A church mission to Timor-Leste, 1998

By Macalister Arendt

This post summarizes documents from the Canada Asia Working Group archives about a Canadian church delegation to Timor-Leste (East Timor) in 1998, describing a demonstration that the delegation saw as a “turning point” in the march to independence. The original records are available to researchers on request. 

CAWG letter to Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy prior to delegation, with fax transmission post-its.

In 1998, after two years of planning, the Canada Asian Working Group (CAWG) organized a trip to to East Timor under the organization and planning of Burn Jagunos, the co-director of the organization. CAWG was an umbrella organization of different ecumenical groups across Canada including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the Mennonite Central Committee, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Scarboro Foreign Missions Society, and the United Church of Canada. Their position on the region sided with the East Timorese quest for self-determination was justified in their eyes by the human rights crises put on them by the Indonesian government. There may also have been increased interest in the region as East Timor is a majority Christian nation, whereas 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim. As a church delegation, CAWG felt sympathy with their fellow Christians.

The Canada Asian Working group, whose sole purpose in East Timor is to focus on human rights issues, believed that Canada’s position in the region was too soft. Canada was slowly becoming more outspoken on human rights issues. However, in terms of actions, they were lacking. This was because Indonesia blatantly had been disregarding or ignoring the suggestions and requests of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. CAWG saw Canadian support for Indonesia, including aid and arms sales, as blatant disregard for the needs of the East Timorese people. With their ecumenical visit to East Timor, they hoped to display this issue and urge Canada to change their position on the issue.

The proposed trip was initially to include Rev. Bill Phipps, Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, Mr. Jess Agustin, and Mr. Bruce Gregersen, representing the Catholic Church and The United Church of Canada. They were scheduled to accompany Jagunos to East Timor from May 27-June 2, 1998 to assess the situation in East Timor. Jagunos had travelled to and met with members of the church community in East Timor multiple times before on personal trips before she decided to lead this group. During their trip, they were hosted by the Catholic Church in East Timor and the Protestant (GKTT) church, and planned to meet with different worship leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo of Dili, who helped organize this visit. Delegates were asked not to mention his involvement in the trip during their border crossing if possible, and not mention East Timor at all when entering Indonesia to make the border crossing go smoothly, indicating the sensitive nature of the visit.

The conflict in East Timor was one of interest for peace-oriented church groups like CAWG. The CAWG trip was the first full Canadian church ecumenical visit to the region with the hope to forge relations with East Timorese congregations, which in turn would put the struggles of the Timorese people in the North American conversation and heighten further activism. They hoped to tour the region near Dili, the capital, visiting the towns of Baucau, Los Palos, and Viqueque. These areas were open to visitors according to Indonesia’s promise to the UN, but in reality, relatively closed to travel. The delegates requested that upon their return they would have a meeting with Hon. Raymond Chan, the Canadian Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific region, to discuss their observations and concerns over East Timor with a view to helping advise on Canadian government involvement in the region. CAWG hoped to facilitate peace and advocate for human rights for the region.

However, this trip had to be postponed due to the unsteady political atmosphere in Indonesia and was pushed back to October 6-14, 1998. The final delegation consisted of

  • Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
  • Rev. Bill Phipps, Moderator of the United Church of Canada (Canada’s largest Protestant church)
  • Ms Louise Chernetz, representing the Anglican Church of Canada
  • Ms Bern Jagunos, co-director of the Canada Asia Working Group
A CAWG letter notes that President Habibie’s offer to withdraw some troops is insignificant and that he has rejected a referendum.

The trip aimed to extend relations with the East Timorese people, specifically meeting with representatives of five different political parties, the Women’s Network, student groups, and independence leaders Armandina Gusmão and Manuel Carrascalão in an attempt to understand the crisis on a deeper level. This trip in particular was to focus on seeing how democratic changes in Indonesia since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in May 1998 had affected East Timor, which upon return they would report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy. Indonesia’s new president B.J. Habibie, who had recently taken office, had rejected calls for a referendum on Timorese independence while taking various surface-level actions such as withdrawing an insignificant number of troops in an attempt to cool down the situation and block Timorese self-determination, an act that critics say was simply playing with time. This was indeed the case as the Timorese people were taking the change in leadership in Indonesia as an opportunity to become even more outspoken, with key leaders such as Bishop Belo pushing for a peaceful transition of power to Timorese leadership. These added tensions would be at the forefront of the issues that the CAWG mission hoped to understand while in East Timor.

During their time in East Timor, tensions remained at an all-time high. After the trip had been postponed due to political upheaval, the delegation finally was able to go there in October of 1998. On October 12, the streets of Dili erupted in protests of around 6,000 citizens against the Governor of East Timor’s requirement for all public employees to support Habibie’s “autonomy” plan which they felt would further integrate East Timor into Indonesia. These protests were also spurred on by President Habibie’s recent lack of actions promised his May 1998 “reforms.” The protests started peacefully but upon the death of an escaped prisoner the next day, peaceful protests turned into a military staredown preparing for violence before being eventually dispersed. CAWG noted that the younger generation was becoming increasingly militant and would not be able to be dispersed easily for much longer. This marked a turning point in the East Timorese independence movement.

The delegation meets Indonesian-appointed officials. Left to right: Schoenenbach, Chernetz, Phipps, Jagunos.

Returning from their trip, the delegation planned on advising Minister Axworthy and the Canadian Government to take the following actions so they too can be part of the change which CAWG saw as inevitable:

  1. An immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Indonesian troops under United Nations supervision;
  2. A transition period preparatory to a referendum under the supervision of a UN team including representatives of East Timor, Indonesia, and Portugal;
  3. The release of all political prisoners;
  4. The monitoring of human rights abuses by international human rights agencies.
Coverage of meeting in The Prairie Messenger, a Canadian Catholic newspaper.

These proposals went directly to the Canadian government, along with encouragement to be a vocal advocate for East Timor in the United Nations as Canada prepared to join the UN Security Council in January 1999. Lloyd Axworthy responded to these suggestions by reiterating Canada’s support for the UN process but refused to request the removal of troops for fear of stopping the talks between Indonesia and Portugal and worsening the issue.

Ultimately the CAWG trip hoped to connect East Timor with Canada and encourage the Canadian government to advocate for Timorese self-determination, in light of to the human rights offences happening in East Timor at the time. The Canadian government was happy to have information on what the crisis looked like in East Timor; however, they were unwilling in October 1998 to take strong actions without going through UN protocols. As an organization, CAWG hoped to advocate for East Timor both to the Government of Canada as well as the general public through their service work and partner congregations in the hope to make a crisis Indonesia was trying to hide, very public.