Subject: In cold blood: behind NZ deaths in Timor
Also- Editorial: Timor and the temerity of
In cold blood: behind NZ deaths in Timor
Sunday Star Times (New Zealand)
Sunday, 11 February 2007
An inquest in Sydney is throwing new light on the death of Kiwi
television cameraman Gary Cunningham during the Indonesian invasion of East
Timor 31 years ago. Anthony Hubbard reports.
The New Zealand government didn't want to make a fuss about the death of
Gary Cunningham. It privately supported the Indonesian invasion of Timor,
and Cunningham's death was a PR problem.
Cunningham, a New Zealander, died along with four other Australia-based
journalists when Indonesian troops swept through the Timorese border town of
Balibo in October 1975. Evidence last week at an inquest in Glebe, Sydney,
supported what had been long suspected - that Indonesian soldiers murdered
the five in cold blood.
A new book by Maire Leadbeater on New Zealand and East Timor shows that
officials and the then Labour prime minister, Bill Rowling, did not want to
rock the boat over Cunningham.
There would be no "necessity for New Zealand to become involved in
the dispute" over his death, officials told Rowling in June 1976. The
government's inaction over Cunningham caused little public challenge,
Leadbeater writes in Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand's Complicity in the
Invasion and Occupation of Timor-Leste.
Australia was by then coming under pressure from the Australian
Journalists Association, and ministry officials prepared a briefing for
Rowling on Cunningham.
They told him: "There would seem to be no clear-cut case against
Indonesia for any specific violation of international law." There was
no real need for New Zealand to take action.
To do so "would harm our own relations with Indonesia". The
ministry said Cunningham was an Australian resident, employed by an
Australian organisation and a member of the Australian Journalists
Association. Although he was a New Zealand citizen, his close family lived
in Australia. It was shocking that a government should do so little to
investigate the death of one of its citizens just to appease a foreign
power, Leadbeater told the Sunday Star-Times. Leadbeater, a long-time
campaigner on East Timor, is the sister of Green MP Keith Locke, who will
help launch her book in parliament on Wednesday. Former Labour Foreign
Minister Phil Goff will also speak.
The Australian inquest - held to investigate the death of Brian Peters,
an English-born Channel Nine cameraman living in New South Wales - last week
heard evidence that Indonesian soldiers killed the journalists.
Official reports said the men were killed in crossfire between the
Indonesians and East Timorese militia. But a Timorese witness, known only as
Glebe 2, told the inquest that he saw Indonesian special forces officer
Yunus Yosfiah shoot Peters as he tried to surrender.
The shots fired by Captain Yunus from his AK-47 at three metres' range
were followed by a fusillade from other troops, killing three other
journalists, he told the Glebe Coroner's Court.
Peters raised his hands with empty palms outward, said a report in the
Sydney Morning Herald. "I believe that he was asking for mercy,"
the witness said.
Yunus, who was Indonesia's information minister for a year from 1998,
told the newspaper the allegations were nonsense. Neither he nor other
Indonesian officials or soldiers will give evidence at the inquest.
The accusation against Yunus is not new. It has been made in previous
books and by UN investigators, but Indonesia has done nothing to bring him
The Australian inquest is the first independent judicial inquiry into the
Balibo killings that has power to compel witnesses. But it is powerless to
force the alleged Indonesian killers to testify.
Australia became aware of the killings within hours, says Leadbeater.
"There is no doubt that Australia worked assiduously to help Indonesia
cover up the murders." Australian Signals Intelligence transcripts
included radio messages such as: "Among the dead are four (sic) white
men. What are we going to do with the bodies?"
The Australian government said as little as possible publicly and
"also helped to perpetuate the lie that the deaths were mysterious and
the culprits unknown", Leadbeater writes.
"When Australian diplomats confided their concerns to their New
Zealand colleagues, they did not speak about the journalists' families or
express fears for East Timorese. They were worried about the impact on the
bilateral relationship of the cumulative effects of `these irritants'."
Australia was warned about the invasion, but no attempt was made to warn
the journalists, who were known to be in the area to be attacked.
"It may never be known whether the Australian officials and
ministers deliberately sacrificed the lives of the journalists, or whether
key people were simply distracted and did not put two and two
together," Leadbeater says.
However, the Sydney inquest may help clear up the mystery - unless
Australian government secrecy stymies it. Australia's electronic spy agency,
the Defence Signals Directorate, is claiming immunity on national security
grounds from revealing what it learned about the killings from intercepted
The counsel assisting the coroner in Sydney, Mark Tedeschi QC, referred
to the intercepted messages and said a possible Indonesian motive for
eliminating the five journalists was to prevent a public outcry in Australia
that would have undermined the then Australian government's tacit approval
of the invasion.
Australia, the United States and New Zealand had told Indonesia they
would play down the invasion of the former Portuguese colony.
Foreign Affairs officer Merwyn Norrish told visiting Indonesian officials
in Wellington on December 8, 1975, that New Zealand "had a private and
a public position with respect to Timor".
In correspondence made public in 2002, Norrish said: "Publicly we
had sought to emphasise the need for an act of self determination, wherever
that might lead, while privately we acknowledged that the most logical
solution would be one that led to (Indonesian) integration (of East Timor)
The policy of tacit support for the Indonesian occupation continued for
many years under National and Labour governments.
A National government downplayed the death of another New Zealand citizen
in East Timor in November 1991. Kamal Bamadhaj, of mixed Pakeha and
Malaysian parentage, was shot dead in Dili after a massacre by Indonesian
soldiers of protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery.
The New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta said the aim should be to get the
balance right between demonstrating very serious concern about Kamal's death
and avoiding an excessive reaction that might cause "unnecessary damage
to an important bilateral relationship".
In spite of a strongly worded formal request for an explanation,
Leadbeater says, "initial firmness melted quickly".
Leadbeater, whose book uses government documents issued under freedom of
information laws in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the US, says New
Zealand's record on East Timor was deplorable. But the documents also showed
that the government was sensitive to public protest.
In March 1995, for example, the government postponed a military training
visit to New Zealand of five Indonesian army officers after a poster
campaign in Wellington asked: "Why is the NZ air force training the
Indonesian military to kill the people of East Timor?"
A New Zealand diplomat's letter to an Indonesian admiral, later released,
explained: "The reason for the postponement is due to increasing
interest among the New Zealand public over recent matters in East
Timor." It also blamed "a small but sophisticated and well co-ordinated
lobby, sympathetic to the claims of East Timorese exiles, who seek any
opportunity to generate anti-Indonesian feeling".
On September 10, 1999, US President Bill Clinton effectively reversed the
Western position by insisting Indonesia allow an international force into
East Timor to halt massacres by Indonesian and Timorese militias. On the
same day, New Zealand suspended its long-standing defence ties with
In August, 78% of Timorese voters had rejected an Indonesian proposal for
Timorese autonomy within Indonesia. The country became independent in 2002.
Editorial: Timor and the temerity of politicians
Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 11 February 2007
New Zealand's shameful record over East Timor comes into focus again this
week. A Sydney inquest is delving into the murder of five journalists,
including New Zealander Gary Cunningham, during the Indonesian invasion in
1975. And a new book by Maire Leadbeater exposes in detail New Zealand's
complicity both in the invasion and the murderous Indonesian occupation of
what is now Timor Leste. It is an open question whether our politicians and
officials have learned the right lessons from this disgraceful business. So
let's list them.
The first is that the self-proclaimed "realist" school of
international relations is blind and self-defeating. Hard-headed diplomats
in western capitals made a conscious decision to feed East Timor to the
Indonesian beast. They did not want a small, easily sacrificed nation to
upset an important ally in the Cold War. They feared Fretilin would take
Timor into the communist camp, although Fretilin was actually a social
democratic movement. They decided that independent Timor, in short, would be
better dead than red. But throwing Timor to the dragon did not
Timor resisted and for the next 30 years there was a rising tide of
international woe that infuriated the Indonesians and disgraced the West.
That is the flaw in the policy of realpolitik. By placing "national
interests" ahead of any moral consideration, it underestimates the
permanent influence of morality in human affairs. Timor refused to allow
itself to be a pawn in the bloodless chess game of international diplomacy.
Protesters and journalists refused to let Timor die.
Timorese courage and international outrage finally led to Timorese
independence. Publicity was also crucial - and that is the second lesson
from Timor. If the leaders of the West had had their way, Timor would have
been quietly strangled and buried in a distant corner of the Indonesian
empire. Henry Kissinger told President Soharto to do his invading fast.
"It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly,"
Kissinger told the tyrant. But it is difficult, in the era of instant global
communication, to keep murder quiet.
And that is the third lesson of East Timor: diplomacy should never be
left to diplomats and politicians. Both groups are, by nature and training,
inclined to appeasement, deal-making, secrecy and cynicism. Left to
themselves, they will try to "fix things": and the usual result
will be to sacrifice the weak to the strong, the defenceless to the
aggressor, justice to "peace and quiet." That is why they need
always to be watched and held to account. Diplomats in particular have
created an aura of expertise in order to protect their power. Foreign
affairs, they would have us believe, is a high intellectual mystery open
only to the specially-trained. In fact, this is nonsense.
Thirty-one years after the first massacre, who has been proved right
about East Timor? Not the highly-educated and well-informed officials who
thought Timor could be quietly suppressed. Not the politicians who thought
appeasement of Indonesia was the only realistic option. Not the thugs in
Jakarta who thought Timor was a small morsel to swallow. The ones who were
proved right were people like Jose Ramos Horta, who kept the flame alive
during decades of darkness. They were the journalists who kept telling the
truth about genocide and the mothers of murdered sons who refused to be
fobbed off with official lies.
This is the triumphant message of East Timor: that courage and
truth-telling will defeat the professional deal-makers and appeasers. There
is an analogy here between the "realists" of diplomacy and the
hard-right proponents of free-market economics. Devotees of realpolitik
think nations do nothing but follow their own interests. The marketers
believe that individuals merely pursue their own economic advantage. Both
are catastrophically wrong.
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