Companion to East Timor - International Solidarity - Phase Three

International Solidarity – Phase Three

Phase Three began under very grim conditions for the East Timorese. Military repression was at its harshest. It was extremely difficult for overseas activists to keep in touch with the situation inside the territory. Independence seemed a lost cause, and many solidarity groups disbanded in despair. Others refused to concede that independence was finished as an option. They continued to work on increasing public awareness of the human rights situation throughout the 1980s.


Portugal's solidarity network for East Timor arose after refugees began streaming in from East Timor, at first because of the civil war and then because of the Indonesian invasion. Portugal had taken very little action till September 1980. In October 1979, for instance, its ambassador to the UN was instructed 'not to actively solicit support at the UN for the East Timor issue which might have obstructed the achievement of diplomatic objectives given higher priority such as Portugal's acceptance into the EEC.' 1 According to a scholarly account of Portuguese diplomacy, 'some senior Portuguese civil servants and politicians almost turned a blind eye and virtually acquiesced to the Indonesian takeover.'

In the early years, the Portuguese solidarity movement was centered at CIDAC (Centro Informacao e Documentacao Amilar Cabral), 2 which held the first international conference on East Timor in Lisbon in May 1979. CIDAC then forged CDPM (Comissao para os Direitos do Povo Maubere or the Commission for the Rights of the Maubere People) in 1982. Luisa Teotonio Pereira, the grand-daughter of a former Portuguese Foreign Minister, was a key leader of CIDAC/CDPM for many years. The case of East Timor was brought to her attention by Alberto Costa Alves, who was also involved in anti-colonial activities. Another important figure was Antonio Barbedo de Magalhaes, a lecturer in engineering at Oporto University who had served in the Portuguese Army in East Timor before the Indonesian invasion. CIDAC/CDPM benefited from the support of Portuguese journalists such as Adelino Gomes, who had made important reports in 1975 in East Timor, including from the very location where five foreign journalists were killed. Gomes continued to follow East Timor throughout the occupation and afterwards.

This intricate mosaic of activity was instrumental in stiffening Portugal's resolve ahead of the 1982 vote at the UN. In time, the efforts of the Portuguese solidarity network began to be reflected at the parliamentary level – a cross-party consensus emerged in the Portuguese parliament. Although the Portuguese government was split between the cautious line advocated by the Executive and the bolder line advocated by the President, Mario Soares, the cross-party Comissao Parlamentar Portuguesa (CPP), or Portuguese Parliamentary Commission, maintained a consistent focus on East Timor. All these factors contributed to a hardening of Portugal's diplomatic stance.

Another significant occurrence was Portugal's admission to the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1986. The EEC (now the EU) required unanimous agreement in the formulation of a common foreign policy. Portugal's efforts ensured that no official EEC organisation would ever recognise Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. Portuguese diplomats lobbied for East Timor in all forums, boycotting moves to update the EU office in Jakarta to Embassy level. It also refused to attend EU-ASEAN ministerial meetings. These efforts began to pay off – in September 1988, the European Parliament issued a call for an Indonesian withdrawal and an act of self-determination in East Timor. Portuguese activists were also able to ensure that Portugal participated in a common front of Lusophone countries in support of East Timor's right of self-determination.

British solidarity

The UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) also became interested in East Timor. Founded in 1974 by a coalition of peace groups, its work included Britain's military assistance to the Suharto regime. In 1978, Hugh Dowson, an amateur researcher of British foreign policy towards Indonesia, heard about East Timor from CAAT, which opposed British Aerospace's sale of Hawk warplanes to Indonesia. Dowson became a researcher and campaigner for the rest of the occupation, and beyond. He continues to work with great persistence and distinction for justice for the victims of the occupation. Lord Avebury, for many years the Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, pressured the Conservative Government throughout the 1980s and beyond, starting with the East Timor debate he obtained in December 1980. Geoff Edge and fellow Labour MP Stan Newens were East Timor's main champions in the House of Commons in the 1970s. Edge was defeated in the May 1979 General Election.

In the 1980s, grassroots Church organisations joined the fray. In Britain, the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR) had facilitated the visit of Father Francisco Fernandes to England in 1980, and hosted Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes in 1983. Along with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), CIIR campaigned against the British government's April 1984 sale of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia. The two organisations worked alongside Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The CIIR, together with the Netherlands Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace, convened and attended international conferences under the rubric of the 'Christian Consultation on East Timor' from 1985 onwards, and contributed to the vitally important task of raising awareness at the grassroots level. Together, the various church and non-church campaigns managed to win widespread public support for a British arms embargo against Indonesia. The umbrella group for East Timor came to be known as the British Campaign for East Timor (BCET). British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Indonesia in 1985. CIIR generated pressure on her to raise the issue of East Timor through a prominent British catholic, Chris Patten, who would later become chairman of the Conservative Party. Thatcher did so, stating publicly that many in Britain were concerned about East Timor. Virtually all the ICRC's immediate demands for prison visits and other forms of humanitarian access were then granted.

The silence of the Church hierarchy in Australia

Despite this solidarity work at the grassroots level, there was almost nothing emanating from the senior levels of the various churches in Australia. Indeed, for the duration of the Indonesian invasion and occupation, only two public statements on East Timor were made by the Australian Bishops' Conference. Church leaders were keen to avoid offending the Indonesian government in order to protect the position of the churches in Indonesia. They were also aware of the Vatican's view, expressed to a delegation from Australian Catholic Relief by the Nuncio to Jakarta, that 'it would be better for the Timorese to cooperate with Indonesia and become part of the Republic, then their troubles would end.'

Even as late as 1985 there was no debate or motion on East Timor at the Australian Council of Churches (ACC) plenary assembly in Canberra. The ACC declined to endorse the European Council of Churches' statement on East Timor. At the Christian Conference of Asia, ACC delegates voted for a resolution that opposed any debate on East Timor. The Indonesian delegation outnumbered the total of all other delegates from Asia and the Pacific at this Conference. Some Indonesian delegates told other countries' delegates not to raise the issue of East Timor because this would harm the Indonesian Council of Churches.

The Anglican Church also showed little interest in East Timor in the early years and made no discernable commitment later. The Uniting Church of Australia's minister Dick Wootten always spoke in favour of East Timor. However, in 1986 the President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia said, 'we are persuaded that it is a political impossibility to expect the UN intervention in East Timor or Indonesian agreement to any process of self-determination … however this must be regretted, it is nevertheless to face the reality of the situation'. He also said that 'any campaign that encouraged the East Timorese to continue to fight a war they cannot win … prevents the possibility of real dialogue with Jakarta about improvements in human rights or the general welfare of the people in East Timor.'

The broader Australian activist community

Australian activists sent a radio back to East Timor in early 1985. Andrew Whitehouse, who had played such an important role in the illegal radio project, concealed a transceiver in a portable cassette player. This transceiver was crystal-locked into a pre-arranged frequency and smuggled to the East Timorese armed resistance via Australian networks that must remain hidden even today. When it was anticipated that the resistance would have the equipment, activists once again began to monitor the frequency. Contact was re-established on 26 May 1985. Activism continued during the 1980s, a decade when East Timor's integration was considered irreversible by mainstream observers. In 1987, the 2nd/2nd Commando Association raised more than $8000 through its Timor Relief Appeal. This money was used to send two East Timorese delegates from Australia to the decolonization debates at the United Nations.

Two years later, Gil Scrine, an independent filmmaker, produced a film called Buried Alive: The Story of East Timor. He later began attending the meetings of a small group that met each month to discuss East Timor in the Leichardt Town Hall in Sydney. This group had no formal name or structure. Some of its members referred to it as the Wednesday Night Group. At the urging of John Sinnott of Melbourne's Australia East Timor Association (AETA), the Leichardt group formed the NSW branch of AETA, drew up articles of association and organised a bank account. It was a small but highly committed group of people who attended pickets, conducted a monthly vigil on the steps of Sydney Town Hall, produced a monthly newsletter and held stalls to raise money and awareness. Some of its members were also linked to the 'Support Group on East Timor', which had been convened by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC) and chaired by Bishop Bill Brennan after his 1989 visit to East Timor.

Canada's East Timor Alert Network

In Canada, there was very little coordinated activism on behalf of East Timor until 1985. A number of individuals and small groups had spoken up very early on, and people had discussed the case of East Timor as part of a broader critique of North-South relations, but there had not been a coordinated campaign with a focus on East Timor. In the absence of domestic activism, Canada provided diplomatic support to Indonesia from the very beginning: six months after the invasion, the Canadian government played host to Suharto and provided him with a $200-million mixed aid package. Two years later, Canada's ambassador to Jakarta visited East Timor on a tour which had been organised by the Indonesian military. The ambassador, Glen Shortliffe, claimed that the Timorese were better off as a result of the invasion, saying that 'anything under¬taken by the Indonesians represents an improvement over conditions which existed hitherto.' In 1984, Canada hosted an arms bazaar for Canadian weapons suppliers in the Mandarin Hotel in Jakarta.

All this began to change in 1985, when Elaine Briere, a Canadian photographer who had visited the territory for two weeks in 1974, read an article about East Timor by Noam Chomsky. Briere, who at the time did not realise the extent of Chomsky's involvement in political activism or his prestige among other activists, contacted him about his article. By chance, Chomsky had planned to speak the very next week at a public meeting in Victoria, British Columbia. Briere attended the meeting and met him after his talk. She explained that she had taken photographs in East Timor eleven years before. Chomsky immediately connected Briere to all the solidarity networks for East Timor, who were startled to learn that there existed a professionally produced photographic record of life before the Indonesian invasion. These photographs showed a peaceful society which had 'no unemployed or unwanted people in the village', people 'lived a relatively comfortable lifestyle in close relation to their surroundings', and 'no one seemed rushed or in a hurry.' They gave the lie to Indonesian claims that the East Timorese were unhappy before the invasion. Briere's photographs were used by every group in the transnational solidarity movement.

Elaine Briere

At first, Briere began trying to enlist the support of Canadian NGOs involved in Southeast Asia, like CUSO, 3 Canada World Youth, and Crossroads Canada. It soon became apparent to her that these groups had no intention of antagonising the government of Indonesia, with whom they had lucrative contracts. For this reason, she became a founding member of the East Timor Alert Network in Canada in 1986. It was the beginning of the Canadian solidarity movement. Briere worked with activists like Derek Evans from the Canada-Asia Working Group and Maureen Martin, a lawyer from Ottawa. 4 Martin was a professor of law at Carleton University in Ottawa, teaching international human rights and involved in indigenous rights at the United Nations. She learned of East Timor and began teaching about it. Several students came on board, one of whom was Sharon Scharfe, whose thesis became the book "Complicity". They began to lobby Parliament and hold conferences about East Timor. Meanwhile Derek Evans approached Martin to ask that she join him and Elaine Briere in founding an East Timor Alert Network for Canada. They did. There were three other students at the time who were instrumental in the efforts in Ottawa: Gary Evans, Tim Colby and Erik Millet.'

Maureen with Abe, the first East
Timorese refugee in Toronto.

Canadian activists - their banner says that they
are The Raging Grannies - at an event they organized on Parliament

Sharon Scharfe with Jose Ramos-Horta
in Ottawa, photo by Maureen Martin.

Maureen Martin working for East
Timor's independence.

Maureen Martin in mid-2011.

Other Initiatives

The transnational solidarity movement took several other initiatives in 1990. October 1990 marked the first coordinated use of the internet to campaign for democracy in Indonesia and self-determination in East Timor. TAPOL started an electronic newsgroup called "reg.easttimor" in 1990. John MacDougall ran a listserve on a proprietary US internet service provider, the Institute for Global Communications. It came to be known as the 'Apakabar' list, after the email address of the moderator, MacDougall. These internet groups allowed interested people to keep in touch with each other. However, most activists at this time did not have access to the internet. Internet-based activism would not be a serious factor until very late in the independence struggle.

In September that year, the Australian lawyer and solidarity activist Robert Domm visited East Timor and conducted an interview with Xanana Gusmao himself. This was no stroke of luck. It was instead a well-coordinated operation involving Australian solidarity activists, the clandestine resistance in the towns and FALINTIL. Domm's connection to East Timor predated the Indonesian invasion – he had been a merchant seaman who visited Dili often in the early 1970s. Domm's interview was the first occasion that any outsider had contacted members of the armed resistance since the loss of the illegal radio more than a decade before. It was a significant publicity coup for the movement, shattering once and for all the Indonesian claim that the resistance had no support among the East Timorese population.

1P. Smythe, The Heaviest Blow. (Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2004: 82n).

2Amilcar Cabral was a leader of Guinea-Bissau's independence movement. He was assassinated in 1973.

3CUSO was originally an acronym for the Canadian University Service Overseas. At the time of Briere's activism it was known only as CUSO because most of its volunteers were tradespeople, not university students.

4She was known as Maureen Davies at the time.