a letter to Axworthy:
“With this attitude of passivity on the part of the international community, the Indonesian government feels sufficiently confident of its ability to go on arming more groups all over the territory and to intensify the campaign of violence.”
U.S. documents recently released by the National Security Archive tell the story of American policy for the first time. U.S. officials rarely told Canadian counterparts what they were doing. By contrast, Canadian officials expected to work closely with Australia, the major Western power in the region.
They were disappointed. Australian diplomats described the Indonesian relationship as their most important, even ahead of their ties to the United States. As an Australian researcher writes: “Australian policymakers who were committed to the status quo searched for ways to help the Indonesian military retain East Timor” until public pressure forced them to offer to intervene — but only if Indonesia agreed.
Canada pledged $2 million to the United Nations to hold the referendum, plus another $30,000 for the International Federation of East Timor (IFET) and other observer missions.
The IFET observer project brought together many activists who had campaigned for a referendum. Its 150 observers included 12 Canadians. Randall Garrison, an Asian studies professor and former director of the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, became one of the group’s spokesmen. Garrison has been an NDP member of parliament since 2011.
Raymond Chan was also there to observe the referendum. He was clearly impressed by the Timorese determination to vote. He had been awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of villagers walking to polling stations. When polls opened at 7:30 a.m., he saw more than 4,000 people lined up to vote. NGO observers told similar stories.
When the UN announced the vote result — 78.5 per cent for independence on a 98 per cent turnout — militia groups erupted. They burned infrastructure, killed more than 1,000 people and forcibly moved at least 150,000 people.
When UN personnel were ordered to leave, a group of them refused — including former Canadian diplomat Colin Stewart and Canadian historian Geoffrey Robinson. This kept the UN involved and likely helped save Timorese lives, as Robinson shows in his book on the violence.
After initially approaching Australia and being rebuffed, Axworthy teamed up with New Zealand foreign minister Don McKinnon to hold a special meeting on East Timor at the APEC summit in Auckland in September 1999.
McKinnon ascribed blame for the mass violence on “the conduct of Indonesia during the last 23 years.” Axworthy took a softer line, but admitted that “we have basically taken over the agenda of APEC.” On Sept. 12, Indonesian president B.J. Habibie finally agreed to an international peacekeeping force. With that agreement in place, Australia agreed to lead an International Force for East Timor.
Throughout 1999, Canada helped exert international pressure. Teaming up with other smaller powers like Ireland and New Zealand, Canada was able to sway Indonesia’s Western allies. This episode gives hints for how Canada might revive its diplomacy today.
Places like independent Timor-Leste are also ideal partners for Canada’s feminist international assistance policy.
Twenty years on, Timor-Leste is the most democratic state in Southeast Asia, even while remaining one of its poorest.
Chan pledged that Canada would be a development partner for the long term; that promise has been abandoned under the Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau governments, though the Canadian embassy in Indonesian supports some valuable smaller projects.
Two decades after it helped the Timorese people gain their freedom, Canada would do well to provide a significant helping hand to the country again.
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