|Subject: JP: Balibo case revisited
November 28, 2007
Balibo case revisited
Aboeprijadi Santoso, Amsterdam
Little news basically came from Sydney's Coroner Court inquest into the deaths of Australian-based journalists in Balibo, East Timor (1975) -- except that it established a much stronger case based on detailed evidence and witness testimony. The Indonesian government needs to respond to this seriously.
For the Balibo case marks an act of aggression violating Indonesia's own Constitution, and opened a chapter that denied the public the information and knowledge of what their Army did in East Timor.
"They were victims of cross fire. Bullets have no eyes, do they?" Lt. Gen. (ret) Dading Kalbuadi said when I questioned him about the Balibo case in November 1995.
He was reluctant to explain, but adamant of Indonesia's innocence. "Yes, we ... had to take over East Timor, like 'Lawrence Arabic' (his English, original), you know ...," he said, referring to the famous Lawrence of Arabia, the British colonialist who conquered Arab allegedly by combining military expeditions with a heart-and-mind approach.
Earlier Jose Martins, former Gen. Ali Moertopo's assistant, Paulino "Mouk Mauruk" Gama, the former Fretilin guerrilla who brought the news of the Balibo killings to the outside world, Raja Atsabe, former Governor Guilherme Maria Gonzalves whose son, Tomas, joined Indonesia's operation in Balibo, all told me very different stories. They suggested it was a cold-blooded killing (Radio Netherlands, 1995).
Portuguese and Australian journalists have established a more complete story, but it was not until 1999 that eyewitnesses began to speak out. The most complete story to date of the Balibo killings can be found in Jill Jolliffe's Cover Up, The Inside Story of the Balibo Five (2001).
Now the coroner court has not only studied past findings and government files, but covered 11 major witnesses and officials' testimony, including former prime minister Gough Whitlam, and examined those who examined witnesses' stories, including Jolliffe's detailed analysis and interviews.
Eyewitness accounts, differing only in minor aspects, told how the killings, allegedly ordered by the unit commander Captain Yunus Yosfiah (nom de guerre "Major Andreas"), exactly happened. They were cold-blooded killings -- four were shot, one stabbed; deliberate executions of unarmed civilians known to the attacking unit as Australian journalists. This happened when most Fretilin guerrilla had already left town; thus, most witnesses were members or allies of Indonesian Army units, with only two from Fretilin.
Yosfiah reported the event to his superior Col. Dading Kalbuadi as Dading's order -- that "anyone found in Balibo was to be killed, including the five journalists" -- was "emanated from Major General Benny Moerdani". The coroner thus concludes, Gen. Benny apparently "wanted their silence ... to conceal the fact that the attacks within East Timor were led by Indonesian forces." (Inquest into the death of Brian Raymond Peters, p. 68-69).
At stake was that the outside world would be fully aware of Indonesia's interest in intervening in East Timor; i.e. to wage a secret war that would turn the short-lived local civil war into a prolonged one as a result of infiltration and attacks which began in Balibo on that fateful day of Oct. 16, 1975.
Hence, the Balibo attack and killing of the journalists actually contradicted the very argument -- "what would you do when your neighbor's house was on fire" -- which Indonesian representatives a year later officially put before the UN to justify the Dec. 7 invasion.
"Balibo" thus really marked the very start of Indonesia's bloody adventure in East Timor. One way to asses its significance, albeit for Indonesia, is to ask what would have happened had Soeharto listened to foreign minister Adam Malik's early advice (1974) to support East Timor independence.
Former Australian consul in Dili James Dunn, who often met Adam Malik when the latter was ambassador in Moscow, believes Malik, a freedom fighter, was sincere and perceptive in recognizing East Timor's rights.
In short, had it been followed up, Malik's message "would have resulted in a radically different world for Indonesia and East Timor. The democratization would have started much earlier", said Dunn seven years ago.
In other words, "Balibo" is symbolic of the great opportunity that was lost for both East Timor and Indonesia.
The event not only victimized the five newsmen -- Gary Cunningham, Gregory Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Malcolm Renie -- but, since it marked the starting point of a greater tragedy that was about to unfold in the following decades, it also signified the beginning of a dark era for the people of East Timor and the press in general.
Given the big stake the generals most worried about, perhaps it matters little whether or not the would-be eyewitnesses of Indonesia's aggression were foreign journalists or otherwise; what happened to the Balibo Five could perhaps have happened to local journalists.
Hence, it's time for them, too, to recognize "Balibo" as part of their own tragic loss of opportunity. It's a black day for anyone longing for a free press.
Most important is the need for post-Soeharto Indonesia to bravely face its Timor legacy. It needs to come clean, since to continue the denial would shamelessly prolong the saga. To continue to say it was a "cross fire" would be ridiculous, just as saying "the case is closed" would in effect justify impunity.
Above all, it would be a great opportunity to be a true patriot for Lt. Gen. (ret) Yunus Yosfiah -- the only Balibo key figure left, and, being the minister who abolished the repressive SIUPP law, ironically was once regarded as a hero of Indonesian press freedom -- to speak up and redress past wrongs.
The writer is a journalist, formerly with Radio Netherlands.