Death in Balibo - background piece

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Subject: Death in Balibo - background piece.
Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 00:42:31
From: Andrew McNaughtan <>


(the following background piece was published in the 'Green Left Weekly' - a political and environmental alternative paper in Australia)

The deaths of 5 Australian based journalists 23 years ago at Balibo in East Timor continue to cause controversy . They died at the epicentre of a web of lies and intrigue involving the Australian and Indonesian governments and their collusion over the covert invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975.

To understand their deaths and the significance of them one must first grasp the background to this tragedy : then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had signaled to General Suharto during 1974 and 75 that Australia supported the integration of the Portuguese colony of East Timor into Indonesia. The UN Charter obliged Australia to support the rights of the East Timorese to self determination but the Whitlam government ignored that and also consistent reports from East Timor that the people overwhelmingly supported independence and were willing to fight for their freedom. The rights of a small emerging nation were insignificant in Whitlam’s eyes compared with the strategic significance of relations with Indonesia . Also the Portuguese were being bolshie over the boundaries of the oil rich border area - the ‘Timor Gap’. Australia expected Indonesia to be more accomodating about this.

As Indonesia manipulated, inveigled and coerced its way towards the forcible annexation of East Timor the lackeys from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs fell into line. They advised that Australia should privately ‘show understanding’ of Indonesia’s position and publicly act to defuse potential resentment of Indonesia’s actions by the Australian public. In the lead up to the invasion that was to begin from the western border of East Timor in mid October, key Indonesian strategists from CSIS (the ‘Centre for Strategic Studies’) briefed members of the Australian Foreign Affairs Department about their intended invasion - making them accomplices in the imminent crime. Publicly the Indonesian government still maintained at this stage that it had no intention of annexing East Timor.

Meanwhile the Indonesian army was involved in a covert terror and destabilisation campaign in the border regions of East Timor. The aim of this was to generate atrocities which could the be falsely blamed on Timorese Fretilin forces and then broadcast to the world by the Indonesian government controlled media service - Antara. With this disinformation smokescreen operational, Indonesian forces would be able to invade East Timor claiming - in a piece of ultimate irony - that their intention was to ‘restore order’.

It was into this bubbling cauldron of lies and hypocrisy that the journalists ventured in October 1975 . They wanted to find the truth and bring back evidence of it. Were the Timorese right in their claims that the Indonesian army was , contrary to denials, in the process of invading their country ? What the journalists didn’t realise is that their own Australian government already knew of the secret invasion plans and privately supported them. Powerful interests , including some in the Australian government, had good reason not to want these events recorded. If the journalists got evidence of the covert Indonesian invasion and got it to the outside world, it could potentially have derailed the Indonesian annexation of East Timor. So when the Indonesian attacking forces crossed paths with the Australian journalists at the Timorese border town of Balibo 23 years ago their intersection was loaded with portent.

At the heart of the question about how they died is the issue of whether the journalists were hapless victims of a war - the “crossfire “ scenario - or whether their deaths were something more sinister. Were these killings executions by the Indonesian military - done not in the heat of battle but in a situation of relative clarity and calm ? Was the attack on Balibo launched by the Indonesian army with full foreknowledge that there were journalists there and with the premeditated intent to eliminate them - so that they could not report on the commencement of an invasion that the Indonesian government officially denied was taking place ?

As more evidence is gathered from a growing group of witnesses who have come forward the jigsaw is beginning to fall into place . Consistent and reliable evidence points to the latter situation - a premeditated execution. The new witnesses, observing events from both sides of the fence (from the perspective of the retreating Fretilin forces and from the viewpoint of the Indonesian-controlled attacking forces entering Balibo ) give clear weight to the execution scenario.

According to their testimonies the town was barely contested by Fretilin. As the Indonesian-led invading troops entered, the journalists came out in civilian clothes clearly announcing themselves as Australians and non combatants. The shots that killed them occurred after a lull and were at close range inside a house and from a pistol - not the burst of automatic weapons fire that might have resulted from some confusion and panic. The first witness saw the journalists taken to a house off the central square , then heard shots and saw three of the bodies dumped on the ground before he fled. The second witness came later with the advancing Indonesian troops and observed that the wounds were from a pistol - neat and small - consistent with an execution, not ‘crossfire’.

This evidence adds to the weight of other witnesses who have previously come forward in Australia and Portugal to point out that the Indonesian leaders of the attacking force knew full well of the presence of the journalists in Balibo and planned to eliminate them. In fact one witness’s observations indicate that the main purpose of the attack on Balibo was specifically the elimination of the journalists.

This new evidence adds further to doubts already expressed about the conclusions of the ‘Sherman Report’ of 1996. It’s main conclusions concerning Balibo were that “ it is more likely than not that the Balibo Five were killed in the heat of battle while fighting was continuing to occur”. The Indonesian Government commented at the time that the report vindicated it’s position - that the journalists were killed “in crossfire”. Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer described the Sherman Report (which had been set up as a ‘preliminary investigation’) as the most comprehensive analysis possible and declared the issue closed. Downer rejected calls for an independent judicial inquiry that had been requested by some witnesses and families of the victims.

However there were major concerns about the Sherman Report being left as the final word on the matter. Some of it’s shortcomings included the failure to approach any potential witnesses in Indonesia and Timor (excluded by the terms of reference of the investigation), heavy reliance on one unidentified witness from Lisbon whose testimony was seemingly at odds with most other witnesses (including eyewitnesses interviewed in late 1975, in the months immediately after the killings). Most important was the apparent avoidance of the issue of whether the Indonesian attacking force had foreknowledge of the presence of the journalists at Balibo . This had been brought to light by one witness who said that when he had approached the Indonesian commanding officer before the attack on Balibo to warn him that Australian journalists were already in Balibo the Indonesian commander said “ Don’t worry, we know. We have plans to deal with them”. This was one of the significant new bits of information that had led to the ‘Sherman’ inquiry being initiated , but it was mysteriously omitted from consideration in the analysis by Tom Sherman .

The Sherman report also did not consider aspects of the Balibo deaths that were potentially of great significance to the Australian public- because they were not within its mandate. These included questions such as - when had the Australian government learnt of the deaths and what had they learned of the circumstances surrounding them ? If, as was reported, they had intelligence intercepts that confirmed almost immediately that the journalists were killed by Indonesian troops, why had they not formally protested at the time? If they had protested vigorously, might they not have drawn attention to the covert invasion taking place and thus helped to stop it ? Or was that the very reason they did not protest vigorously - that they had no intention of stopping the invasion of East Timor ? And by not protesting about the deaths of the five journalists at Balibo, had the Australian government signaled to the Indonesian armed forces that killing Australian journalists was acceptable and thus sealed the fate of Roger East ? He was executed on the Dili dock with dozens of East Timorese on the day after the invasion of Dili.

Feeling that the matter had not been fully dealt with, the Australian Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ASICJ) convened a ‘Colloquium’ on the matter in October 1997. This brought to light more relevant information including a new witness in Portugal who had not previously been interviewed. He reported that he had been present as the Indonesian military commanders planned the attack and overheard that they did not expect much military resistance in Balibo but “did expect journalists. They expected to eliminate 8 journalists”.

As a result of this and other new evidence the ASICJ Report concluded that “The Indonesian government is responsible for the deaths of the journalists at Balibo and Dili -

1. because there was a deliberate intention on the part of the military forces which set out from nearby Batugade and possibly elsewhere to kill the journalists at Balibo

2. that intention is consistent with the motive of concealing from world scrutiny the activities of the invading forces as they began their clandestine offensive on 16th October 1975.”

In the period since the attack on Balibo in 1975, the Indonesian commander of the attacking force -Yunus Yosfiah - has been made a General and now Minister for Information in the Habiibie government - ironically with responsibility for dealing with the media.

The Australian Section of the International Commission of Jurists has recommended that “a Judicial Inquiry should be established forthwith by the Australian Government ... and in respect of whose inquiries the cooperation of the Indonesian Government should be sought”. We should strongly back calls for this independent judicial inquiry , one with ‘teeth’ to subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath. It must also have terms of reference wide enough to ask the hard questions that also need to be asked about the behaviour and responsibility of the Australian government and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in this matter.It should not be another 'Sherman Report'under the umbrella of Australian Foreign Affairs Dept - how can the Department objectively investigate matters that concern them so closely ?

This is an event that involves not just the deaths of five men who had the integrity to take risks to report the truth - but an event that is inextricably connected to the hypocrisy, collusion and lies that were used to camouflage the onslaught against the fledgling nation of East Timor. The deaths of the journalists were also the death of truth in reporting of events in East Timor. We owe it to the journalists, their relatives, to the East Timorese people and ourselves to demand that the real truth be told about these events.

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