Subject: SMH: Collusion in East Timor

Sydney Morning Herald July 20, 2000


Collusion in East Timor

A royal commission is needed into why the Whitlam Government turned a blind eye to the Balibo killings, writes John Dowd.

The advantage of hindsight means that we can look back on the images displayed on television of the devastation of East Timor's capital, Dili, last year before the Indonesian withdrawal, and can reflect in horror at the some 200,000 East Timorese people who died during the 25 years of Indonesian occupation.

It is necessary, however, to remind people that it was not until the image of the Santa Cruz massacre in the suburbs of Dili on November 12, 1991, that the world started to become seriously interested in the issue of East Timor. It was a very lonely road before that visual awakening created by those television images for those of us who were concerned with the injustice of East Timor.

Although in October 1975 we had a very different consciousness of our neighbours to the near north, there is no doubt that if the five Australian-based journalists executed by military forces at Balibo had been able to project into our homes the vision of an invading Indonesian army, the world would have had a different reaction to that invasion.

From the point of view of the political and military leaders of Indonesia, the Australian journalists had to die or be taken into custody and kept from the world.

It is amply demonstrated in the recently published Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, by Desmond Ball and Herald foreign editor Hamish McDonald (Allen and Unwin), that it would be extraordinary if Australian defence and intelligence authorities did not know that Australian journalists were in the path of the impending invasion and therefore likely to be killed by the Indonesian invading forces.

Anyone examining the techniques used by the Indonesian Army against the Dutch in West Papua in 1961-1963 or in Malaysia during the Indonesian invasion of Malaysia in 1963-1966, hidden under the euphemism of "Confrontasi", would know that it was standard procedure for Indonesia to mount a guerilla war with supposed locals masking the reality of an Indonesian military invading force.

Australia not only had the advantage of that knowledge of Indonesian techniques, particularly as Australian military forces were part of the British Commonwealth forces which defeated Indonesia during Confrontasi, the Australian Government was in fact told by Indonesian Government officials about the proposed invasion of East Timor just before it commenced in October 1975.

The Australian Government or some ministers in it, or at least foreign affairs and defence intelligence advisers, clearly understood the nature of the proposed invasion and indeed in some respects Australia assisted in the Indonesian plans to incorporate the East Timorese people into Indonesia by military occupation.

What the publication of the book demonstrates is that the approval of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor went to the extent of allowing that invasion to occur without protest, notwithstanding that the deaths of the journalists were a likely event.

What the book demonstrates is that we knew the Indonesians' plans and we chose to allow them to go ahead.

The subsequent evasion and cover-up by the government of the day, knowing full well that the journalists had been killed, is plainly demonstrated in the book.

The book raises questions about the role of military intelligence, experts and the governments and ministers that they serve.

The excuse which is put forward - that we would expose our knowledge of Indonesian troop movements through Australia's capacity to listen to radio broadcasts - is hardly a justification in an open democracy such as Australia for a government and its advisers to withhold information from the families and the public of the fate of the journalists.

It must be remembered that these events occurred in 1975 at the end of more than a decade of government hysteria about the threat from the north with conservative political parties trading on the fear of the "yellow peril", the "red peril", and the domino theory of the communist-led collapse of South-East Asian governments.

It is easy to understand that an Australian government would be willing to go along with United States foreign policy with its obsession with supporting anti-communist regimes and its desire not to have a Cuban-type communist enclave in the strategic waters of the Indonesian archipelago.

Soeharto's coup gave that regime credentials in the eyes of the US as a bulwark against communism. This was despite the fact that much of the bloodbath after October 1965 involved the removal by Soeharto of his political enemies and the death of a large number of Chinese Indonesian citizens, some of whom were perceived to have links with the People's Republic of China.

None of this atmosphere, however, justified the silent approval by the Australian Government of the loss of freedom of a Portuguese Christian East Timorese people separated for centuries from the Muslim-dominated Indonesian West Timor.

One would like to think that it would not be possible in this era of instant communications and mass media for a government to approve an invasion of a near neighbour.

Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra demonstrates why there should be a full inquiry with the powers of a royal commissioner to find out how the inner workings of the Federal government, in terms of defence and foreign affairs, could have allowed not just the death of the five journalists but an invasion which has led to the devastation of a country, a country whose people died saving Australians in World War II and whom we said "we would never forget''.

Justice John Dowd is president of the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists.

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