By David Webster
DILI, Timor-Leste — Twenty years ago, Timor-Leste (East Timor) made front pages and topped newscasts across Canada. The Indonesian army, which had invaded East Timor in 1975 at the cost of more than 100,000 deaths, had once again launched a wave of violence against the Timorese people.
The world spoke up then, halting massacres by pro-Indonesian forces and creating an interim United Nations administration that oversaw the restoration of Timorese independence in 2002.
PPP was there. Activists in the trans-Pacific human rights network joined the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) observer project, charged with monitoring the UN-sponsored referendum on East Timor. One of its coordinators was Randall Garrison, previously PPP’s executive director. The observers’ stories from the field became a special issue of Tok Blong Pasifik, still available on the PPP website.
Stories tell of Timorese determination to vote, of heroic journeys for days to mountain polling booths, of the brutality that started even before the vote. A staggering 98.5% of the people trooped out to vote.
“It was no surprise when it was announced that more than 78% had voted in favour of independence,” Randall Garrison wrote. “And it was no surprise that the wave of violence that had begun in rural areas now engulfed Dili as well. However, this was not random violence. UN local staff were attacked and the UNAMET headquarters was besieged. Community leaders were targeted, including priests and nuns. Militia members went house to house setting fires until more than 80% of the buildings in East Timor had been destroyed.”
Global protest eroded Western leaders’ will to support Indonesia, and Indonesia accepted an international peacekeeping force. The shift seemed sudden, but it built on years of solidarity activism.
PPP was a part of that global solidarity. Through the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Network, it supported freedom struggles in Indonesian-ruled Timor-Leste and West Papua. It worked closely with the East Timor Alert Network, formed on Vancouver Island in 1986. By 1999, it was putting significant support into the IFET observer project.
The IFET observer project completed its work, but it did not close down entirely. The model of Timorese and international supporters working together inspired the creation of La’o Hamutuk, as IFET and LH activists Charlie Scheiner and Pamela Sexton note in a paper presented at the 2019 Timor-Leste Studies Association. La’o Hamutuk (which means “walking together”) celebrated its 19th birthday in July 2019 at its small but bustling office. LH has become one of the most respected and important voices in Timorese development debates, providing carefully-researched and spot-on analysis of everything from oil dependency to gender issues to maritime issues.
Activism often flows into unexpected channels. PPP’s work in Timor-Leste was part of a success story in which a small country won its freedom against very long odds, becoming the most successful democracy in Southeast Asia. That story continues in civil society in Timor-Leste today.
Dr. David Webster (Ph.D. British Columbia 2005) is an Associate Professor at Bishop University, he teaches international and Asian history topics with a focus on the 20th century. His book Fire and the Full Moon: Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing World (UBC Press, 2009) examines Canada-Indonesia relations from 1945 to 1999 at both government and civil society levels. Previously he was collection editor of East Timor” Testimony (Between the Lines, 2004). His research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, concentrates on trans-Pacific interactions between Canada and Asia, and on the diplomacy of independence movements in Asia. David is a long time donor and friend to PPP.