Subject: Editorials: Bad conscience about Balibo

Also Herald Sun Editorial:

The Balibo atrocity;

Canberra Times: Findings give new hope bodies will be returned; Age: Letter to Editor

Canberra Times

November 19, 2007 Monday

Bad conscience about Balibo

Friday's report by NSW Deputy Coroner Dorelle Pinch on the deaths of five journalists at Balibo during the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in October 1975 marks the latest, but probably not the last, chapter in that sad affair. Pinch's extensive report confirms what has long been generally believed, that the reporters were deliberately killed by Indonesian soldiers and were in no sense accidental casualties of some sort of firefight, or during the confusion of combat. They were killed because they were witnesses to an invasion that Indonesia was pretending to the world was not happening, and because their stories, had they been broadcast, would have been embarrassing to Indonesia's plan to annex East Timor. Indonesia did not cooperate with the inquest, but the evidence, including the evidence of Australian intelligence data gathered at the time, was clear enough.

The deputy coroner says, quite rightly, that what occurred was a war crime an offence against international law and that we should seek to have those involved brought to justice. It is quite clear that Indonesia, which regards the whole affair as a closed case, will not cooperate with any prosecutions and that there is very little that Australia can do about it. That is, in some senses a great pity, because Indonesia's incapacity to look critically at what it did in East Timor and not only in the invasion but during its occupation there, until the East Timorese voted to break away to this day inhibits its capacity to develop as a nation, to reconcile with its neighbours, and to develop and support the institutional structures of accountability that a modern nation needs.

Australians themselves have a bad conscience about the killings, just as they do about the whole tragedy of East Timor. That bad conscience, and Australian public opinion and as some Indonesian officials would say the continuing Australian press focus on the issue, have long had a baleful influence over Australian-Indonesian relations, and led to one continuing Australian tendency to view most of what happens in Indonesia through the prism of what happened in East Timor, including the killing of Australian journalists. More than 30 years have passed and much has happened since, not least the reversal of the incorporation, the movement of Indonesia to full democracy, generally very strong official relationships, and closer social, political and economic ties. The relationship now has far broader foundations, ones which incline many Australians to recognise that the murders took place a long time ago, under different leaders and different conditions.

They would argue that it is necessary to move on, to forgive, perhaps one day even to forget. Far more extensive, and far more unforgivable war crimes committed by the Japnese in World War II had ceased to be a significant canker in Australian-Japanese relations by 1977 as far from when they occurred as the Balibo murders are today.

But any sort of reconciliation cannot and will not occur unless there is acknowledgment and some measure of restorative justice. Unless Indonesia acknowledges its own history, its mistakes, and the wrongs it did, the sense of injury from the wrong will continue to stand between Indonesians and East Timorese, and Indonesians and Australians.

That said, Australia's own bad conscience is not yet reconciled at home. There has never been any evidence that our politicians, our diplomats, our military or our spies were any sort of witting accomplices to the murder of the journalists, or that they had any foreknowledge of the danger they were in, or the fate they faced. Some have thought otherwise, or at least that some officials, because of what they knew, were negligent in not looking to the interests of Australians on the ground in East Timor, but 32 years has not produced satisfactory evidence of this.

What it has, produced, however, is ample evidence of our foreknowledge of Indonesia's invasion plan, and that we were, in effect, looking over the shoulders of the invading Indonesian soldiers with our sophisticated intelligence infrastructure, not least our capacity to intercept Indonesian military conversations. It is also clear that our foreknowledge was not a result of an Australian intelligence coup or a tribute to our intimacy, so much as a deliberate Indonesian attempt to compromise any official Australian reaction to the invasion. Indonesia, moreover, consciously planned the invasion at a time when Australians were preoccupied with internal politics and our leaders were distracted. Foreknowledge did not make us parties to the Indonesian plan but succeeded, as Indonesia intended, in compromising our response. Similarly close knowledge of what occurred at Balibo was compromised by our unwillingness to admit how good our intelligence monitoring was. Australia, in short, was the patsy of an Indonesian intelligence operation, and continues to wear some of the blame for the tragedy. We cannot undo that, but while we fail to see how we were used, and how our own deficiencies made the problems worse, we, like Indonesia, can never reconcile with the brutal facts.


Herald Sun


The Balibo atrocity

November 19, 2007 12:00am

IT has taken a NSW deputy coroner to tell Australians the truth that successive federal governments hid for 32 years.

Dorelle Pinch confirmed that five Australian newsmen were murdered in cold blood by Indonesian forces during the invasion of East Timor in 1975.

We knew this for decades from a variety of sources, but not officially.

The failure of government for reasons of political expediency to inform the families when it immediately knew of the executions at Balibo village has only prolonged and deepened their pain.

The Whitlam government knew the men's fates within 24 hours, but colluded to hide the atrocity for diplomatic and security reasons.

Relatives deserve an official apology.

The deaths of Brian Peters, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham and Malcolm Rennie were magnified in thousands by killings of East Timorese by Indonesia's military.

Australia quietly betrayed people who helped our Diggers in World War II.

It took until the crisis of 1999 for Australia to finally intervene. As recently as 2001, Indonesians harassed border posts.

Prime ministers, particularly Gough Whitlam, come out of this shameful appeasement of the Suharto dictatorship with their places in history diminished.

What is most disturbing today is that bureaucratic cover-up remains inherent in our national life, secrecy implemented in 500 pieces of legislation, as the new Australia's Right to Know coalition has identified.

Ms Pinch found strong circumstantial evidence that Indonesian special forces commanders Maj-Gen Benny Murdani and Colonel Dading Kalbuadi ordered the murders.

Those men are dead but the captain who allegedly supervised the crimes, Yunus Yosfiah, is alive. This former Indonesian information minister is still in parliament.

Indonesia sticks to the lie the men were killed in crossfire, so Australia would have to pursue Yosfiah and other culprits for war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said the police and Director of Public Prosecutions would look at the inquest findings.

Whoever wins the election must try to bring the culprits to justice, in good faith.

That is not too much to ask for, but given the past cowardice of Australian governments it may be too much to hope for.


The Canberra Times

17 November 2007 - 8:54AM

Findings give new hope bodies will be returned

Jenna Price

<> [] In the St Vincent Gardens, a tiny park in South Melbourne, is a large shade tree. Its trunk is surrounded by a circle of stones and at the front of that circle is a small bronze plaque, with a few words.

Greg Shackleton, aged 28, died Timor 1975.

There should be flowers in the shade of the tree but there are none. No flowers, just memories.

And those memories are all that matter to Shirley, wife of Greg Shackleton, one of five journalists murdered in Balibo in 1975.

This is the memorial to Mr Shackleton; this is the only place where she could go to talk to her desperately missed husband.

The tree with the plaque was as good as it was going to get for Mrs Shackleton and Evan, who was just eight when his father was killed.

"I wanted a place for Evan to go and speak to his dad," Mrs Shackleton, now 75, said.

But yesterday, all that changed. Greg Shackleton's body is coming home.

When the NSW Deputy Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, gave her report into the death of Brian Peters, one of the Balibo Five, she said her findings, that the men were deliberately murdered by members of the Indonesian military, applied to all the men; and she had two recommendations from the lengthy inquest.

Ms Pinch said that after the journalists were murdered and their bodies burned, the remains were buried in Jakarta; and at no stage did the families give informed consent.

"It is quite clear that the fact that the journalists are buried in Jakarta has become more offensive over time as the details of their deaths emerged," she said in her findings.

"I intend to make an appropriate recommendation to the Australian Government to have the remains returned to Australia."

Mrs Shackleton said that it had always been her dream to have Greg's remains come back to Australia. She and Maureen Tolfree, the sister of Brian Peters, would occasionally set themselves free from their burdens of seeking the truth about what happened to husband, brother. They'd fantasise and tell each other that if they ever won the lottery they would fly to Jakarta themselves and dig up the remains and bring them home.

Mrs Tolfree may as well have been her brother's mother. Their own mother disappeared when they were young and Mrs Tolfree took on the responsibilities of mothering her little brother. She, too, had always longed for him to be returned to Australia. Although he was British, he loved Australia. She says a few years ago she saw a documentary on television about the use of DNA on identifying tiny remains. It made her determined to find her brother and give him a proper burial.

The coroner's recommendations are almost everything she dreamed of but she says that there is still some way to go until justice is done. And she has this message for the members of the Indonesian military who murdered her brother, "You will get what you deserve, if not in this lifetime, then in the next."

And now the Government will need to bring the bodies home, from wherever their thrice-burned remains now are; and that, say the families, will be the real challenge.


The Age

November 19, 2007 Monday

Letters & emails

The tragedy of the Balibo five

I WAS interested to read Mal Walden's article (The Age, 10/11) about the killing of the five journalists at Balibo. In October 1975, just before the journalists' deaths, I returned to Darwin from East Timor. A few weeks later, I farewelled a colleague, Roger East, at Darwin airport. Roger's last words to me were: "I'll do my damnedest to find out what happened to the Balibo five, even if I've got to buy a new pair of boots and walk there."

Roger sent nine dispatches back to Australia. On November 9, he wrote: "First the five were missing; then we were told they were shot as communist sympathisers of the Fretilin forces. Still later Jakarta blamed Portugal and finally, the deaths resulted from mortar fire, the bodies burned beyond recognition and their burial place not noted . . . The executions, quite literally within seconds of their capture, almost certainly rules out that the order came from Jakarta. It could have resulted from excited soldiers or an officer in the field. The result was the same. Channel Nine's Brian Peters was shot while still filming the advancing troops. Channel Seven's Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Nine's Malcolm Rennie died with their hands in the air and their backs to their captors."

Tragically, Roger East was shortly to suffer the same fate, shouting out, according to witnesses, "I'm an Australian journalist."

Ken White, Werribee South

Back to November menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu