Subject: HT Lee obits

Also: Vale HT Lee ­ Crikey

From Green Left Weekly, August 3, 2005.

HT Lee: 1946-2005

John Martinkus

HT Lee died on July 26. I only knew HT for the last six years of his life, but the circumstances of our meeting in the final days before the 1999 independence ballot in East Timor meant that we formed a strong friendship.

HT arrived in East Timor as the Indonesian military and the militia were about to begin destroying it. After the ballot was announced on September 4 and the destruction of East Timor began, the journalists from News Ltd, BBC, Reuters, CNN and all the other major organisations packed up and fled, leaving the Timorese to their fate. HT was among a small group of us who remained.

Anxious to remove any foreign witnesses to the atrocities the Indonesian military were carrying out, the Indonesian military eventually came and rounded up those of us who remained. I was with HT, hiding in a bathroom at the Hotel Tourismo when they came, amidst a hail of gunfire. We managed to convince them not to take us to the airport to evacuate but to the by then besieged UN compound.

It was in the compound that I really got to know what kind of a person HT was. The Indonesian soldiers were looting and burning the capital around us and killing anyone they saw on the streets. When the awful reality dawned on the 20 or so journalists left in the compound that the UN staff were intending to evacuate and leave the 3000 East Timorese who had sought shelter in the compound to the mercy of the Indonesian soldiers, it was HT who organised the petition. He drafted and collected signatures from the journalists and encouraged the unarmed UN police officers to do the same. It worked, and was one of the major reasons those in the compound were brought to Darwin when the full evacuation eventually took place a few days later.

It's hard to describe that environment and what it meant, but HT was the kind of person who could make people put themselves on the line for a principle. In that situation, he stood out as someone who could make things change and follow through with the action needed to complete it, and it was all done with his characteristic good-humoured insistent badgering that woke many of us up from being passive observers to the great humanitarian tragedy that was taking place around us.

HT Lee kept working on Timor issues after East Timor won its independence. His work on the asbestos issue and the Timor oil dispute, alongside the late Dr Andrew McNaughtan, opened up many people's eyes to the injustice of the oil deal that was being forced on the East Timorese by the Australian government.

HT was someone who worked on principles and often denied accepting payment for his work.

After the violence in East Timor, he went back to find the child he had photographed screaming in terror in the UN compound. At a time of great scarcity, he organised a birthday party for the child and his family who were living as refugees and gave them money and food. I never saw him happier than on that day. That is the kind of person he was.

He was happiest when he was giving or doing something for the greater good whether it was saving lives or organising campaigns to change government policy. He believed in change and helped make it possible and should be remembered for that.

---

*7. Vale HT Lee ­ Crikey commentator* /Hugo Kelly writes/

The death on Wednesday of Crikey contributor HT Lee robs us of a spirited and independent voice ­ but his loss will be felt even more keenly in Australia's Timorese community, for whom he was a friend and unyielding defender. HT, who was 56, survived the notorious 1999 TNI siege of the UN compound in Dili, but succumbed in Melbourne's Austin hospital after complications from a heart bypass operation that was to have given him new life.

A humble and generous man, HT fought energetically (despite poor health) for the causes he believed in: as a photojournalist; when he worked for the union movement; and as an activist (from helping the people of Timor and Aceh, to proper handling of asbestos). He believed in the free and open exchange of information, and invariably sided against vested interests and injustice. Most recently, he alerted Crikey subscribers to the continuing attempts by the federal government to screw down a tough ­ and in his firm view unconscionable ­ deal to exploit East Timor's potentialy vast resource riches.

But HT was no humourless ideologue. His reporting on domestic politics was quirky and irreverent in the best Crikey tradition, lampooning the likes of Bomber Beazley and Labor's headless Roosters, and his bete noir "Lord" Alexander Downer. I met HT while covering last January's clamorous Labor Party national conference in Sydney, new leader Mark Latham's first big set piece. While other hacks were busy networking and socialising, HT offered to fill in my patchy understanding of NSW ALP politics. A long-time member of Labor's notorious Enmore branch, he had plenty of stories to tell. We both watched with fascination the turbulent rise and fall of Latham over the next 12 months.

Fellow activist Dr Vacy Vlazna remembers meeting HT early 1999 at a pro-Timor meeting, where she urged him to go to East Timor: "Without hesitation, unlike many with good intentions and no guts, he bowled into Timor at the most dangerous time ­ the referendum ­ where he was seen around Dili with his camera slung around his neck and his heart and commitment on his sleeve."

As the TNI-backed militia's activities grew more ferocious, most reporters covering events in Dili were evacuated. HT was one of the handful of journalists, along with his friend, SBS reporter John Martinkus, who remained in the besieged UN compound. He filed there for a range of organisations, from ABC radio to Workers Online, and had photos published on the front page of the /SMH/ and /Age/. Their decision to risk their lives and remain with the Timorese almost certainly saved refugees inside the compound from marauding militia and TNI troops.

Finally forced back to Australia, he called for a UN-sanctioned international peacekeeping force to restore order ­ a process that was finally set in train, but not before Dili was virtually razed.


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