Subject: AGE: Forgotten world (Balibo)

The Age

Forgotten world

Tom Hyland

December 17, 2006

TWO mysteries have shrouded the deaths of five Australia-based newsmen, killed while reporting the Indonesian attack on the East Timorese town of Balibo 31 years ago.Tom Hyland is The Sunday Age's International Editor

The first ­ the broad circumstances of the killings ­ has largely been resolved, most recently by witness testimony to East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

In summary, Indonesian officers knew the five were there before they attacked; the five clearly identified themselves as being from Australia; and the five were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops who then burnt their bodies.

The second mystery ­ how much Australian intelligence agencies knew about the killings ­ is more enduring.

It is an uncertainty that has compounded the suffering of the dead men's families and raised suspicion about the willingness of Australian authorities to cover up the murder of Australian citizens and Australian residents.

A Sydney inquest into the death of one of the five is the latest attempt to solve that mystery. In February, it is due to hear testimony from two former government lawyers, George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe, who were on the staff of the Hope Royal Commission into the intelligence services when they visited the Defence Signals Directorate listening station near Darwin in 1977.

They say a DSD officer showed them the text of an intercepted Indonesian military signal, which stated, in effect, that the five had been killed on orders from Jakarta.

While Brownbill and Cunliffe may be credible, their evidence can be dismissed as hearsay unless the cable still exists. If it doesn't, the question is who destroyed it and why? If it does, the question is, will the Government release it?

Early signs are not promising. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock has already indicated it is unlikely any classified material will be released.

There are three possible arguments for this secrecy. One is that release would compromise our intelligence-gathering methods. If this ever held weight, it doesn't now. The Indonesians knew then, and know now, that DSD listens to their communications. A second argument ­ that release of the intelligence could jeopardise relations with Jakarta ­ is equally untenable. After all, Jakarta's generals masterminded the destruction of East Timor in 1999, indifferent to warnings from Australia that the extent of their complicity was known in detail to Australian intelligence.

A third rationale ­ that release of the information would reveal the scope of the Indonesian conspiracy to win control of East Timor and our connivance in an illegal invasion that officials believed was in our national interests ­ was morally and strategically questionable at the time and is untenable now. The inescapable conclusion, as veteran Timor watcher Jim Dunn puts it, is that "the continuing cover-up is more about honour amongst thieves than pragmatism". 

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