Subject: Balibo 5 by Shirley Shackleton 

Also: SMH: New search for answers on Balibo Five

Balibo 5

By: Shirley Shackleton

Wednesday 12 October 2005

In October 1975, five Australian-based journalists were sent by TV Channels 7 and 9 to investigate Indonesian military attacks against a newly decolonising East Timor.

Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, and Gary Cunningham were keen to cover what was then the biggest, emerging event in the region - acts of aggression by a military dictatorship against a democratising society, the collapse of the decolonisation process and the threat of invasion.

After filming an attack on the border town of Balibo, the five unarmed journalists were murdered while surrendering to a force comprising 100 red beret Kopassandha (Special Forces secret warfare) troops led by a then-Captain Yunus Yosfiah. He was promoted after Balibo and attended courses at the US Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth (1979). He was also accepted by the Royal College of Defence Studies in Britain in 1989.

When the five journalists were reported missing, I received a telegram from Dr Henry Will in Jakarta stating that he had been asked to identify remains 'said' to be those of the journalists. He could only say that they were 'possibly human'. Years later I tracked Dr Will down. He confirmed that though the information contained in his investigation was accurately reported in the telegram, he had not sent it to me.

With indecent haste the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, proceeded to hold a funeral in a Jakarta cemetery. None of the dead men's families were invited. The bogus funeral was presumably meant to be the end of a highly embarrassing glitch in the Indonesian/Australian conspiracy against the East Timorese, but the devil was in the detail - there was only one coffin.

In September 2000, previously secret files released from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade archives revealed that an official transcript of a meeting between President Suharto and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 had been 'sanitised' as part of a cover-up to prevent the Australian public from knowing about Canberra's support for an invasion of East Timor.

None of this was known in 1975. When I first heard that Greg was 'missing' something told me he was dead. I was so naive. I remember thinking that this would have to be skillfully managed by our Foreign Affairs officials or kids like my eight-year-old son could end up fighting Indonesian kids.

Over the next two and a half decades I saw that when it comes to a choice between Australian lives and trade, trade wins. As far as Australian lives are concerned our officials just don't care. I watched with horror as we were led right up to the brink of war.

On 7 December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor. Roger East, another Australian journalist, was shot on the wharf in Dili in front of hundreds of witnesses. No one has been charged with any of these murders. Eventually three Australian inquiries were held. The first was exposed as inadequate and the other two left many questions unanswered. A full judicial inquiry was never held.

Successive Australian governments, supported by an influential network of pro-Jakarta lobbyists, worked assiduously to preserve Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. British government neglect of their own citizens murdered in cold blood (Rennie and Peters were British) mirrors the cynicism of their heartless Australian counterparts.

Greg's mother committed suicide. It was not the murders that destroyed her. It was a combination of official indifference, the Jakarta Lobby's eagerness to blame the Balibo Five for their own fate, and the behaviour of Australian government officials.

Following 24 years of Indonesian military rape, torture and slaughter, the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999. The entire country was immediately subjected to State-sponsored terrorism by retreating Indonesian troops and the Howard Government (having previously tried to maintain the policy of its predecessors) was forced by unprecedented public pressure to take action. A multinational force was assembled to guarantee East Timor's independence.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: after seven months of investigations, UN Civilian Police (CivPol) investigators recommended the prosecution of Yunus Yosfiah and two others over the Balibo murders. John Howard immediately recalled both Australian police officers conducting the CivPol investigation, despite the fact that the officers and Sergio Vierra de Mello, the UN Chief Administrator in East Timor, appealed for more time to complete their enquiries.

It is a miracle that confrontation between our two military powers did not ensue when Australian-led InterFET forces chased Indonesian troops out of East Timor. The Indonesian military was busy fomenting more trouble by training and arming extremist vigilante groups across the Indonesian archipelago. Despite playing with the fire of radical Islam for many years, the Indonesian military's culture of impunity continued to enjoy official Australian support. In this sense, the road to terrorism in Bali runs via Balibo.

In 2000 the NSW Coroner was asked to hold a formal inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the Balibo Five, as he was a resident of NSW. Judge Abernethy has agreed to hold an inquest later this year.

About the author

Shirley Shackleton is a veteran activist for East Timor independence and widow of Greg Shackleton, one of the five journalists killed in Balibo in 1975. October 16 is the 30th anniversary of the death of the Balibo Five.

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Sydney Morning Herald

New search for answers on Balibo Five

October 17, 2005

After three decades, an inquest offers solace and possibly justice for families and friends, writes Les Kennedy.

The first rays of dawn were breaking over the dry East Timor landscape on Thursday, October 16, 1975, when the soldiers and militia came to Balibo.

In a house in the border village were five television newsmen from Australia who had come to cover what had become a full-blown invasion by Indonesian forces in the wake of the abandonment of the former-Portuguese colony.

From Balibo, Indonesian warships had been seen off the coast the day before, but this army had come across the border from Indonesian West Timor. They were backed by militia who opposed the units thrown together by Fretilin, East Timor's fledgling government.

In an old fort above the village, a machine-gun manned by Fretilin soldiers exchanged fire with the approaching units as the darkness dissipated to a hot day. Fretilin held their ground for a while before retreating.

The day before, Australians Greg Shackleton, 27, and Tony Stewart, 21, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27 - all from Channel Seven - and Britons Malcolm Rennie, 28, and Brian Peters, 29, from Channel Nine, had daubed a crude Australian flag on an exterior wall of their house with the word "Australia" to denote their neutrality. They called their temporary home "the embassy".

By the end of the day, all five lay dead inside another house nearby known to locals as "the Chinaman's house".

Their bodies were later burned over three days and what remained is now interred in a Jakarta cemetery.

Thirty years on, how they came to die remains unresolved. Claims have ranged from murder and execution to innocent victims of crossfire in the heat of battle or

while they were surrendering. There have also been claims and counter-claims of a cover-up and inaction by governments.

But for three decades there has been no solace or justice for the families and friends of the newsmen who in death became know as the Balibo Five.

Now the NSW Coroner, John Abernethy, has set his Coronial Investigation Unit - a nine-member team of detectives from the Homicide Squad - the task of putting history right.

In what is becoming an expanding role for Australian coroners, who have traditionally ruled only on deaths in their state jurisdictions, Abernethy has determined that he can hold an inquest into the death of one of the five - Brian Peters. And with whatever findings are made for Peters, he hopes to shed light on the fate of the other four.

Abernethy, who joined the Victorian Coroner, Graham Johnston, on an inspection of the sites of the 2002 Bali bombings and was involved in the formal identification of NSW victims of last year's tsunami, has ruled that although Peters was a British citizen, he can conduct an inquest because Peters was a NSW resident at the time of his death.

His decision in June followed submissions for an inquest by Peters's sister, Maureen Tolfree, of Bristol, England.

The inquest comes after five inconclusive Australian inquiries and reports - two in 1975 and one in 1976, 1996 and 1999 - as well as a 2001 investigation by UN civilian police, who were stationed in East Timor following its independence from Indonesia.

The UN investigation was conducted by the now-retired federal police superintendent Tom Hanlon of Perth and West Australian Major Crime Squad superintendent John Skeffington.

With the 30-year secrecy provisions relating to any federal cabinet documents on the invasion due to expire in December, previously unknown intelligence relating to the deaths may emerge.

Abernethy has said his inquest, which will begin hearings next year, will not examine the rights or wrongs of the occupation of East Timor.

In keeping with his office, his focus will be on issues of identification, cause of death, when and where it occurred and, if it was murder, by whom.

His investigation team is led by Detective Inspector Brett Coman, whose officers last month interviewed Skeffington and Hanlon about their investigation.

Their 2001 inquiry had gone nowhere after it was referred to UN legal officers with a recommendation that warrants be drawn for war crimes against four people, among them Indonesian military.

Coman admits the inquest faces a difficult road in getting evidence from retired Indonesian military personnel who were in Balibo on the day of the invasion, including one who rose to the rank of general and went on to be a government minister.

Nor has it been determined if the inquest will hear evidence in East Timor.

At this stage, at least eight Timorese people are expected to be called to give evidence. A ninth crucial witness, Olandino Maia Guterres, died earlier this year after a long illness.

In 1998 Guterres, who entered Balibo with Indonesian special forces, publicly accused a former Indonesian minister, Yunus Yosfiah, of ordering the deaths of the news crews after they filmed the attack.

Coman said investigators were collecting information, including photos and reports from a Northern Territory police forensic team that went to Balibo in 1975 and 2001.

The collection of material has taken the Coroner's team to Canberra and the National Archives.

The second phase is a comparative analysis of every report to see if there are any discrepancies or information not explored.

Coman said it was possible that Timorese who fled to Australia after the invasion might also have information about the attack on Balibo.

But he said an approach would be made to Indonesian authorities to participate.

"I think in fairness it would be prudent of us to put allegations of murder to them."

Abernethy has set aside December 9 to hear a progress report on the investigation.


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