Subject: Balibo film recalls Australian failure in East Timor 

The Age

Film recalls our failure in East Timor

Daniel Flitton

July 22, 2009

Balibo again raises the question of who really matters in the world.

GO AND see Balibo - a feature film like this will do more to encourage widespread debate about Australia's place in the world than any dry academic book on foreign policy, think tank report or government white paper. It's the sort of debate the Australian public should always have. The complex problems at the heart of this story - the contest between national self-interest and general morality in international affairs - are as difficult today as during the time depicted in the film.

The movie is based on actual events from 1975. Five television reporters from Australia travelled to East Timor to witness Suharto's Indonesia launch a military takeover, only to be murdered by the invading troops in the western village of Balibo. Another Australian reporter, Roger East, was later executed by Indonesian forces in the capital, Dili.

Six Australians, killed in cold blood. Yet during a preview screening last week, I jotted a note in the dark lamenting the sickening parochialism of the film. Yes, the death of the Australian journalists was undoubtedly tragic, but to reduce the appalling suffering of East Timor and the deaths of tens of thousands into a story about a handful of Australians seemed too narrow-minded.

I should have suspended judgment a little longer. That relativism is directly confronted. The story follows East (played by Anthony LaPaglia, pictured) as he journeys to Balibo to investigate the fate that befell the five newsmen.

He is guided by Jose Ramos Horta, then a member of the country's newly declared government. (Horta was later awarded the Nobel peace prize while in exile during Indonesia's 24-year occupation, and is now East Timor's President.)

The two men stumble across the site of a massacre and see the bodies of more than a dozen local villagers strewn across a field. Indonesian troops are nearby and the growing danger is plain. But East wants to go on, to tell the story of the five Australians, not that of the dead Timorese. The killing of "brown people" won't make the front pages, he says. Dead white men will.

So it remains. When a tragedy happens abroad, our attention is determined as much by the victim's national identity as by the event itself. Technology might have wired together the world as never before, bringing a recognition of international problems, but local trumps global in the end. If a ferry sinks somewhere and a hundred people drown, it will probably make the news. Find out an Australian was on board, it will stay in the news.

This is not peculiar to Australians; it's a habit of humanity, divided into different communities with specific interests. And governments constantly appeal to "national interest" to defend their decisions.

Gough Whitlam's Labor administration decided in 1975 that Australia had no time for an independent East Timor. The official thinking went that a small country to the north threatened the stability of the region, so it was better to ignore Indonesia's territorial aggression. After Whitlam was turfed from power, the Liberals' Malcolm Fraser continued to see East Timor as a part of Indonesia - a bipartisan view that carried on until the late 1990s.

That policy consensus never sat easily with the interests of the wider Australian community. Certainly, the occupation was not foremost in most people's minds during those years, but enough saw Australia's official position as wrong. It didn't matter that Whitlam advocated for international recognition of Indonesia's takeover, or that Gareth Evans, the long-time Australian foreign minister, clinked champagne glasses with his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, after signing a deal to divide oil resources in the Timor Sea. As much as Alatas dismissed Timor as a "pebble in the shoe" - a minor annoyance for Indonesia in its international affairs - efforts to get past the Timor issue were constantly undermined, mostly because Suharto's regime kept East Timor under a brutal heel.

This mismatch between public opinion and government preference eventually swelled into overwhelming pressure on Australia to lead a UN-mandated military force after the August 1999 ballot on East Timor's political future. The intervention was Australia's most consequential act in international affairs - the earlier pretence that East Timor belonged to Indonesia the most shameful.

A film can only achieve so much. This one questions the extent of official knowledge of the journalists' plight - which remains shrouded in claims of secrecy - and people will quibble over the creative licence taken with the facts. But the essential question remains. Did the death of those journalists all those years ago add to the way the Australian community responded to East Timor's independence struggle? For some, undoubtedly.

The fact that the killers have never been brought to justice and successive Australian governments did little to pressure Jakarta to find out more is indelibly bound into this whole episode.

Daniel Flitton is diplomatic editor.

<> The Age

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