A 1999 story: How Timor-Leste’s resistance gained Canada’s support, and why that matters

Timor-Leste’s independence came during a “window of opportunity” after the fall of the longtime Indonesian dictator Suharto in May 1998. Between then and early 1999, the Timor-Leste resistance was able to break through and win the support for some key countries for self-determination. That helped make the referendum in August 1999 possible, and also helped guarantee that Timor-Leste could become independent.

Canada and New Zealand were among the coalition of Western states who had supported Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste for decades. In the second half of 1998, both reversed course and instead endorsed the right to self-determination. The United States and Australia in these months still supported Indonesian rule, and would not change their stance.

This article summarizes the Canadian change of position, and how Timor-Leste resistance figures and Canadian solidarity activists made that possible. It is a story of four men (Xanana Gusmão, José Ramos Horta, Lloyd Axworthy and Raymond Chan). It is also of the women who led the Canadian solidarity movement in 1998-99 (notably Bella Galhos, Elaine Briere, Maggie Helwig, Sharon Scharfe, and Kerry Pither).

The ground work: ETAN and CAFIET

Governments do not change policy on their own. Canada reversed its longstanding support for the Indonesian occupation against a background of public protest led by an active solidarity movement. Canada’s movement began in the 1980s but received new energy with the arrival of two Timorese refugees. A Canadian policy shift to support self-determination for Timor-Leste happened at the end of 1998 – after Ireland and New Zealand, but before Australia and the United States. Important actions came from the Canadian solidarity movement that pushed the government to change position.

  • Elaine Briere founded the East Timor Alert Network in 1986 to pressure the Canadian government to support self-determination for Timor-Leste. It attracted support from thousands of Canadians.
  • In December 1991, José Ramos Horta met Abé Barreto Soares at an Indian restaurant in Toronto and offered him the post of resistance representative to North America. Barreto Soares engaged in a large number of actions to inform the Canadian public.
  • The second Timorese voice in Canada came from Bella Galhos, who would become “the public face of East Timor in Canada.” Most famously, she became a national media figure when Indonesian ambassador to Canada Benjamin Parwoto, visiting Dili, stopped in at her mother’s house and made what appeared to be threats.
  • A major media campaign was led by Kerry Pither, a communications major then employed by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the moving activist behind a highly active ETAN chapter in Ottawa. Canadian newspapers demanded the ambassador be expelled from Canada.
  • Canadian members of parliament supported the campaign, with lobbying led by Sharon Scharfe, the Canadian secretariat for Parliamentarians for East Timor.
  • A “Team Timor” tour crossed Canada in 1997 and confronted Indonesian president Suharto as he visited Canada.
Page from ETAN’s “Team Timor” report, 1997
  • ETAN members including Maggie Helwig and Elaine Briere formed a new group, Canadian Action for Indonesia and East Timor (CAFIET) in 1998
  • A Canadian church delegation including Catholic and United Church leaders, ETAN member Louise Chernetz and Bernadetta Jagunos of the Canada Asia Working Group visited Timor-Leste in 1998.

The Canadian church delegation

Advice from Timorese to the Canadian church delegation was clear. Bishop Carlos Belo asked the church leaders to push for Indonesian troop withdrawal and a referendum. Aniceto Guterres Lopes of the human rights group HAK backed those requests and added that Canada should call for the withdrawal of para-military groups and offer to mediate the dispute. The resistance coalition CNRT sent 8 people to meet the church delegation, and pushed hard on the call for a referendum and troop withdrawal – the same appeal that Belo had made. While Indonesian army officers made it clear that they had no intention of withdrawing, Timorese were “longing for freedom,” said a representative of the Women’s National Forum. “Government built roads but deny dignity” with its development strategies, according to the development NGO ETADEP. In sum, Timorese demands seemed to be united.[1]

Canada was well respected and might be able to play a useful role, the church delegation wrote.[2] Returning to Ottawa, they met foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific) Raymond Chan to press for human rights monitoring, the release of political prisoners, an international protection force and a transition period leading up to a referendum on independence. Axworthy and the Canadian foreign ministry’s director general for Southeast Asia Ingrid Hall “agreed there is a current unparalleled opportunity to reach a solution for East Timor which Canada must [seize] to make a positive contribution,” according to CAWG’s record of the meeting. Both expressed support for the idea of self-determination, showing how far Canadian policy had come, though they stopped short of backing a referendum.[3]

The diplomatic shift (1) Xanana and Chan

With the fall of Suharto in May 1998, Canadian political leaders Raymond Chan (Secretary of state, Asia-Pacific) and Lloyd Axworthy (foreign minuster) saw a window of opportunity for what they called Canadian “niche diplomacy.” The new president, B.J. Habibie, ordered the release of 15 political prisoners in Dili. From Ottawa, Lloyd Axworthy welcomed the prisoner release as an “encouraging sign that the Indonesian government’s commitment to reform also extends to East Timor” and urged that jailed resistance leader Xanana Gusmão also be set free.[4] This responded to the “free Xanana” campigns of ETAN and CAFIET.

In October 1998, Raymond Chan met Xanana Gusmão in his Jakarta prison cell, one of a strong of visitors who followed in the wake of a surprise visit to Xanana by South African president Nelson Mandela. Chan was a former activist in the Vancouver Chinese community campaigning for human rights in China who had been elected to parliament and then named to cabinet. Visiting Jakarta, he asked to meet Xanana and his hosts felt unable to refuse.

Chan met Xanana for a relaxed chat over tea in the Cipinang prison warden’s office, finding him “pragmatic and conciliatory” but 100% insistent on a referendum. Indonesian officials refused permission for an interpreter but the embassy’s Ginette Martin used her Spanish to interpret between Xanana’s Portuguese and Chan’s English.

Xanana displayed keen awareness of Canadian policy. Chan called the meeting “a reflection of Canada’s support for his aspirations for ET [East Timor]” and recalling “his own history as an activist and his experience in China when he was briefly arrested.” The two parted on friendly terms, with the record of the meeting indicating hopes for future collaboration in several areas.[5] In other words, Chan was committing to follow Xanana’s lead on Canada’s East Timor policy. Chan meanwhile called Habibie “negative and hostile.”[6]

The diplomatic shift (2) Ramos Horta and Axworthy

José Ramos Horta made a surprise visit to Ottawa in June 1998, alarming Canadian embassy officials in Jakarta who “remain suspicious of RH’s public appearances” since they were “likely to reinforce vocal Canadian pro-independent ET groups.”[7] But in Ottawa, foreign ministry officials reported he had “presented a statesmanlike image and a rather moderate position” even while insisting on a referendum, the common position of Timorese voices by this point.[8]

Axworthy encountered Ramos Horta at Lisbon airport in October 1998. Foreign affairs officials recommended that Axworthy “make no public statement of support for a referendum in East Timor leading to independence.” Canada had “abandoned its long-held stance and offered to consider change – but not just yet,” one official wrote.[9]

In Ottawa, the two met again. Ramos Horta asked Canada “to put its prestige and position as a new member of the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] behind support for independence, noting that Indonesia was in too weakened a state to retaliate.” Ramos Horta then went directly to join six other speakers at an ETAN press conference where he repeated his request for Canada to back an independent East Timor. Ramos Horta thanked the “moral and decent people” of ETAN for supporting East Timor for long years during which their government had supported Indonesia. The demise of the Suharto regime, he said, offered Canada “the opportunity to play a leading role, an opportunity to back a referendum on independence with UN involvement, and an opportunity to come clean.”[10]

The change: December 1998

When Raymond Chan appeared before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in late November, his briefing notes did not call for any change in Canada’s Timor policy. Indonesia was “a huge, complex country undergoing massive economic and political upheaval,” officials urged Chan to say. “The outcome will be crucial for the stability of Indonesia, its neighbours, and strategically for all of Asia.”[11] This did not indicate much movement.

But Chan went considerably further. “To me, we support self-determination, so if there’s a will of the people, then we have to respect that,” he said.[12] But Svend Robinson of the NDP returned to the charge. The transcript indicates that Chan had not simply made a slip of the tongue in his earlier comment on self-determination:

Mr. Svend J. Robinson (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP): I must say, I was pleased to hear the minister say, in his words, “We support self-determination for the people East Timor”. That’s an important statement.

I take it you are speaking on behalf of the government in that, are you, Mr. Minister?

Mr. Raymond Chan: Yes.

Mr. Svend Robinson: As well, in determining the wishes and the views of the people of East Timor, I assume the minister would, in fact, support the proposal that has been made by José Ramos-Horta, Xanana Gusmao, and other Timorese leaders that, at an appropriate time—and they’re not suggesting immediately, but at an appropriate time—there be an opportunity for a referendum, freely held, under international supervision, to determine the wishes of the people of East Timor.

Would the minister accept that as well?

Mr. Raymond Chan: I think that could be a negotiated result with the government, and we would endorse that kind of result.[3]

Chan had not officially endorsed a referendum, but he had put the government on record in support of Timorese self-determination.[13]

The follow-up: Xanana asks Canada to lead

Xanana Gusmão now wrote to Axworthy saying Canada, as an incoming member of the UN Security Council, was “in a unique position to play a lead role during the upcoming transition in East Timor, which I believe is inevitable.” Ramos Horta sent leaked Indonesian military documents to Axworthy showing that the army was linked to para-military militia groups terrorising pro-independence figures in East Timor. He added a plea for an end to World Bank and IMF aid to Indonesia until it left East Timor, saying Indonesia spent a million dollars a day on its occupation. “It is morally and politically unacceptable that the world community should waste resources in funding a regime that cannot be trusted and that has been misusing billions in an extravagant military adventure,” he wrote.[14]

“Canada has long called for the East Timorese to be given a say in their own future,” Axworthy declared in February 1999, a month after Canada joined the UN Security Council. “It has become clear that the most effective way for this to happen is through an act of self-determination.” A public statement, the foreign ministry felt, would differ from Australia’s endorsement of self-determination since Australia continued to discourage independence.[15] Canada followed Ireland’s lead into a more critical stance.

Both ETAN and CAFIET pushed for more. The foreign ministry reported it could not keep up with the thousands of letters of concern sent in a campaign led by CAFIET coordinator Maggie Helwig.[16] Sharon Scharfe was successful in convinving foeign affairs to consider an ongoing Canadian embassy dialogue with Xanana Gusmão – who by this point was no longer portrayed in Canadian embassy reporting as a radical leader, but rather as a moderating influence on other Timorese.[17]

Canadian activists and government were now on the same page.[18] “We strongly support” Raymond Chan’s call for a UN presence in East Timor, CAFIET wrote.[19] ETAN was “pleased with the Canadian government’s decision to publicly support the East Timorese people’s right to self-determination, a first step that ETAN and many other groups in Canada have been calling for for years.”[20]

While Canada’s UN delegation called an international peacekeeping force to be developed in advance, other powers resisted. “There is no longer any doubt in our mind,” Xanana wrote to Canadian ambassador Ken Sunquist at the end of March 1999, that ABRI [the Indonesian armed forces] is actively promoting a situation of heightened tension in order to thwart our efforts towards Reconciliation and to ensure that the conditions necessary for a free and fair consultation to take place do not exist in the territory.”[21]

Sadly the referendum was met with mass violence orchestrated by figures in the Indonesian military. It is a shame that more countries did not listen to the message coming from Xanana, Ramos Horta and other Timorese leaders.

[1] Bill Phipps trip diary, 1998, United Church of Canada Archives (UCCA), Bill Phipps fonds, accession 2007.112C, vol. 2, file 11.

[2] « Rapport de la Délégation Oecuménique au Timor orientale du 8 au 14 octobre 1998, » 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[3] “Project Report: Ecumenical Visit to East Timor,” [1998], Canada Asia Working Group archive, uncatalogued collection now at United Church archives, box G-2/00; “Canadian church leaders witness East Timor unrest,” Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops news release, 16 Oct. 1998; Art Babych, “Church leaders meet foreign affairs minister,” Prairie Messenger, 11 Nov. 1998; draft record of Axworthy-Ramos Horta meeting, 29 Oct 1998, file 20-TIMOR, ATI; “Ecumenical delegation meet with Minister Axworthy,” undated CAWG record of meeting, document in author’s possession.

[4] “Axworthy welcomes release of East Timorese political prisoners,” draft DFAIT news release, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[5] “SSAP visit to Indonesia: meeting with Xanana Gusmao,” Canadian embassy Jakarta e-mail to DFAIT, 15 Oct. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[6] “Options for Canadian Projects in Support of the East Timor Peace Process,” DFAIT peacebuilding division draft paper, 23 Oct. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[7] Canadian embassy Jakarta e-mail to DFAIT, 24 June 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[8] Canadian embassy Jakarta e-mail to DFAIT, citing PSE report of meeting, 25 June 1998.

[9] Action memorandum for Minister of Foreign Affairs, 23 Oct. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[10] “Report on MINA and SSAP meeting with East Timorese Opposition leader Jose Ramos Horta, 26 Oct. 1998,” 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[11] “Notes for remarks by the Secretary of State for Asia Pacific the Honourable Raymond Chan to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade,” 26 Nov. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[12] Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs And International Trade / Comité permanent des affaires étrangères et du commerce international : Evidence, 2017-08-17. URL:http://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/36-1/FAIT/meeting-83/evidence. Accessed: 2017-08-17. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6smvCzVWg).

[13] Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs And International Trade / Comité permanent des affaires étrangères et du commerce international : Evidence. 2017-08-17. URL:http://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/36-1/FAIT/meeting-83/evidence. Accessed: 2017-08-17. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6smvCzVWg).

[14] “East Timor,” draft for briefing note to Canadian delegation to the UN Security Council, 9 Dec. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[15] José Ramos Horta to Lloyd Axworthy, 30 Oct. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[16] Action memorandum for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, 10 Feb. 1999; Canadian embassy Jakarta e-mail to DFAIT, 8 Feb. 1999, both at 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[17] DFAIT e-mail to Canadian embassy Jakarta, 9 Dec. 1998, 20-TIMOR, ATI; “Who is CAFIET?” Annual report, 1998-99, AGSA, GS2003-05, vol. 28, file 9.

[18] Scharfe to Kenneth Sunquist, Canadian ambassador to Indonesia, 9 Dec. 1998, and Chris Hull, DFAIT Asia Pacific South division, to Sunquist, 11 Dec. 1998; “East Timor: Out of the Frying Pan,” Canadian embassy Jakarta e-mail to DFAIT, 24 Dec. 1998, all at 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[19] Information memorandum for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, 26 Feb. 1999; DFAIT e-mail to Canadian embassy Jakarta, 2 March 1999, both at 20-TIMOR, ATI.

[20] CAFIET, “Presentation to NGO Consultations on Human Rights,” digital document in author’s possession.

[21] ETAN/Canada, “Brief to the Department of Foreign Affairs/NGO consultations,” 4 March 1999, digital document in author’s possession.

[22] Xanana to Sunquist, 27 March 1999, 20-TIMOR, ATI.