Subject: James Dunn on Balibo

On The Balibo Coronial Enquiry James Dunn

The current coronial enquiry into the death of Brian Peters at Balibo in October 1975 has brought back vivid memories of a crisis in which I myself played a part. Then I was in Dili leading an aid mission, which was aware of the presence of those five newsmen at Balibo, and the risks they were taking. I did not share their apparent confidence that their neutral status as journalists would be recognised, and made a last minute attempt to persuade them to pull back from the border area, based on our assessment that an Indonesian attack was imminent.

Two days later I was summoned to an urgent meeting with the Fretilin military commander who told us that the small Fretilin garrison at Balibo had withdrawn in the face of an attack by a large Indonesian force, one supported by tanks and artillery. We gleaned from two members of that garrison that the journalists had probably been summarily executed by the invading troops, an assessment I conveyed by telegram to Senator Willissee, the then Australian foreign minister. Since then a lot more information has surfaced from witnesses to the tragic events of that time, especially since the end of Indonesian occupation, and it is now really beyond doubt that the newsmen were summarily executed by a special forces unit led by Captain Yunus Yosfiah, who later spent years in East Timor, much of the time commanding one of the most notorious TNI battalions. He subsequently had advanced training in the UK, at an establishment not far from the home of Brian Peters, one of his victims. Yosfiah eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant general, and is now retired. His last post was that of information minister under President Habibie.

Unfortunately, whenever Balibo revelations surfaced our governments moved to question or even discredit them, frustrating the efforts of surviving relatives to achieve closure on this distressing incident. The current coronial enquiry offers a glimmer of hope that closure will finally be achieved. There is, however, much more to the Balibo incident than this apparent summary execution, and the outcome of the trial could stir those muddied waters, bringing pressure to bear on the parties involved.

Firstly there is Indonesia's role. Jakarta repeatedly insisted the newsmen were killed in crossfire between the warring parties - a tragic accident. If the coroner concludes that the execution was not only deliberate, but was ordered by the TNI command in Jakarta, it will become a more serious matter, despite the lapse of time. At least Indonesia will owe the surviving relatives a formal apology, perhaps from the President. Here it could get complicated, for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, then a captain, was a member of the force that invaded Dili on 7 December 1975, inevitably raising questions about his own role in relation to the atrocities that occurred then, though I hasten to add that during my investigations into such matters, I never came across evidence of any personal involvement of Indonesia's president.

Secondly, the most worrying legacy of Balibo emerges from the roles of Australian governments. From our sophisticated intelligence operations the government knew the newsmen had been executed, and also knew of the atrocities that followed the invasion, but proceeded to cover up for the Suharto regime. John Howard changed course somewhat in 1999, when Australia played a leading role in the INTERFET intervention, but the cover-up policy was unchanged. Hence, Australia continued to discourage exposure of incidents that would expose the TNI's brutal culture. Thanks to that veil of protection a number of TNI officers responsible for crimes against humanity continue to hold senior military posts. We have helped protect a brutal culture from exposure, in effect hampering the fulfillment of Indonesia's transformation to democracy, as well as denying justice to the victims.

The coronial will at best result in only a partial disclosure of what happened at Balibo, and who responsible. Those of us who have long been involved in this matter have mostly focused our anger and accusations on the Indonesian military commanders responsible for the killings back in 1975. It is time we focused on the role of the Australian political establishment whose compliant attitudes and lack of moral courage not only allowed those responsible for the killing to escape, but, arguably, by pandering to the ambitions of the Indonesian generals in the first place, actually encouraged them to believe that they could commit these murders with impunity.

In a sense the Balibo incident represents the tip of an ugly iceberg, one composed of calculated deception, inhumanity and disingenuity. Hopefully the coronial enquiry will encourage an honest approach to a sequence of events that dishonoured the governments and politicians of this country, creating an expectation that in the name of anti-communism or anti-terrorism Australians are prepared condone atrocities.

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