Subject: Flag Of My Father - Transcript 

Flag Of My Father - Transcript

PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 20 July , 2009

ANTHONY LAPAGLIA, PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Anthony LaPaglia. Over the last few years I’ve been working on a project, a film, that’s very important to me, Balibo. It’s the true political drama about Australian newsmen who were massacred by the Indonesian troops when they invaded East Timor in 1975. Tonight’s Australian Story is about one of the men that I met during the filming. John Milkins first heard about Balibo when he studied the case in university, but at that time he had absolutely no idea of his own close personal connection to those tragic events.

JOHN MILKINS: When I was growing up I always knew I was adopted. And I was proud of that. I felt like mum and dad had chosen me. Mum and Dad were amazingly loving people. They gave me so much support. They were the ones that told me that I could look into my birth family. And at first I thought, well why would I? I’ve got my mum and dad. But over the next couple of years, I realised that that was a part of me, that was something I needed to know about to know where I might be going in my life. And so I went to an adoption agency and I found out that my birth mum’s name was Heather Thelma Norman.

HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: John was born in 1970, in May, about two weeks before I turned 22. I’d just finished teachers’ college. I called him Teddy because during pregnancy I just hugged him like a teddy bear. John and I had arranged to meet in the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne in 1989. I was 41 and John was 19. Here was the baby that I hadn’t had contact with and now a young man.

(Excerpt of footage of John Milkins and Heather Norman meeting in a park) JOHN MILKINS: I was pretty nervous. And I got here early. HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: So did I. JOHN MILKINS: Yes. I looked up through the trees and, we just, I don’t know whether it was because our, our eyes met a little bit longer than you might normally but I just, I knew, I knew it was you. And uh, so we came around and there were hugs and tears, (laugh) weren’t there? Yeah, yeah. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: It was pretty soon into our first conversation that Heather said, “Would you like to know who your birth father was?” And she told me that he was Gary Cunningham. He was one of the Balibo Five. And that he’d been killed in East Timor in 1975. I was stunned. I’d just studied what had happened to the Balibo Five in a politics class at uni and I couldn’t believe that, that there was that link. My birth father Gary was an up and coming young cameraman. He was working for Channel 7. And I think the opportunity to go to East Timor with his two colleagues, Tony Stewart as the soundman and Greg Shackleton as the reporter, was incredibly exciting for him. At the time in 1975 that region was a bit of a political melting pot. The Portuguese, the colonial power in Timor, were withdrawing. East Timorese factions were forming and struggles were occurring over power. The Vietnam War experience was still fresh and I think the Australian, New Zealand, British and US Governments were worried about what they perceived to be a communist government coming to power in East Timor. They knew that Indonesia intended to annex East Timor and it was in their own interest as well.

(Excerpt of footage from ABC TV - 1975) JOSE RAMOS HORTA, FRETILIN: They always call us as communist but they never call us as freedom fighters, as nationalists, as Timorese patriots that want to liberate our people from colonialism, from oppression and exploitation. We are nationalists, that’s all. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: From Dili the Channel 7 crew were escorted to Balibo by Jose Ramos Horta who, at that time, was the FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) spokesperson.

(Excerpt from 1975 diary of Channel 7 reporter Greg Shackleton) EXCERPT FROM DIARY: We were told it wasn’t safe to go any further. Our driver didn’t want to come this far. He’s very scared we’ll be cut off from the rear and encircled. (END OF EXCERPT)

JOHN MILKINS: Not long after that the Channel 9 crew also arrived. That was reporter Malcolm Rennie and cameraman Brian Peters. I think at the start of their journey in East Timor the Balibo Five probably thought that they were on an incredible, exclusive scoop. But I also firmly believe that over their time there as they met the Timorese and as they realised that Indonesia was about to invade, they had something that was much, much more than a scoop. They had the only link to the outside world.

(Excerpt of footage from Channel 7 - 1975) GREG SHACKLETON, CHANNEL 7 REPORTER: Sitting on woven mats, under a thatched roof, in a hut with no walls, we were the target of a barrage of questioning from men who know they may die tomorrow and cannot understand why the rest of the world does not care. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: I’ve seen a lot of footage that my dad took in East Timor. And because I never met Gary I had this imagination of how he was. And it always brings up really strong emotions in me because I’ve wanted to go through the screen and come out the other side and, and meet the man.

(Excerpt continued) GREG SHACKLETON, CHANNEL 7 REPORTER: And we were applauded because we are Australians. That’s all they want. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: Being able to be involved in the film Balibo was such a bizarre experience.

(Excerpt continued) GREG SHACKLETON, CHANNEL 7 REPORTER: The emotion here last night was so strong that we, all three of us... (End of Excerpt)

(Excerpt of footage from 'Balibo', Arenafilm - 2009) DAMON GAMEAU, ACTOR (playing Greg Shackleton): …that we, all three of us, felt we should be able to reach out into the warm night air and touch it. GYTON GRANTLEY, ACTOR (playing Gary Cunningham): Could you take this back to Dili airport for us? (End of Excerpt)

GYTON GRANTLEY, ACTOR: In the Balibo film I play Gary Cunningham. He was 27-years-old, originally from New Zealand and he moved to Australia and excelled straightaway. He was a very well respected cameraman and uh, a very well loved man too from, from all of the research I’ve done, all of the conversations I’ve had from his family and friends. A really beautiful man.

HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: I met Gary just after I’d broken up with a long-term boyfriend. I was pretty down at that time and Gary made me laugh so I enjoyed his company. My relationship with Gary was just a couple of weeks. We were both on holidays and I've just always thought of it then as a holiday romance. When I found I was pregnant I knew from the time factor, the baby was Gary’s. I think my parents wanted to believe that it was a result of my previous long-term relationship. And I suppose I let it slide at that. I didn’t really know how to contact Gary. I didn’t expect anything from a very brief relationship and I thought it would be more a burden for Gary to know and then to have to walk out. Um, and I didn’t probably want to put myself through a rejection, so I made absolutely no effort to find him and tell him about it. When John was born I can remember crying in the hospital because I wanted my baby. I always believed that a child needs two parents. Part of my training in teaching gave me that opinion. So as much as it hurt, I knew that it was the best thing for him to be adopted. What I have now is something that I didn’t ever expect to have. And that’s seeing John and Liz with little Ben. It’s more than I knew life could be.

(Excerpt of footage of Heather Norman looking at old photos) HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: That’s the photo that really blew me away when I first saw it because he was so much like Gary. And it just took my breath right away. (End of Excerpt)

MARION MILKINS, MOTHER: My husband Eric and I adopted John when he was just eight weeks old. Eric was a university lecturer at Melbourne University in the Engineering School. I was a dietician at the Royal Children’s Hospital. And we were overjoyed to have this little lad. We always understood that this young woman who’d given up her baby did it for his sake, and every birthday and Christmas she would be grieving. So she was always in our minds then. And I would have loved to be able to just let her know that he was healthy and happy. But at that time we weren’t able to pass on any information.

HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: I couldn’t have asked for anything more if I had made a checklist of what I wanted my son to have had for his life. He has a sister. It was a very caring life. And when we first met it was just one giant family hug in the lounge room at, at their home. Uh, really very, very open and I was part of their family almost straightaway as they were now part of mine. I’ve always seen our story as a fairy tale. And I can quite happily say that I’ve had a good life, John’s had a good life. But in every fairy story there is an ogre.

(Excerpt of footage from 'Balibo', Arenafilm - 2009, explosions and people running; excerpt of audio from ABC Radio - 1975) REPORTER: Indonesian authorities have finally confirmed the deaths of the five Australian newsmen who’ve been missing, presumed dead for some weeks in East Timor. (End of Excerpt)

HEATHER NORMAN, BIRTH MOTHER: In 1975 the media was just flooded with reports coming in from East Timor about the disappearance of the newsmen in Balibo. And I opened a paper one day and there was Gary. John or Teddy as I called him, was five-years-old at the time Gary was killed and I was teaching five-year-olds, so every time I’d look at a little face, I’d think, yep, my little one is that old and he’s now without his birth father. I ended up taking the last month of school off just trying to cope. And the tragedy of Gary’s death and the political sides around that, I feel like is the ogre in the fairy story.

JOHN MILKINS: After Heather told me who my birth father was, I went back and researched what had happened to the Balibo Five. Over the next five years I spent many long, dark hours in a university library reading newspaper articles. I think one of the things that really hit me was that Gary was only 27. And I was in my mid-20s as well. So I realised how much of life he still had to lead. The more I read about what had happened, the more abhorrent it became to me. The official Australian and Indonesian line was that the Balibo Five had been killed in crossfire between two rival East Timorese forces.

(Excerpt continued) GREG SHACKLETON, CHANNEL 7 REPORTER: At any rate we look like being the last people left in the town, and we’ll make a decision very shortly on whether we too should pull back. In the meantime we’ve daubed our house with the word “Australia” in red and the Australian flag in the house where we spent the night. We're hoping it will afford us some protection. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: But over time I came to realise that that was a complete cover up and in fact they’d been deliberately targeted by the Indonesian military.

(Excerpt of footage from ABC TV - 1975) JOSE RAMOS HORTA, FRETILIN: We believe that they were killed already because Radio Kupang claimed that they were captured and shot to death because they were communists supporting FRETILIN. REPORTER: You mean they didn’t die accidentally during a battle? JOSE RAMOS HORTA, FRETILIN: Well I don’t think they died accidentally. I’m quite sure they were captured and shot by Indonesian troops. (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: It was deliberate murder. I became so angry. I fell into a pretty dark place. And the only way that I felt I could do something about that was to find out more about how Gary lived than how he died. And that’s why I decided to find the Cunninghams - his family.

MARION MILKINS, MOTHER: We were concerned for both John and the Cunningham family. They had no notion that Gary had a son. They also may have not believed that this person contacting them was genuinely Gary’s son. So there was, we were quite concerned over the effect that this might have on John. That they might reject any contact.

(Excerpt of footage of John Milkins and Cunningham family looking over newspaper articles) John Milkins: So it looks like that was the first mention of it on the 17th, but there’s no mention of them there. ANN CUNNINGHAM, SISTER: No, but then on this one on the 20th October, first mention of the bodies being reported, that they’ve found bodies. (End of Excerpt)

GREIG CUNNINGHAM, BROTHER: Gary was the oldest of three children. Our father, Jim had his own electroplating business. Our mum had died in 1963. It was early in 1995, I had a phone call from my father, and he said, “Oh Gary’s got a son.” I said, “Excuse me?” And he said, “Gary has a son.” I suppose we were just in complete shock. I think I wanted to believe the truth but I was also, I’m a naturally suspicious person, or cynical, and I sort of thought, well, is this a hoax? And once meeting him, no, all doubts of that were dispelled. And the more we know him and we have known him for so many years, um, he’s, he is Gary and he is a part of our family and there was no doubt.

(Excerpt continued) GREIG CUNNINGHAM, BROTHER: A number of the family, the Cunningham family, thought you looked like our Uncle Tom. ANN CUNNINGHAM, SISTER: He’s got the nose. GREIG CUNNINGHAM, BROTHER: I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. (End of Excerpt)

ANN CUNNINGHAM, SISTER: Neither my brother Greig or I have children. So it was just fantastic to meet this gorgeous young man, I always wanted to be an auntie.

JOHN MILKINS: But I always thought I had a Norman nose. If you look at it across there, from there to there, pretty much.

ANN CUNNINGHAM, SISTER: Our father Jim died about six years after he met John. He was so excited to have a grandson. He’d always ring up and say, “My grandson called me today.” He’d never say John, he’d just say, “My grandson’s coming to visit” and my grandson’s doing this and that. So he was very proud and just loved it and it was great that he got to spend some, some time with John.

JOHN MILKINS: I think one of the most amazing things is the faith and the trust that we’ve all had in each other. None of us have ever felt the need to have DNA testing to prove my lineage. And one of the most special bonds that I share with my uncle Greig and aunt Ann is that we’re on this journey together now that involves Balibo and East Timor. And they’ve been very generous in, in sharing that with me and accepting that I’m just as much part of the family.

(Excerpt of footage of Robert Connolly and John Milkins watching footage from film 'Balibo') REPORTER: Let’s just go, let’s just go EAST TIMOR MAN: Get out of here. Get out now ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: And of course this idea that FRETILIN were pulling out. (END OF EXCERPT)

ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: When I first met John, I was surprised by his incredible openness to the idea that a film was being made and his interest in helping us make it with great authenticity and honesty.

(Excerpt of footage of John Milkins and Robert Connolly watching the film 'Balibo') JOHN MILKINS: So they’re changing into civilian clothes. ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: Yeah, this was, a point that our consulting historian Glen Fernandes was really clear about, he said this was a covert attack. (End of Excerpt)

ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: We’ve known since 1975 that these men were murdered and yet consecutive governments have continued the kind of lie that they died in crossfire. I was attracted to the Balibo story initially by this question, how is it that five Australian based journalists in their 20s could be murdered, and a country like Australia allow that to go untested by courts? And by, you know, the fact that justice has not been served on this tragic event.

ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: Part of making the film involved hypothesising about why these men acted in certain ways.

GYTON GRANTLEY, ACTOR: On their last morning in Balibo, it was apparent that the Indonesians were invading. And the FRETILIN forces wanted the five to retreat with them. But they needed their footage. And basically it came down to film and needing enough light to actually grab an exposure. By the time the light had risen, the Indonesian army were on the hill approaching them. Apparently they got their footage and got what they needed and then began their retreat, but it was obviously too late. People could call the journalists reckless or naďve for pursuing this particular story. But that was their job. That was their passion. That was their chosen field of work, was to tell the truth, was to reveal these, you know, atrocities to the world so justice could be done. So in, in the pursuit of truth, you know, I admire them.

ROBERT CONNOLLY, FILM DIRECTOR: The Timorese treat the Balibo Five as their own because they know that their story is entwined with the tragic story of the Balibo Five and that the Balibo Five in fact helped contribute to their eventual independence.

ROB HUDSON, VICTORIAN LABOR MP: I am a member of the Victorian Labor Government and Chair of the Balibo House Trust. I first met John when we contacted the families about the idea of purchasing and refurbishing the Australian Flag House in Balibo where the five journalists were sheltering before they were murdered in 1975. John came on as a board member on the Trust, and in fact has played a major role. I think with all of the family members and with John, you could see there was an enormous amount of pain associated with the sense of betrayal that they felt around what had happened in 1975. And there was a sense of resignation that nothing was going to be done to recognise their loss. The house is now a memorial to the Five, but more importantly it is a community learning centre that has been set up to benefit the people of Balibo and the surrounding villages in the district.

ELIZABETH MILKINS, WIFE: We all went to Balibo for the opening of the house in 2003. I do feel for John that he could never meet Gary. I think the hardest thing for John has been knowing how to grieve and he has been grieving really ever since he found out about what happened to Gary, but there’s this sense of not having the right to grieve in the same way that other relatives who did know Gary in person did. I think that’s actually why he’s been so passionate about the whole East Timor cause. It gives an amazing sense of connection that he’s never been able to have with Gary himself. And it just seems like such a glaring injustice that it’s hard to let it go. JOHN MILKINS: By not protesting about the deaths of the Balibo Five, the Australian Government gave the green light to Indonesia for a full on invasion of East Timor. Over the next 24 years, 183,000 Timorese lost their lives during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. The Balibo Flag House is important to me because it recognises, I think, what the Australia and East Timor relationship should be like. It’s doing something that’s needed in the community. That to me, is my personal way of carrying on my father’s legacy. And what I believe he would have done if he’d lived. Because I don’t think he would have come out of Timor unscathed.

GREIG CUNNINGHAM, BROTHER: Over the years there have been numerous official Government inquiries into how the Balibo Five died. None of them have been adequate as far as we’re concerned. They never, for us, told the truth. I believe the reason for the cover up is that the Australian Government does not want to upset the Indonesian Government. In 2007 Maureen Tolfree, who was the sister of the Channel 9 cameraman, Brian Peters, through some amazing legal work instigated a coronial inquest. The Coroner decided that the inquiry, even though it was directly related to Brian, would encompass all five journalists. And in November 2007 the whole family went to Sydney to hear the Coroner’s finding. This was the first judicial inquiry that we’d ever had into the deaths of the journalists. And I think we’ve always known what happened but we wanted the record set straight.

(Excerpt of footage from coronial inquest November 2007) JOHN MILKINS: I believe that we are in a situation where after 32 years we finally have the truth and we have the iconic words “war crimes". (End of Excerpt)

JOHN MILKINS: The coroner found that the Balibo Five were not killed in the heat of battle or in crossfire. They were deliberately killed in order to stop them reporting on the imminent invasion of East Timor by Indonesian special forces. She named two members of those special forces as being directly involved, Captain Yunus Yosfiah and Christoforus Da Silva.

(Excerpt of footage from coronial inquest - November 2007) SHIRLEY SHACKLETON, GREG SHACKLETON'S WIFE: They’ve even got the names of people who've raped women to death, and nothing’s been done about it. It’s shocking really. (End of Excerpt)

GREIG CUNNINGHAM, BROTHER: The Coroner referred the case to the federal Attorney-General. We’re hoping there will be prosecutions for war crimes following from that.

JOHN MILKINS: On that day I think we all felt incredibly overwhelmed. It’s now 20 months since the coroner’s findings. And since then, despite recently writing to the Prime Minister, I’ve heard nothing. It’s felt very much like the issue is too hard to handle or too hot to handle and they hope it’ll go away. But it won’t.

ROB HUDSON, VICTORIAN LABOR MP: This was one of the most shameful episodes in Australia’s relationships with a foreign government. And this is a festering sore on our relationship with Indonesia which must be dealt with. These families are entitled not only to know the truth of what happened to the Five, but they’re also entitled to see the Australian Government pursue vigorously those responsible for their deaths.

JOHN MILKINS: One of the most amazing aspects of the Balibo story is that after the Balibo Five were killed a sixth journalist, Roger East, went to East Timor to try to find out what happened. In the film “Balibo”, Anthony LaPaglia plays Roger East. There should be justice for Roger as well. He was killed in early December as the Indonesians invaded Dili. He was killed in broad daylight on the Dili wharves, along with scores of other people. And the Australian Government has never done anything about that. The issue of Australia’s national interest and pragmatism versus the issue of fundamental human rights and morality come into this. I think we have a choice - we can use the Balibo Five experience as a moral compass or we can use it as moral compost.


John Milkins is an environmental co-ordinator with local government in Melbourne, and continues as a board member of the Balibo House Trust.

The Federal Attorney General referred the matters raised by the Coroner to the Australian Federal Police 18 months ago.

The AFP says it ‘recognises the seriousness of the matter’ and that the material being evaluated 'includes the consideration of a number of complex international legal and factual matters'.

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