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Lion's Roar : Published Writing

Cultural Survival Quarterly Issue #25

The Priced Vs. Priceless

Dow & Napalm

Globe & Mail; Remebering when East Timor wasn't news

This poem is not about Timor

Three Myths About the Arms Race 

Our LIfe Out of Balance: The Rise of Literacy and the Demise of Pattern Languages

Remembering when East Timor wasn't news

In 1983, a handful of dedicated Canadians were doing their best to draw attention to Canada's role in the destruction of a small island halfway around the world. It was a hopeless fight.

by Derek Rasmussen:

Special to The Globe and Mail

I remember the staffer in the international aid office at the United Church, the one who said there were dozens of East Timors. She turned down our request for donated office space. So did a few other aid groups. None of them would add Timor to their busy agendas _ it was 1983: The Philippines was boiling over, Vietnamese boat people were pouring into Canada. I remember trying to start an East Timor group. My friend Julia Milton and I had been working on the issue for two years out of our homes in Ottawa _ a couple of 22-year-old non-professional activists. It was a hopeless fight. This morning I found a copy of a letter I wrote to my brother that year. The letter describes a carrot cake we made for Julia's birthday party. I tell him that we splurged and bought crushed pineapple and walnuts for the recipe even (2X) though we couldn't afford it. The letter also mentions death threats over the phone and a brick through the window. I had forgotten about those things. I remember an anarchist printing house in Montreal that was going out of business. They printed the first East Timor activist pamphlets in Canada _ 1,000 for $20. I remember the first cheque we ever got; it seemed like a fortune. It was for $15, and it came from Dan Heap, NDP MP for spadina. I remember getting a phone call from East Timor activists in the U.S. and Australia asking if we could organize a visit to Canada in late November, 1983, by the former Apostolic Administrator for East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes. We managed to arrange a lunch and a press conference for Monsignor Lopes in Ottawa. We sent out 100 invitations to the press conference. We phoned the various media and been assured oh yeah we'll have someone there. Two reporters showed up. One filed a story. It got two column inches in the back of the Ottawa Citizen. Later that day we met with Gardiner Wilson, head of the South and Southeast Asia political affairs bureau of External Affairs Canada. Only Monsignor Lopes, a PR guy from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) and I were at this meeting. I remember how small Monsignor Lopes seemed, sitting in a dark office in the L.B. Pearson building wearing a simple black robe and white collar. His English wasn't very good and he struggled to describe what had happened to his parish. On Dec 7, 1975, when Indonesia first invaded his country, he had been a priest in Dili, he told Mr. Wilson. Troops landed on the beach and paratroops came by air. There was a lot of shooting. Bodies everywhere. Monsignor Lopes took the Church jeep, put a white flag on it, and went out into the streets to rescue the wounded. a row of indonesian sodiers blocked his route. he talked his way through.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian soldiers burned a person alive on the beach behind his church. Gardener Wilson listened and then said: Well. That's very interesting. But according to our data there is no substantiation for these claims. And our research into the matter has lead us to believe that, while far from perfect, the Indonesians are devoting much of their time and resources to increasing the stability and welfare of East Timor and meeting the legitimate needs of the Timorese people. Pause. Monsignor Lopes said nothing. Then he asked, Have you ever been to East Timor Mr. Wilson? No. Long pause. Then Mr. Wilson said: Let's be frank with each other. Indonesia is the third largest recipient of Canadian aid. We have important programs down there, and we have a good relationship with the Indonesian government. East Timor is a fait accompli, why pursue it? As he spoke I turned my head to look at Monsignor Lopes. His eyes were filling with tears. Out in the hallway, the guy from CCODP pulled me aside. He whispered, You can't tell anyone about this meeting, Okay? A light bulb went on for me. I had read about CIDA and Dalhousie University and the dozens of Canadian aid projects going on in Indonesia. I realized how naive Julia and I must have looked to the seasoned, professional aid types. In our $20 pamphlet we had focused on the bullets, military engines, aircraft, and armoured personnel carriers that were being supplied to the Indonesian military from places like Longueil, Que., and London, Ont. wasn't it better to try and stop people from being killed in the first place, rather than rush around patching them up afterward? But it's much less glamorous to blockade a small weapons factory in Ontario than to fly to the jungles of Asia to help the so-called lesser-developed. it's not that professional aid groups, or the media, or external affairs, or the arms salesmen had particularly nasty motivations. none of them are rubbing their hands with glee over the deaths of timorese. They were saying "just don't rock the boat"; "it's just not worth covering"; and "let's just make a few sales for the company"--but at the end of all these "justs" people in East Timor died. I remember the producer at CBC TV's The Journal. I phoned him when recent photographs from East Timor were smuggled out of the territory at great risk. Copies had been sent to us in Canada; they were horrific snapshots taken by Indonesian soldiers of their grinning buddies holding trophies _ decapitated heads. Other pictures showed soldiers proudly posing over rows of dismembered Timorese bodies. The TV producer asked if we had any recent video footage: No, I answered. The CBC man was curt: No video, no story. He hung up. Today, the important producer who turned down the Timor story is even more important.

The men who sold Canadian military aircraft engines and armoured personnel carriers to the Indonesian army are probably retired by now, relaxing at their cottages in Haliburton or Memphramagog. Maybe Gardiner Wilson from the government is relaxing too. He was wrong about East Timor being a fait accompli. Today, East Timor is front page news. Today there is video footage. Today, at last, Canadians know where Dili is, because Dili is in flames.


Derek Rasmussen and Julia Milton were founders of the Indonesia-East Timor project . Mr. Rasmussen has just completed graduate studies in southern Canada and is returning home to Iqaluit; from her home in Victoria, Ms. Milton runs a web page devoted to the plight of tibetan nuns. East Timor activism in Canada has been carried on by Ross Shotton, Elaine Briere, David Webster and Maggie Helwig, to name only a few.
-A Globe & Mail article Sep 18/99