Subject: Herald: Tell me the truth about my boy (Balibo)

The Herald (Glasgow) February 7, 2001

Tell me the truth about my boy Anne Johnstone

Anne Johnstone meets the Scottish mother who claims there has been a cover-up over the death of her son in East Timor

Malcolm Rennie was a devoted son. He used to phone his mum every morning. When he came on the line one morning in October 1975, he sounded especially happy, recalls his mother, Minna. "He said: 'I got the assignment I wanted. East Timor. ' I told him to take care and that I hoped the bombs and bullets wouldn't find him. He told me not to worry. He said: 'I've got a lot of living to do.' That was the last thing he ever said to me," Minna Rennie said yesterday.

On October 16, the day the Indonesian army rolled into East Timor, her 29-year old son and four other television newsmen were shot dead.

She may be about to receive answers to some of the questions that have been reverberating in her mind for more than a quarter of a century about the death of her only child. The British foreign office confirmed yesterday that UN police investigators had just completed their investigation into the incident. The UN prosecutor-general for East Timor, Mr Mohamed Othman, is currently evaluating the evidence with a view to issuing warrants for the arrest of three men in connection with the deaths.

One of the three is General Yunus Yosfiah, a former Indonesian information minister. At the time of the deaths he was the special forces captain who led the attack on Balibo, the town where the newsmen were killed. Though he admits that he led the unit, he has always denied any involvement in the newsmen's deaths.

This tragic saga raises serious questions about Britain's so-called "ethical foreign policy", as well as the role of the Australian government in putting national interest above the rights of bereaved families to lay their sons to rest and bring the men's killers to justice.

For nearly 20 years Malcolm Rennie's family accepted the version of events given to them by the foreign office: that Malcolm and his cameraman, 26-year Brian Peters, who hailed from Bristol, along with three Australian were trapped between East Timorese rebel forces and the invading Indonesian army and died in crossfire.

"At first we believed what we'd been told. We had no reason to disbelieve it," said Minna, now 82 and living in the Isle of Man.

In October 1975 Minna and her recently retired husband, Jack, were on the way back to their native Scotland, after 20 years living in Australia. The liner bringing them home had just left Australia when the Rennies were woken in the early hours and asked to dress and report to the wireless room. "That's when they told us that Malcolm had been killed," said Minna.

Numbed by grief, they disembarked in New Zealand, hoping to attend their son's funeral.

At first there was talk of bringing the remains of the five men, all in their twenties, back to Australia. (Although Malcolm and Brian Peters were British citizens, all five had been working for two Australian television channels at the time.) But the relatives were told that the bodies had been burned and the remains buried in Jakarta "for health reasons".

"We had to break up his home and get rid of his car. I don't know how we did it. It was hellish," she said.

After Jack Rennie's death and as Minna became frailer, the campaign to uncover the truth has been taken over by her niece, Margaret Wilson, now 54. Like the Rennies, she comes from Neilston in Renfrewshire, though now lives in London. "Malcolm and I were cousins. There was only six weeks between us. He was just an ordinary easy-going guy. Not very tall but quite nice-looking, with brown hair and blue eyes," she said.

"It's not true that we've been fighting for 25 years to get at the truth because it was only in 1996 that it began to emerge that all was not as it seemed," she added.

Different stories about how the five had died began arriving in Europe with East Timorese exiles, including Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the new version, the five had been massacred by Indonesian soldiers to prevent them relaying pictures to the world of their brutal campaign of repression. Though it is said that the men painted the outline of Australia on the building in which they were sheltering and shouted to the soldiers that they were Australians, the newsmen were shot in cold blood and their bodies burned to conceal evidence of the atrocity.

A report by the Australian government into the deaths, published in 1999, found that Indonesian troops led by Yunus Yosfiah had indeed attacked Balibo on that day and that the troops involved staged a cover-up. In a subsequent interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, the general, who was by that time in the Indonesian cabinet, denied all knowledge of a massacre. He said he had never seen the TV newsmen "alive or dead" and had not received reports that any foreigners had been killed in the town.

Minna Rennie believes the "burial" in Jakarta, which they weren't allowed to attend, was bogus: "There was nothing in the coffin. It was probably a bag of soil."

It was a tragic end to what Minna describes as "a short but happy life". Malcolm was born in Scotland and lived in Renfrewshire briefly several times during his childhood, in between spells in Latin America, where his father managed textile mills. The family settled in Australia when the boy was nine and he had a typical Australian boyhood, more attached to his golf clubs and surfboard than his school books. "He only ever wanted to be a journalist and left school at 17 to become one."

He had a flair for TV reporting and landed a job quickly. A yearning for the old country brought him back to Scotland, where he worked for the BBC in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, before returning to Australia to join Channel Nine in Melbourne as a news reporter. East Timor was his first foreign assignment.

Minna Rennie returned to Australia to meet foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, who told her all documents relating to the case had been shredded. Later she found they still existed. When Margaret Wilson approached the British foreign office she was shown some telegrammes relating to funeral arrangements but when she asked if the British government knew in advance that the Indonesians were planning to invade East Timor, she was told that such material couldn't be released before 2005, under the 30-year rule.

"I think there's been a deliberate cover-up on the part of the British and Australian governments because they didn't want to upset the Indonesians," she said yesterday. "It's all politics. The British wanted to sell them arms and the Australians wanted their oil. We didn't count."

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: "At the time of this incident there were no British officials within 2000 miles. The families were told that the men died in crossfire because that was the report we had at the time. It seems odd that it was only in late 1999 that information came out but it's a reflection of changes in East Timor and Indonesia."

GRAPHIC: SHAM: mum Minna Rennie believes her son's funeral in Jakarta, which she was not allowed to attend, was bogus and that the British and Australia governments do not want to offend the Indonesians


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