Advocacy groups

Canadian solidarity with East Timor: a history in images

E-dossier #4. The former Portuguese colony of Timor-Leste (East Timor) declared independence in 1975. Days later, it was invaded by the army of neighbouring Indonesia, then annexed. A 24-year struggle for independence drew support from a diverse intentional solidarity movement. Timor-Leste regained its independence in 2002.

This e-dossier presents visual images from the files of the East Timor Alert Network/Canada, depicting the history of Canadian solidarity actions for Timorese independence. Compiled by David Webster, story told in textual form in the book Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-99.

Thanks are due to Elaine Briere, Kerry Pither and Maggie Helwig for sharing images.

Gallery 1: Early activism in Canada

Canadian activism in support of East Timor dates to before the 1975 invasion. Oxfam’s Australian branch, Community Aid Abroad, tried to send a ship with medical supplies shortly after Indonesia invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975. Oxfam Canada issued a $10,000 grant for the project, but the Australian government impounded the ship.  Oxfam Canada and Oxfam Quebec also attempted (without success) to shift the Canadian government’s policy of silence and abstention on the occupation of East Timor.

The earliest groups were the Nova Scotia East Timor Group (founded 1985) to protest against Dalhousie University’s aid to Indonesia and the Indonesia East Timor Program (founded in Ontario in 1986). NSETG, founded by Bill Owen, Audrey Samson and Ross Shotten, worked closely with Amnesty International Canada. IETP, founded by Julia Morrigan and Derek Rasmussen, sprang from anti-intervention and peace groups in Ottawa. Its initiatives included welcoming the first Timorese visitor to Canada, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes of the Catholic diocese of Dili, a tour presented in conjunction with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Gallery 2: the East Timor Alert Network, 1987

In 1987, the East Timor Alert Network was founded by Elaine Briere, Maureen Davies and Derek Evans. ETAN/Canada concentrated in its early years on challenging the prevailing political winds that led Canada’s government to support Indonesian rule over East Timor. ETAN’s efforts focused on public awareness-raising, letter-writing in an effort to change government policy, and public protests. Run out of Briere’s home in Ladysmith, British Columbia, ETAN had limited resources, relying primarily on a grant from the Canada Asia Working Group (CAWG) of Canadian churches. The group quickly joined a global network of East Timor solidarity groups coordinated by Carmel Budiarjo in the UK, Luisa Teotonia Pereira in Portugal, and others.

ETAN’s first newsletter, run off on Briere’s stylized-font typewriter and then copied and posted from the office of Ray Funk MP to a few hundred supporters across Canada, included a focus what ETAN called “Canadian complicity with genocide.” A conference at Carleton University in 1987 put the issue on the political agenda. Meanwhile, pressure from outside parliament began with a weekly vigil outside the Indonesian consulate in Toronto.

Gallery 3: Betrayed but not beaten, 1988-90

From small beginnings, the East Timor Alert Network aimed to put the issue of Timorese rights and self-determination on the agenda in Canada. Peter Monet, then a Montreal-based film maker, released the film East Timor: Betrayed but not Beaten. A key development saw activists gather for a conference in 1989 at Carleton University, backed by a new Parliamentarians for East Timor group. Publicity for the conference made its purpose – and the influence of Monet’s film – clear: It is important to remember that while East Timor has been betrayed by the international community, it has most certainly not been beaten!” At this conference, the various solidarity groups in Canada agreed to come together under the ETAN umbrella.

PET continued to be active, eventually growing to include 29 MPs and establish a coordination office led by Sharon Scharfe. Each year, a PET member joined an ETAN representative in testifying to the UN Decolonization Commission. Other lobbying took place at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Gallery 4: East Timor is a Canadian issue, 1991-96

On 12 November 1991,  Indonesian soldiers opened fire on a protest in Dili, East Timor, as protesters entered the Santa Cruz cemetery. Church sources put the death toll at 273 killed, with many more injured or missing.  The massacre was a human tragedy, but also a turning point for the Timorese independence movement, which increasingly gained support around the world. Among those killed was Kamal Bamadhaj, whose step-sister Li-lien Gibbons lived in Canada.

As footage of the Santa Cruz massacre footage screened on the nightly news, more and more Canadians started to know, and care, about East Timor. After the massacre, two Timorese students were accepted for refugee status in Canada: Bella Galhos and Abé Barreto Soares. Through the mid-1990s, voices reached more and more Canadians, especially in church groups, on university campuses and in trade unions. ETAN’s national office moved to Toronto and active local groups emerged in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Windsor and elsewhere. A Portuguese-speaking ETAN committee, the Comissão para a Libertação do Povo Maubere, also formed in this period. East Timor was becoming a Canadian issue, moving from the fringes of public awareness to the front pages. Meanwhile, Canadian government documents indicate that the East Timor solidarity movement was starting to be heard.

Gallery 5: East Timorese refugees speak out

Headlines using these or similar words appeared on multiple occasions as two Timorese students sent to Canada on Indonesian government nominations defected to Canada, applied for refugee status, and accepted a long period of poverty in order to campaign for their country’s independence. Abé Barreto Soares and Bella Galhos both became representatives to Canada of the Timorese resistance coalition CNRM (National Council of Maubere Resistance). Based in Vancouver and then Ottawa, Bella Galhos delivered dozens of speaking engagements across the country that gave many Canadians a sense of direct connection to East Timor.

Abé Barreto Soares also delivered multiple speeches but most often used his words in the form of poetry or music. Teaming up with a Guelph-based musician Aloz MacDonald under the name Abé ho Aloz (Abé and Aloz), the duo released an album and toured widely – including in Norway in the run-up to the Nobel Prize awarded to Timorese leaders Bishop Carlos Belo and José Ramos Horta in 1996.

Abé Barreto Soares is today a respected poet based in Dili, Timor-Leste. Bella Galhos directs the Leublora Green School in Maubisse, Timor-Leste, and Aicoris, a support organization for lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

Gallery 6: Pressing for Canadian divestment

Canada was a significant foreign investor in Indonesia, ranking in the top five Indonesian sources of foreign direct investment at various periods. The largest Canadian investor was Inco, with a large nickel mining complex on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. When, after the Santa Cruz massacre, the Canadian government froze aid to Indonesia, it made sure that trade and investment were unaffected. Both rose at spectacular rates throughout the 1990s. ETAN consequently began to pressure Canadian companies investing in Indonesia, including Inco and Bata Shoes, while protesting at events that promoted trade with Indonesia. Corporate ties featured in ETAN lobbyist Sharon Scharfe’s 1996 book on Canada and East Timor, Complicity. At the same time, ETAN activists in Ottawa led by Kerry Pither created a “labour solidarity committee” that tried to replicate the success of the South Africa divestment campaign. They won the support of the Canadian Labour Congress and others for a full embargo on military exports to Indonesia.

As Canada’s involvement in Indonesian development rose, several Canadian universities undertook projects in Indonesia supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). From Simon Fraser University in Vancouver to Dalhousie University in Halifax, these projects drew protest on human rights grounds. The issue was fought out most heavily around the University of Guelph’s Sulawesi Regional Development Project. The university finally agreed to hold an external human rights review which recommended some changes. In response, the Indonesian government expelled Guelph from the country – leading to a lead editorial from the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper, suggesting Canada review its entire aid relationship.

Gallery 7: Suharto on trial, 1997

The 1997 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was to be hosted by Canada. APEC had long been the site of Timorese protest, and 1997’s summit at the University of British Columbia was no exception. With support from the Portuguese Universities Foundation, ETAN hosted a group of Timorese and Indonesian activists on a “Team Timor” national tour.

At the start point in Ottawa and the end point in Vancouver, activists held mock trials of Indonesian president Suharto. These efforts almost led to embarrassment for the Chrétien government as Suharto threatened to boycott the summit. He agreed to come only after Canada’s government promised he would not be confronted by protesters. In the end, RCMP officers used pepper spray on protesters and used force to clear the route for Suharto’s motorcade to leave UBC.

ETAN efforts were part of larger anti-APEC meetings and marches. At the People’s Summit on APEC, Timorese resistance diplomat José Ramos Horta was keynote speaker and Bella Galhos released new photos of torture in East Timor to the media.

Gallery 8: “As night fell, she emerged”: Solidarity activism 1997-99

And in the shadows of Santa Cruz,  she crossed her fingers behind her back…. As night fell she emerged with a box under her arm that held her pledge of allegiance and her uniform.  And she laid it at the gates of the General’s embassy, and her whisper echoed into dawn as she disappeared:  The truth will set my people free.

Propagandhi, lyric to “Mate ke Moris Ukun Rasik An”

In the late 1990s,  East Timor’s international profile grew and grew. In Canada, solidarity activists rallied to try to make a “citizen’s arrest” of Indonesian president Suharto at the 1997 APEC summit, picking up on the example of Timorese activists who had put their country’s struggle at the centre of the 1994 APEC summit in Jakarta. Each year, a Canadian member of Parliamentarians for East Timor travelled to take part in international testimonies to the UN Decolonization Committee. Activists at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic church in Windsor, Ontario, twinned their parish with Suai in East Timor, welcomed Suai’s priest Father Hilario Madeira for a period in residence, and established an East Timor Hope Foundation to aid Suai. Canadian diplomats finally agreed that Canada had to take more positive steps, if only “to get ETAN off our backs.” In 1998, after lobbying by Timorese leaders, Secretary of State for Asia Pacific Raymond Chan finally put Ottawa on record supporting East Timor’s right to self-determination. That self-determination came after a referendum in 1999. The cost was high: Father Hilario of Suai was among those killed by pro-Indonesia militias. But East Timor’s independence was won.

Gallery 9: Images in activism: Elaine Briere’s photographs

Photojournalist Elaine Briere was travelling the Southeast Asian “hippy trail” in 1974, a trip that brought her among other places to pre-invasion East Timor. She fell in love with the country. After its invasion, she found she had some of the very few high-quality images of pre-invasion East Timor. She shared them with solidarity groups around the world. Especially in Canadian activism, they became iconic. Some have even found their way back to independent Timor-Leste.

Click here to view Elaine Briere’s film Bitter Paradise: The Sellout of East Timor

Gallery 10: After independence

Canadian involvement with East Timor did not end after the Indonesian military withdrew in 1999. ETAN and a spin-off group, Canadian Action for Indonesia and East Timor, continued to monitor the situation and lobby the Canadian government, but both disbanded in the early years of the 21st century. In 2015, President Taur Matan Ruak awarded the Order of Timor-Leste to ETAN/Canada “for the valuable contribution given by you to the Timorese people’s struggle for self-determination.”

Transitional justice

As the Indonesian army left Timor-Leste and the transition to independence began, the Canadian campaign against impunity for the perpetrators of mass atrocities was led by KAIROS Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, a coalition backed by the major Canadian churches. KAIROS called in 2001 for an international tribunal.

Instead of a tribunal, there was a truth and reconciliation commission, the CAVR, which made a series of human rights recommendations to governments including Canadas’s. CAVR senior advisor Pat Walsh presented the final report to Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa in 2015.

Development cooperation

Canadian support for economic development in East Timor began in 1990 with a small grant to ETADEP, which the Canadian government considered to be the only true Timorese NGO. The most significant early player was the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, which provided both funding and human rights support, especially for the Peace and Justice Office created by Bishop Belo. In 1997, USC Canada began programming in Timor-Leste, shifting to its current focus on sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. USC Canada in Timor-Leste is now an independent NGO, RAEBIA.

For more photographs and primary source documents on the campaign for Timor-Leste, 1975-99, visit the Timor International Solidarity Archive.