Subject: Pub rock rebel finds cause to help East Timor

The Age

Pub rock rebel finds cause to help East Timor

Clare Kermond

August 8, 2009

THERE is still plenty of the outrageous punk rocker left in Paul Stewart. On learning that he was to meet East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta at a formal function in Melbourne, Stewart crowed that he would like to pull up his shirt to show the President that ''mine's bigger than yours''.

He was talking about scars. Ramos Horta underwent extensive surgery in Australia after an assassination attempt in February last year; Stewart had a life-saving liver transplant in 2007.

Stewart spent much of the '80s and early '90s as the flamboyant lead singer of the Melbourne punk band Painters and Dockers, a fixture at university campuses and inner-city venues. With one half of his head shaved and the other sporting long hair, he threw himself around the stage, belting out hits such as Die Yuppie Die and Nude School.

But those years of what he calls a ''burn, baby burn'' lifestyle took their toll. In a Compass special to screen on the ABC, Stewart stands in front of the bar at St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel saying, ''I lost a lot of my liver in this spot right here.''

It was some time before Stewart realised how serious his health problems were. When first told he needed a liver transplant he thought he'd be up and about, playing another gig, within weeks. Instead he spent close to 18 months in and out of the Austin Hospital getting more and more incapacitated, waiting for a donor liver.

''I couldn't eat anything, I was throwing up blood and just waiting for that liver. I was crying myself to sleep. It was horrible.''

At his lowest point, when tearful relatives had been told there was no hope left, Stewart had an unexpected visitor. An East Timorese nun sat by his bed.

''Lying in my hospital bed, and I was really on my last legs - there was this little nun, she was dark skinned and I said, 'Where are you from, sister?' When she said 'East Timor', I thought someone was playing a joke.''

Two days after seeing the East Timorese nun, who offered to pray for him, the new liver arrived and Stewart's life was saved.

It was the second time that East Timor had come into his life at a crucial stage. The first, in 1975, was in the form of a painful shock. Stewart vividly recalls, as a teenager, walking past the newsagency outside Malvern station and seeing the newspaper banner screaming, ''Five newsmen killed in Balibo''. One of those men was his older brother, Tony.

Tony Stewart, 21, was one of the so-called Balibo Five, a group of young journalists killed by the Indonesian military during the invasion of East Timor. At the Melbourne International Film Festival's recent premiere of the film Balibo, which tells the journalists' story, Paul Stewart met up again with Ramos Horta. For the record, Stewart kept his shirt on.

He recalls Ramos Horta, though, from those pre-independence years, when Ramos Horta was exiled in Australia. ''He was pretty young then, he carried an old battered briefcase and he slept on people's couches. Now he's Mr President.''

In the Compass program, when Stewart meets Ramos Horta in East Timor, he tells the President, ''It wasn't our time to die; we're both lucky.'' Ramos Horta wags a finger: ''God didn't want you because you're too naughty.''

In recent years, Stewart has become heavily involved in the East Timorese cause, raising awareness of the battle for independence and, more recently, the need for aid. He counts himself lucky to have met East Timorese musician Gil Santos. ''I often say I lost one brother and gained another in Gil,'' he says. With Santos, Stewart formed the band the Dili Allstars and made several trips to East Timor.

In 1999, shortly before the East Timorese were to vote on independence from Indonesia, Stewart heard that the Indonesian government was broadcasting anti-independence songs. The Dili Allstars wrote their song, Libertade, and smuggled it into the country on untitled cassettes, with uni students and others sympathetic to the cause handing it out to taxi drivers, radio stations and anyone else who would give it some air time.

His work for East Timor (also known since independence as Timor-Leste) has gone some way towards calming the terrible anger he felt after his brother's death.

But with no official condolence or apology from the federal government, and no one in Indonesia accepting blame, Stewart says there has been no closure for his family.

''I've been minding my mum a bit lately because she's been a bit crook. She told me the other day that the only call she ever had from the Australian government was a couple of weeks after my brother's death, when someone from the embassy in Jakarta rang her to ask, 'Where do we send the bill for the burial?'

''That's just not right. I'm disappointed that not one Australian PM has ever had the common decency to ring my mother and say, 'Look, we're sorry your son was killed under our watch.' ''

Stewart was back in East Timor recently, taking with him a load of guitars to give to aspiring musicians. He is also working with North Sydney's Jesuit Mission to raise money for various projects. While he is full of praise for the way in which the Australian community has embraced independent East Timor, he says the young country still shows the scars of years of occupation and needs a lot of support.

''Someone said to me, 'Did the film (Balibo) upset you?' and I said, 'Well, not as much as in 1975 when I saw that banner outside Malvern station. I've been upset since then.' I've been lucky that I've been able to use some of the emotion about it all to do a bit of good up there. But I've certainly got more out of the East Timorese than I've given them, just in love and support.''

Clare Kermond is an Age writer.

My Brother, Balibo and Me screens on the ABC tomorrow at 9.30pm.


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