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Mapping transnational activism: challenges of historical research and archives on Timor-Leste

21 Jul 2021 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

In 1975, Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of Timor-Leste (East Timor). Its armed forces continued to occupy the territory until 1999, when a United Nations-sponsored referendum saw the country set off on the path to regaining its independence.  

How did Timor-Leste (East Timor) win its independence from Indonesia, the regional power, after 24 years of occupation? The Timor International Solidarity Archive aims to help answer that question by locating, digitizing and disseminating archival records on Timor-Leste and the international solidarity movement that campaigned for its right to self-determination during the period of military occupation and crimes against humanity (1975-1999).  


Screenshot of home page of the AtoM platform of the Timor International Solidarity Archive. timorarchive.com

This project presents numerous challenges in moving past open sources into finding and making available the files of solidarity movement activists. In this blog post, we explore the challenges and two successful efforts to disseminate solidarity movement records, undertaken in Brazil and the United States.  

We started our research by gaining a greater understanding of the multiplicity of actors involved in the historical circumstance we were examining. The more we deeply understood the history of East Timor and its particularities, the more we discerned that different stakeholders (solidarity groups) played key functions in the independence process. To map the transnational solidarity movements was crucial for the understanding of the blind spots of East Timor history, and the archives were our primary source to achieve this goal. 


Mapping the Movement : map of the world with member groups of the International Federation for East Timor identified with red dots, 1999

One of our first challenges was to start extracting important information from the large number of documents on location at Bishop’s and to deeply understand the linear nature of the historical process. In terms of examining the historical archives, we reviewed documents from different contexts and backgrounds, including in the first stage East Timor; Indonesia; Portugal; Canada; United States and United Nations; in different languages (initially English, French, and Portuguese), and from different perspectives (institutional; individual; collective). All these documents provided different lenses to analyze how the transnational solidarity movement was structured and its basis for supporting the independence process of East Timor. 

To critically engage with the literature and the documents regarding events in East Timor was also an important part of the research process.  Archival records themselves don’t give all the answers, of course. Thus, it was necessary to contrast the primary sources with other research in the field. Most important was to understand how to read archival “silences” and to position the documents within larger perspectives. Here we draw on the challenges identified in such collections as Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives, edited by Linda Morra and Jessica Schagerl.

After establishing a method to compile the essential documents, we were confronted with our next challenge: to use this research as a knowledge-sharing platform that allows other researchers to use this data in their fieldwork. Discussions of digitization practices and the impact of IT resonated in our research as we progressed. Thus, our next step was to direct our efforts to the creation of a solid archival database, entirely online, and to simplify the access of these documents for researchers from all over the world who want to critically engage with the historical perspective of East Timor and the transnational movements that support the country. 

In 2018, Juliana Brito Santos Leal began working with David Webster as a Research Assistant for this archival project. Juliana was tasked with describing and uploading various documents created by solidarity activists from around the world that were active during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Juliana worked on multiple collections: Canada Asia Working Group, East Timor Alert Network, etc.  

Another challenge was to have access to new material in São Paulo (Brazil) regarding Clamor por Timor. As a Brazilian, Juliana consulted the archivist responsible in Portuguese by email and asked about the possibility of getting access to the digitized material. This claim was denied because the material wasn’t digitalized yet. Juliana asked if it was possible to go in person to collect the material in the period of one week. Juliana was going to spend in Brazil. The response was negative until Juliana had the permission of the archive's supervisor, who usually goes there once a week. After several calls and e-mail, while Juliana was already in Brazil, the archivists indicated that they do have the files of Clamor por Timor, but they didn’t know exactly how many and where they were in between the 32 boxes of Grupo São Domingo. Juliana then came back to Canada without having accessed the records.  

After watching our effort, the archive’s director suggested that we ask for a research assistant that works there to find all the documents regarding Clamor por Timor and organize them in one single place. After that, the research assistant could ask for the digitization of the records and for the transfer of the digital files to us. This kind of service, however, was not “institutionalized.” They were only offering it because we couldn’t be there in person to separate and make copies of the documents. Thus, the archival institution charged us for this service. There was a risk: pay and then discover we only have a few pages of the relevant document. We decided to take the risk, and received 1649 pages of documents. 

These files have now been summarized in English by Katrina Kramer, another project participant at Bishop’s University. At the same time, we selected the Access to Memory platform (AtoM) originally developed with the advice of the International Council of Archives, and began to digitize and describe materials. This began with solidarity group newsletters and has continued with an extensive digitization and description process beginning with the files of the East Timor Alert Network of Canada. For instance, it is now easy to search ETAN records on the web site by keyword, to narrow down by leaflets, or to track the story in other ways. 


Screenshot of the Timor International Solidarity Archive AtoM platform

Parallel to Juliana’s work in obtaining Brazilian records, David worked to obtain an important activist collection then stored in a basement in unorganized form, boxing and carrying out an initial categorization along with Arnold Kohen, the activist whose records these were. We then organized the shipment of the records.  

The following year, Émilie worked closely with the Arnold Kohen collection. Kohen worked as a reporter and activist for East Timor for over 20 years. He was one of the most connected Timor advocates. His collection ranges from 1975 to 2007 which covers the complete occupation of East Timor by Indonesia and the years after.  

His materials consisted of fifteen banker’s boxes. During 2018, Émilie went through twenty-five years of documents varying from letters to the U.S. Congress, support from various Catholic and Protestant bishops and clergymen from around the world and many newspaper articles bringing awareness to Timor. It was a true education in understanding how a prominent activist worked and what he believed in.  

It took time to get used to the Access to Memory archival platform, but it is now functioning well. It allows for multiple collections to be displayed at once. For Kohen’s collection, we were able to break everything down by year which kept all of the documents together using the same structure selected by Kohen. For example, a letter written in 1982 would be found in the Humanitarian Project collection, under the 1982 file, classified under documents.  

For many of the solidarity groups, their documentation is sorted in the same way which makes the platform perfect for sharing and learning about activism throughout the years.  

Working with the files of activists who you have never met is a valuable way to understand historical processes. Emilie feels as if she now knows Arnold Kohen. We have all found similar experiences in digitizing, describing and disseminating these new archival records. It is our hope that this documentation provides information and access for people to learn through an online archival platform.  


Juliana Brito Santos Leal, Émilie Labbé and David Webster

Juliana Brito Santos Leal holds a MA in International Relations at Universidade de Brasília (UnB), in Brazil, and is an MA Candidate in Applied Human Rights at the University of York (UoY), United Kingdom.  

Émilie Labbé is a recent history graduate from Bishop’s University about to begin her Master’s degree at Concordia University who has worked on the Timor International Solidarity Archive for the last two years.  

David Webster is a History professor at Bishop’s University and coordinator of the Timor International Solidarity Archive. His most recent book is Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-99


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