Subject: Film puts spotlight on failure

Illawara Mercury

Film puts spotlight on failure

JAMES DUNN

24/08/2009

Australian governments, both Labor and Coalition, knew what was happening.I SAW an early screening of the film Balibo and was quite impressed at the way it presented events surrounding the tragic deaths of journalists in East Timor in 1975.

As the author, in 1977, of the first witness-based account of these atrocities, I was impressed with the way the crimes and atmosphere were depicted, if somewhat inaccurately. Thanks to the findings of the coronial enquiry, we needed atmosphere rather than evidence. The film conveys the emotions of the time, the commitment of the newsmen, the determination of an abandoned people, the calculated brutality of the invading forces.

Up to now Roger East has been sidelined by the Balibo Five. In Balibo he is seen as a man of commitment and courage - the Roger East I knew in Dili in 1975.

The film, and the radically changed position of East Timor, has aroused a questioning of our complicity in this affair. There is now widespread awareness of our callous response 34 years ago, when we just might have saved the lives of the newsmen and spared more than 180,000 East Timorese.

Balibo exposes the brutal culture of the Indonesian military, from 1975 until 1999, and which thoroughly deserves the scorn this film will arouse.

Hence, the film's shocking portrayal of events at Balibo and Dili should arouse searching questions about the roles of all players in this drama.

At the forefront are the roles of the TNI (Indonesian military) and the Suharto regime, of Australia and, to a lesser extent, of the United States.

Our accommodation of the rape of East Timor was accompanied by a policy of helping shield the Suharto dictatorship from growing international disquiet.

At every step, Australian governments, both Labor and Coalition, knew what was happening and, with a bit of active diplomacy, just might have prevented a loss of life six times greater than our entire losses in War World II.

As our government of the time knew what the Indonesian generals were up to, it was a dismal failure of our obligations under the UN Charter and of our responsibility to help a small population.

We offended many Indonesians, too, for we helped perpetuate the life of a repressive dictatorship.

We are good at blaming others - the weak Portuguese administration, the US backing of Suharto, the Timorese for leftist leanings and divisions. But these factors would have diminished in importance with a little international support.

If indeed our support for US policy helped the alliance, what a pathetic treaty it is!

Why didn't Australia challenge the US position and warn of the humanitarian consequences?

The brief conflict between two Timorese parties at the time was the deliberate outcome of an Indonesian intelligence campaign to break up the Timorese independence movement.

And when East Timor was a killing field, we helped shield Indonesia from international criticism.

The message of this film is that we have a lot to learn. Indonesians and Australians need to start by taking an honest look at the awful reality of this disgraceful episode.

James Dunn is an author with four decades of experience as a foreign affairs official and with UN agencies.


Back to August Menu
July

World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu