Subject: SMH/E.Timor: Diary of a disaster

Sydney Morning Herald September 16, 2000

Diary of a disaster

Australia was headed towards the Dismissal when Indonesian commandos swept into Timor in late 1975, killing five newsmen, writes Hamish McDonald.

Monday, October 13: In the Portuguese Timor town of Maliana, close to the border with Indonesia, three newsmen from Channel 7 in Melbourne wake after an uneasy night huddled with Fretilin soldiers in an open-sided thatch hut, having withdrawn from the nearby fort at Balibo the day before because of threatened Indonesian attack. Waiting for Fretilin reinforcements to move back into Balibo, Greg Shackleton completes a report to a camera operated by Gary Cunningham, with Tony Stewart making the sound recording.

In Jakarta, two senior Australian diplomats, Malcolm Dan and Allan Taylor, call at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), associated with Lieutenant-General Ali Murtopo, intelligence adviser to President Soeharto. Back in the embassy, they cable to Canberra that the CSIS director, Harry Tjan Silalahi, has told them that the previously discussed covert invasion of Portuguese Timor would soon begin: the "main thrust" would start on October 15, through Balibo and Maliana/Atsabe. He warns that Australians such as an aid worker, Michael Darby, could be at risk if found by pro-Indonesian Timorese.

That afternoon, more Fretilin troops arrive in Maliana and the Channel 7 crew drives behind their convoy into Balibo, which is deserted. Later, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters, from Channel 9 in Sydney, arrive from Dili, along with Fretilin's spokesman Jose Ramos Horta. They all settle down for the night in Balibo.

At Batugade, about eight kilometres away on the coast overlooked by the Balibo fort, an Indonesian military intelligence chief, Major-General Benny Murdani, is working out the last details of the planned invasion with its commander, a raffish Special Forces colonel named Dading Kalbuadi. In a radio room in the stone Batugade fort, Dading's staff listen to Fretilin radio messages and pick up the presence of the foreign journalists.Tuesday, October 14: The five newsmen spend the morning with a patrol towards Batugade. Overnight several Indonesian warships and transports had appeared offshore. Shackleton and Rennie finish reports and interviews with Ramos Horta. The Fretilin leader then leaves for Dili, taking their film for shipment to Darwin.

At Foreign Affairs in Canberra, the South-East Asia division head, Graham Feakes, notifies the Foreign Minister, Don Willesee, of Tjan's information about the October 15 start of military intervention, noting "his comments are confirmed by other information we have" a reference to radio intercepts being made at the Defence Signals Directorate stations at Shoal Bay, near Darwin, and Cabarlah, near Toowoomba.

But the politicians are distracted. That afternoon, it emerges that Whitlam's Minister for Minerals and Energy, R.F.X.Connor, has resigned after it was revealed that, despite his assurances to the contrary, he was still in touch with the Pakistani broker Tirath Khemlani about borrowing billions of "petro dollars" for his gas pipeline schemes.

In the evening, this dominates the news. Channel 7 stations in Canberra and Melbourne broadcast a Shackleton report on the road to the border, which clearly states their destination. But no-one who saw the previous day's embassy cable seems to have taken notice. In Balibo, the five newsmen settle down for the night in a building daubed with the Australian flag.Wednesday, October 15: In Canberra, Whitlam holds discussions with the visiting Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak. He says Fretilin is trying to win Australian support, which is being resisted. Whitlam notes that the Australian media has access only to Fretilin areas in Timor, and thus tends to present a "one-sided" picture. But Indonesia is perhaps sensitive about its own activities: "a few thousand Indonesian troops were probably now operating inside Portuguese Timor".

From Jakarta, the ambassador, Richard Woolcott, cables to argue against being impressed by Fretilin's territorial control and against doubts about the Indonesian campaign's chances of success. Meanwhile, Tjan supplies more details of the impending attack. Indonesian forces would be dressed as local Timorese partisans. Initially, an Indonesian force of 800 would advance Batugade-Balibo-Maliana-Atsabe and then move towards Dili. Another 800 would cross the border on the south coast towards Suai. An amphibious force, including unmarked tanks, would land at Maubara. It would be denied that Indonesian forces are involved.

In Parliament House, the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, calls his Coalition MPs into a caucus. Following the Connor revelations, they decide to block passage of the Government's money Supply bills in the Senate, where the conservatives have a majority.

In Balibo, the five newsmen spend a quiet day around the village. About 2pm, a four-man crew from Portuguese TV arrives and takes some film of the Australian crews sitting in the village square, drinking beer. The Portuguese depart later for Maliana.

In Canberra after lunch, Fraser announces the Opposition caucus decision. Whitlam calls together the Labor caucus in the late afternoon, then makes an unscheduled national television address, declaring he will not be forced into an early election to break the Supply deadlock, which threatens the Federal Government with running out of money to pay salaries and other obligations within weeks.

As darkness falls in Jakarta, Woolcott attends a "long and very frank" discussion with General Murdani, who had returned from Batugade the previous day. He confirms Tjan's details of the attack that was being launched that night (Woolcott's report of the conversation runs to more than 2,000 words).

At some point that evening, say some former intelligence officials, Defence Signals intercepts radio signals between Murdani and Dading. The attack commander asks about the presence of foreign journalists at Balibo. Murdani replies: "We can't have any witnesses." [Through Tjan, Murdani has recently denied this, although he has previously admitted his forces were aware of the journalists and thought they were sending radio messages to help Fretilin.] Woolcott records no mention of Australian journalists at Balibo in his meeting with Murdani.

About 11pm local time, the Indonesian attackers start long-range mortar and artillery fire on Balibo and Maliana, waking the Australian crews in Balibo and the Portuguese in Maliana. Indonesian special forces troops, led by Captain Yunus Yosfiah, move into position for attack from the south side of Balibo.Thursday, October 16: The Indonesians sweep into Balibo around 6am. The Australian crews shelter in a house near the road to the fort. They emerge trying to surrender and are shot. One is killed trying to run out the back of the house, although accounts differ about how far he got. Fretilin soldiers flee. About 6.45am, Yunus radios to Dading: among the dead are four white men; what are they going to do with the bodies? Dading flies from Batugade by helicopter. The bodies are later dressed in Portuguese-style uniforms and propped behind machine-guns for propaganda pictures, then doused in fuel and burnt in the house.

At the Shoal Bay Defence Signals station, the radio message is intercepted, and telexed immediately to the directorate's headquarters in Melbourne, from where it is relayed to the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in the Defence Department complex at Russell Hill. It is passed to the JIO director, Gordon Jockel, who goes to Parliament House late in the morning to inform the Defence Minister, Bill Morrison, that it appears some Australian journalists were killed in the expected Indonesian attack. "Oh s---!" exclaims Morrison.

In Foreign Affairs, officials are still responding to the embassy's report of Tjan's new details cabled the previous day. The department's secretary, Alan Renouf, drafts a submission to Willesee which ends by pointing out there were several Australian journalists, "some outside Dili", and an aid team. He urges drawing up plans for evacuation "which might need to be put into effect as early as next week". The paper is sent to Willesee the next day.

Early in the evening, the Defence Department secretary, Sir Arthur Tange, takes several Defence officials to meet Whitlam, Willesee and Morrison with a summary of the day's intelligence, including the killing of foreign journalists who almost certainly included Australians. Tange advises the ministers that the information cannot be revealed to the families or public without compromising national security. Whitlam and Willesee leave for a dinner hosted by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, for Abdul Razak.

Late that afternoon or early evening, Defence Signals picks up a second reference to the bodies. They had "menjadi abu" turned into ashes.

Material for this article is drawn from Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of East Timor 1974-76 (Melbourne University Press), and from Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra (Allen & Unwin) by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald.

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