Companion to East Timor - Maire Leadbeater

Maire Leadbeater

This photo of New Zealand historian Maire Leadbeater was
taken by her late friend, the activist Barbel Rehfeld, in 2004.

Maire Leadbeater

Born 19 October, 1945

I have a daughter and a son both in their mid-30s, and two delightful young granddaughters.  I live with my partner, Graeme in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.

I am now 'retired' but still work on a casual basis as a health social worker and devote time and energy to solidarity work for West Papua. The Indonesia Human Rights Committee was formed in Auckland to work on West Papua and other human rights issues, when East Timor had achieved its liberation.

It is sad to note that the New Zealand government does not seem to have learned the lessons of East Timor but continues to prioritise its bilateral relationship with Indonesia over the rights and the suffering of the West Papuan people.  I believe the situation in West Papua can only be described as a military occupation, and that the West Papuan people, like the East Timorese have a right to genuine self-determination.

Most of what follows is taken from my book launched in February 2007 and published by Craig Potton : Negligent  Neighbour: New Zealand's Complicity in the Invasion and Occupation of Timor-Leste.

How I became involved in the
East Timor Independence Committee

The East Timor issue was a major part of my life throughout the 1990s. I was an active member of the Auckland East Timor Independence Committee organising demonstrations and meetings, networking, lobbying politicians and making media releases.  As email became the preferred means of international communication in the mid-1990s reading emails and communicating with fellow activists around the world consumed several hours of most days. The new technology was enormously helpful for planning events such as conferences or coordinated demonstrations and campaigns. In the quiet of late evening as I sat in front of my computer I often felt that the streets of Dili and the besieged people of East Timor were very close.

Yet I did not visit East Timor until April 1999.  It seems strange looking back that I did not visit sooner.  Of course Indonesia did not want activists to visit and those who did generally found themselves constrained by the close oversight of the security and intelligence forces. But I was also convinced that the most important task was a home based task, since East Timor's narrative was not limited to events within its borders.  I figured that if New Zealand was one of the western governments who had eased the way for Indonesia to invade and occupy East Timor then New Zealand must also have the power to help turn the situation around. What would it take to change the government's mind?  There was only one answer that I could see and that was public pressure.  So I reasoned that my place as a solidarity activist was to work at home both helping to create awareness and striving to influence my elected representatives.

How did I get involved?  Many of the long term East Timor activists came from a background of having visited East Timor when it was still under the rule of Portugal, while others were "Indonesia buffs" who had a long-standing interest in social and political movements in Indonesia. However my personal path flowed from my involvement in the peace and anti-nuclear movement.

I was born into a family where politics and activism were part of everyday life.  My mother would often comment that of course one could not change the whole world, but it was quite possible and very important to seek to influence the policies of the government of your own country.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s the Cold War was at its height and the nuclear arms race threatened the survival of humanity.  During the international crisis of 1962 that became known as the Cuban missile crisis the world came close to a nuclear holocaust, and fear of nuclear war was palpable.

So I became involved in the anti-nuclear cause. When we campaigned against nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1970s and 1980s New Zealand activists soon got to know about the concerns of fellow activists in the French and American Pacific territories.  For them fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing was not the only issue, they were also struggling to regain control over their political future, and for independence. 

In 1975 a preparatory meeting for the first Nuclear Weapons Free and Independent Pacific Conference was held in my home.  In time the East Timor movement became part of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Network (NFIP) as it came to be known. 

Nuclear Free demonstration
in Auckland, March 1985. Photo by John Miller.

My anti-nuclear colleague and good friend Elaine Shaw (sadly now deceased) was active in the East Timor solidarity movement in Auckland from about 1977.  She was on the alert when our Government was moulding its position to suit Indonesia in early 1978.

She enquired about the visit of the New Zealand Ambassador to East Timor and was told by the New Zealand Foreign Minister Mr Talboys that after his visit the  Government could now accept 'that the occupation of East Timor was irreversible'.  The irreversibility doctrine would guide Government policy for the next 18 years.

Although we did not know it  until 16 years later (when some declassified documents were publicly released), this is how Ambassador Peren  described the people of  East Timor after his stage-managed visit:

 in sum...poor, small, riddled with disease, and almost totally illiterate, very simple and, we were told again and again, 'primitive'… Considered as human stock they are not at all impressive - and this is something that one has to think about when judging their capacity to take part in an act of self-determination or even to perform as responsible citizens of an independent country.

From the early 1980s East Timorese participants began to attend the regional Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Conferences as well as meetings in New Zealand and the East Timor story which had been on the periphery for me began to seize my attention.

However, at the time the New Zealand peace movement was undergoing resurgence and pushing very hard for the goal of a Nuclear Free New Zealand.  I was heavily involved in the preparations for mass anti-nuclear mobilisations against visiting American and British nuclear warships. In 1985 a Labour Government declined the visit of an American nuclear weapons capable warship and touched off a diplomatic disagreement between the two western allies which persists to this day. 

The New Zealand government cemented its nuclear free policy in law in 1987.  This milestone prompted me to consider a change of gear and take a little time out to reflect on my future direction.  The next few years marked a kind of transition as I moved from peace movement activities to more active involvement in broader issues of social justice and human rights.  With the Philippines Solidarity Group I took part in a 'peace brigade' to the Philippines, meeting with grassroots activists and marching with them to protest at the gates of the giant US Clark Air Force Base. When democracy was overthrown by a military coup in Fiji I helped to host the deposed Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra to tour New Zealand.

Around this time East Timor began to emerge from the shadows as Indonesia opened the door a crack to allow the visits of journalists and a trickle of tourists. The international solidarity movement was undergoing a revival which meant that it was easier to find good information and to get good ideas for campaign strategies. I felt impelled to get more involved and then I found that there was no turning back!

East Timor solidarity in Aotearoa in the 1990s

East Timor Independence Committee Banner designed by Sally Griffin.
Photo by Gil Hanly.

From the time of the 1991 Santa Cruz  massacre which shocked the world, my own involvement in East Timor solidarity work became intense.   I was one of several who had previously been engaged in anti-nuclear work or other international solidarity issues who decided to give more energy to the Auckland East Timor Independence Committee.  For the past decade Helen Yensen had kept up a remarkable momentum of lobbying letters and liaison work with other New Zealand groups.  She was delighted with the new influx of active members.  But there was much to do.

New Zealand alone among the western community lost one of its own citizens in the massacre.  He was  Kamal Bamadhaj, a deeply committed young solidarity activist, of mixed Malaysian and Pakeha heritage. Kamal's mother Helen Todd, a New Zealand-born  journalist, was soon to play a critical role in the search for justice for East Timor.  Helen's commitment saw her take a case for punitive damages against General Panjaitan for his key role in the massacre.  The US court case in Boston, brought by the Centre for Constitutional Rights, had a positive outcome; the Judge awarded a total of NZ$22 million, but of course it remains unpaid. Post-liberation Helen Todd was one of the founders of Moris Rasik (MR), a microfinance program in Timor-Leste.

Two weeks after  the massacre we organised a moving memorial for Kamal Bamadhaj in Aotea Square and read out Kamal's own words appealing to the 'will of us all' to stop aggression.  Kamal's uncles, John Todd and Bruce Picot, and other family members spoke.  Although their personal grief was fresh they did not forget the East Timorese.  Bruce Picot said they were luckier than the East Timorese relatives: 'At least we know the cause of death.  At least we have some answers about how it happened.'

Francisco Pang, a Fretilin representative based in Melbourne began a tour in early December attracting good numbers to his public meetings in four cities and considerable newspaper and radio coverage.  Francisco noted that Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke had recently met with Fretilin representatives for ten minutes which was a diplomatic breakthrough.  In New Zealand half an hour with Foreign Affairs officials was the only government concession.  Francisco was bitterly disappointed not to have met senior ministers, and condemned New Zealand's sixteen years of 'indifference'.

Peace and justice groups called on the Government to end all military co-operation with Indonesia, the United Nations Association urged a full UN investigation of the massacre and the East Timor issue was hotly debated in newspaper editorials and letters.

1994 marked another high point in East Timor activism, much of it down to the John Pilger documentary Death of a Nation and John's visit to New Zealand late in the year.

John Pilger signs
copies of his books at One World Books, 24 November 1994. Photo by John

Death of a Nation screened on New Zealand television on 7 April 1994.  Pilger and his colleague David Munro had filmed secretly in East Timor to follow up the events since the Dili massacre by interviewing identity-obscured witnesses.  The film did not spare Indonesia's western friends, although New Zealand was not directly mentioned.  Pilger interviewed Alan Clark, the former British Secretary of Defence, who oversaw defence contracts with Indonesia. Clark conceded that he did not seek guarantees about the end use of British-supplied Hawk aircraft but was unconcerned about claims that British weapons had been used to kill East Timorese: 'I don't really fill my mind much with what one set of foreigners is doing to another.'  Pilger concludes: 'The story of what has happened in East Timor has everything to do with the way the world is ordered.'

John Pilger set two conditions for the screening of his film wherever it was shown: that it should be shown in full and that a hot line should be screened at the end.  Auckland ETIC lined up a small telephone call centre for the night and staffed it with 12 volunteers.  Despite the late hour of the screening, which did not finish until close to midnight, we took 600 calls in all but many more could not get through.

Our positive experience was replicated in Australia, Britain and the United States.

The national mailing list and bank balance expanded, 1,000 information packs were sent out and new groups started in some smaller centres.  Although the programme's audience share was modest at that time of night, it was as though the documentary lit a fire trail of awareness that filtered through the community.

The day after the screening, Wellington activists staged a 30-strong demonstration outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  There was street theatre with bodies lying in a heap on the ground with a Fretilin flag, and two dark-suited bureaucrats with blindfolds standing over them.  There was television coverage of the demonstration and radio stations interviewed movement representatives. Foreign Minister Don McKinnon refused to be interviewed but issued a statement.

This began with a phrase that also predicated letters to concerned citizens and answers to parliamentary questions: 'New Zealand is opposed to the acquisition of territory by force.  However, our judgement has been that Indonesia's annexation of East Timor is irreversible...'  Radio New Zealand phoned John Pilger for his comments which were uncompromising: 'To talk of an annexation means that New Zealand embraces a lawlessness that does not befit a civilised country.'

For the rest of the year East Timor activity was happening on all fronts and the debate about the documentary just would not go away despite the best efforts of New Zealand and Indonesian Foreign Affairs officials.

New Zealand supplied Suharto with military training and diplomatic
support. Cartoon by Malcolm Evans with his permission.

New Zealand
activists demonstrate outside the New Zealand Army Recruiting Centre in
Grey Lynn, Auckland on 3 June 1988.
Photo by John Miller.

New Zealand's military ties to Indonesia were s a focus of our solidarity work in the 1990s. When the Elang Sebrang bilateral air exercise with Indonesia took place between 28 August and 6 September 1995, the protests became, literally, inflammatory.

On 5 September East Timor Action staged a protest outside the Wellington Defence Ministry Headquarters.  A new war of words broke out because an Indonesian flag was burnt during the action.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a formal complaint from the Indonesian Embassy and quickly responded with a formal apology.  The apology was duly condemned by the Auckland Council of Civil Liberties who said that the message of the apology was that New Zealand was not serious in pursuing human rights concerns. 

When Christchurch activists also featured a flag burning on one of their demonstrations, the New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta feared that they would be summoned for a formal rebuke at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The Embassy staff kept close contact with Indonesian contacts to ensure that they knew of the official New Zealand view that the action was 'disgraceful' and involved only a 'tiny number of protesters'.  Diplomatic calm was preserved.

The twentieth anniversary of the Indonesian invasion and the fourth anniversary of the Dili massacre fell in November and December 1995, sparking a wave of international activity.

Jose Ramos Horta undertook a speaking tour of New Zealand at the time of the invasion anniversary.  He commented that it was a measure of the importance that the East Timorese attach to New Zealand that he chose us over the chance to visit stronger support bases in Brazil or Portugal.  While this visit was not as high profile as the later 1997 tour, it marked a critical milestone.  It was the first time that Mr Horta was accorded a meeting with a New Zealand cabinet minister.  He met Foreign Minister Don McKinnon on 7 December.  The visit was described as 'informal', but it took place in the formal surrounds of the Minister's Wellington office, and not in his electorate office as had originally been suggested.

Jose Ramos-Horta addresses an
Auckland audience in December 1995. Maire Leadbeater is in the chair.

Photo by John Miller.

From late in 1995 East Timorese began seeking  asylum by fleeing into the compounds of foreign Embassies in Jakarta. In January 1996,five young men, who had earlier fled East Timor, breached the security cordon of the New Zealand Embassy and announced that they had chosen New Zealand for their asylum attempt out of their respect for Kamal Bamadhaj.   Three of them were injured when they were pursued and attacked by at least one Indonesian soldier inside the supposedly sacrosanct Embassy compound.

The English-speaking member of the East Timorese group, Francisco Guterres,  later described the men who pursued him and his friends into the compound as numbering about 20, although only one was in military uniform. The attackers fled when the Embassy Defence Attaché appeared on the scene.  Francisco wrote:

the ambassydor [ask] us what do you want to come here? We answered his question we come there to ask political asylum.  The ambassydor told to us, that the government of New Zeland does not allow to receive political asylum and sheltered.' [sic]

As soon as the young men were safely in the New Zealand Embassy their identities were made public by the international solidarity network. ETIC began to push for them to be given refuge in New Zealand, as they had requested.

East Timor supporters reasoned that they had the right to be treated as if they had sought refuge in New Zealand itself.  Was not the Embassy sovereign to New Zealand?  But the young men spent the weekend in an out-building in the Embassy compound, where they were provided with food, on-the-spot medical attention and even some replacement clothing.  As soon as it could be arranged with the Red Cross and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they were dispatched to Portugal.

The story was far from over.  The media was interested in the discrepant stories from the Ministry and from the Portuguese media and support groups.  The Ministry seemed to be fudging about the question of injuries but it emerged that one of the group had been flown to Portugal needing urgent attention for a suspected wrist fracture. 

The Minister of Foreign Affairs had said that the group had 'readily agreed' to the option to go to Portugal.  But this was not the account given by Francisco, when New Zealand journalists consulted him.  He said that he and his friends were firmly told that New Zealand did not accept political refugees.  He reaffirmed that he and his friends still wanted to come to New Zealand and hoped they would be able to eventually. 

In contrast to the situation in Australia, there were (to my knowledge)   no refugees from East Timor living in New Zealand. Some East Timorese post-graduate students came on New Zealand funded scholarships to study at Massey University in Palmerston North .  In 1999 these students took the risk and became politically active, even  marching at the head of our demonstrations.

After the end of the Suharto era

After the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, some glimmers of light shone through. International diplomats and politicians visited the East Timor leader, Xanana Gusmao in his Jakarta jail.

In 1999 after President Habibie's Government  had raised the possibility of letting East Timor go, the dynamics changed again.

By May 1999 resistance the Timorese resistance was working in an open way and it seemed good timing for me to visit. However, my short visit to East Timor coincided with the 6 April Liquica massacre when 57 people were killed in the church where they had been sheltering from militia violence.  It was just one in the long litany of brutal mass killings that took place in 1999, but it marked a sinister turning point.  The Church was no longer a sanctuary from violence.

I met refugees, church leaders, student representatives and resistance leaders. All urged me to go back and plead with my government to get the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force. Soon after my return I did manage to waylay Foreign Minister Don McKinnon briefly, insisting he look at my photographs of the injured victims of the Liquica attack.  As usual he was courteous and affable, but against taking action.  He said it was tragic but New Zealand could do little.

A little later New Zealand priest Father Gerald Burns was on an  aid convoy in East Timor when it was ambushed and attacked.  He got out of his vehicle and bravely stood his ground in the middle of the road, protecting the others behind him in the convoy just by his very visible presence. 'Priests wear white robes in East Timor on Sunday and generally speaking Christian people are respected here, so I thought if they saw my robe they would stop chasing us.'

Whangarei East Timor activist Tim Howard volunteered to take part in the International Federation of East Timor Observer Project (IFET-OP).

Tim Howard with student solidarity activists at a CNRT rally
in Venilale not long before the August ballot.
Photo by Tim Howard with
his permission.

He was in East Timor from late July until a week after the ballot, when his group was the last of the volunteers to be evacuated out.  Tim Howard became increasingly aware of organisational links between the military, the militia and the Brimob police. While Baucau had the reputation of being quieter than other towns overrun by the militia there was 'plenty going on beneath the surface.'

After the fateful August 30 referendum in East Timor, Auckland activists were determined to take maximum advantage from the imminent APEC Forum being held in the city.  Twenty heads-of-state were expected for the meetings over the weekend 11-12 September, including the President of the United States.  The Indonesian President and Foreign Minister pointedly absented themselves, sending only trade officials in their stead.

APEC preparatory meetings began a week in advance of the main meeting.  So did the protest activities which went on virtually non-stop. A near continuous vigil was set up opposite the APEC venue, and the local branch of Amnesty International organised a spectacular 30-metre long photo mural, positioned where it could not be missed: 'APEC leaders must put human rights first'.  The mural depicted the photographs of 10,000 New Zealand supporters.  The world leaders could not evade the call to take action on East Timor.

To cap it off, Jose Ramos Horta announced that he was arriving with Joao Carrascalao, a fellow CNRT representative, on Friday 10 September.  Our local group had to make urgent arrangements for their accommodation, for meetings with all the delegations, and a Media Conference.

The world's media
finally becomes interested in East Timor at the time of the APEC meeting
, Auckland, September 1999.
Photo by John Miller.

Jose Ramos Horta was the man in the eye of the storm and in demand by all the major media networks. By the end of his time in Auckland Horta had met with almost all the delegations, and conducted long sessions with the key players:  President Clinton,  Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and, of course, the APEC hosts, New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley and Foreign Affairs Minister Don McKinnon.

Jose Ramos Horta responded angrily to the suggestion that the international community should wait for Jakarta's authority, while the lives of thousands were at risk from slaughter or starvation.  Repeatedly he insisted that: 'An armed intervention with or without Jakarta's agreement is the only answer...All bilateral and multilateral economic assistance must be frozen except for humanitarian and development aid channelled through independent organisations.'

As Horta was declaring his agenda, President Clinton was issuing his warning to Jakarta as he set off for Auckland.  End the violence or invite the international community.  He announced his intention to discuss peacekeeping troops with Australia.  Before he arrived in New Zealand the President had frozen all military deals with Indonesia.  Then, after meeting with APEC leaders, Clinton said, 'I have made clear that my willingness to support future economic assistance from the international community will depend upon how Indonesia handles the situation from today forward.' President Habibie promptly agreed to the entry of United Nations peacekeepers.

The New Zealand Foreign Minister, who days earlier had still been wringing his hands and saying 'there is no peace to keep', was now agreeing to send New Zealand peacekeeping troops. New Zealand's military ties were ended with 'regret' on 10 September.  It had taken 26 years for the government to decide that the Indonesian military was not so benign after all. A Queen St march and rally on the 11 September of around 2,000 people was the largest East Timor march that had ever been held in New Zealand.  Jose Ramos Horta addressed the crowd and made a passionate appeal for boycott action.  He was the hero of the hour.

One of the many marches during the week of the APEC meeting in Auckland, September 1999.
Holding the posters (left to right) are Peter Archer and John de Graf.
Photo by John Miller.

East Timorese students lead a protest march in Auckland, September 11, 1999.
Photo by Gil Hanly.

When APEC was over we began to realise that we had been part of momentous activities.  While we were so focused on the immediate presence of the power brokers, mass mobilisations had been taking place around the world. There were massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people, and human chains encircled the embassies of the UN Security Council members.   In Portugal people wore mourning white, and hundreds of Timorese and Portuguese travelled to Spain to demonstrate at the nearest Indonesian Embassy.  On 9 September traffic stopped in Lisbon, as thousands got out of their cars to stand in the streets and observe a three-minute silence.

Cartoons by Malcolm Evans with his permission.

The extracts above are mainly from Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand's Complicity in the Invasion and Occupation of Timor-Leste.

In this book I have aimed to shine a light into a very dark place – the history of New Zealand's support for the invasion and occupation of East Timor. The process of undertaking this research led me to many new and unexpected discoveries.  There were some positive findings such as the discovery that solidarity campaigning had made more of an impact on Government officials and politicians than any of us had been aware of at the time. But that was small comfort considered alongside the mass of evidence that my Government had consistently chosen pragmatism over principle and continued relentlessly on the same path without ever really counting the cost to the East Timorese.  This was no new discovery.  However, I was shocked to find that almost every new batch of documents revealed new examples of the high level subterfuge officials relied on as they plotted to help Indonesia to deflect international criticism.

My book was for me a way of addressing what I believe to be a clear personal responsibility to expose what went wrong in the past in the interests of putting things right in the present.