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East Timor: where Australia failed

East Timor: where Australia failed

As East Timor celebrates 10 years of independence, a new film – Balibo – recounts the fate of Australian journalists when Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony. Our nation’s record over the invasion is appalling, as UN expert adviser on the East Timor situation, James Dunn, reminds us.
Photo caption:Caption: A still from the film shows General Murdani (safari suit) with journalist Roger East (right rear, on ground) on the wharf. Credit:

Learning from Balibo…as East Timor celebrates 10 years

By James Dunn*

A couple of weeks ago I saw an early screening of the film Balibo and was quite impressed at the way it presented events surrounding this tragic incident. The way the crimes and atmosphere were depicted impressed me – I was the author in 1977 of the first witness-based account of these atrocities.

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 and the reality of the invasion of Dili.

Up to now Roger East has been sidelined by the Balibo Five journalists. Here he is a central character, portrayed quite accurately, as I remember the man. There was no doubt in my assessment that he was a man of commitment and courage.

Back in November 1975 he dismissed my advice that he should return to Australia before the TNI got to Dili because then I was convinced that the Balibo Five had been summarily killed by a RPKAD (forerunner of Kopassus) unit. If he insisted on staying, I urged him to go to the mountains with Fretilin where, as an Australian, his reporting of the situation would have been invaluable.

The film, together with the changed position of East Timor, has led to an equally noticeable shift in attitudes to our small neighbour. There is now a widespread awareness of Australia’s negligent response 34 years ago when, if we had acted otherwise, we just might have saved the lives of the newsmen, and spared over 180,000 East Timorese one of the worst atrocities in recent history. Balibo exposes the brutal culture of the Indonesian military, the way it behaved from 1975 until 1999 (when I experienced it first hand), and it thoroughly deserves the anger this film is arousing.

Hence, more than three decades on, shocking portrayals of those events at Balibo and Dili should stimulating some searching questions about the roles of all players in this drama. At the forefront is the role of the TNI and the Suharto regime, and of Australia’s role, and to a lesser extent of the United States, in this shameful affair. Australia in those days went far beyond neutrality.

Accommodation is a term commonly used to describe Australia’s actual role, but we went further, in the first instance by subtly encouraging the annexation. Internationally Australia was the only state that knew what was really taking place, and we took steps to discourage international awareness of the unfolding tragedy, actively opposing the involvement of a UN mission that might have been able to head off the invasion (rather similar to our earlier stand in relation to Dutch New Guinea). Even the deliberate killing of the journalists failed to move our government.

Indeed, the Government’s silence of the Balibo executions not only helped those responsible from being brought to justice. It virtually told the TNI generals that they could proceed with their brutal techniques with some cover been offered by Australia. And less than 3 years after the invasion we took the extraordinary step of recognising East Timor as part of Indonesia. This, from a country that for more than 30 years had refused to recognise the forced incorporation of the Baltic States.

At every step of this unfolding drama, Australian governments – both Labor and Coalition – knew what was happening and, with a bit of active diplomacy, just might have prevented loss of life six times greater than our entire losses in War World II, and eased the brutal occupation policies masterminded by Kopassus. And of course we always had good intelligence cover of events in the beleaguered colony, but it will be found that we took care not to provoke attention from more concerned Western countries.

All in all, what we should be focussing on now is the dismal failure of our obligations under the UN Charter. It was also a failure of our responsibility to help a small people whose population had been decimated by a Japanese occupation our intervention of the time was responsible for bringing about. We offended many Indonesians, too, for we helped perpetuate the life of a repressive dictatorship.

We are good at blaming others – the Portuguese for their weak administration, the US for their solid backing of Suharto, and the Timorese themselves for leftist leanings and divisions, as did Gerard Henderson in the SMH recently, but these factors would have diminished in importance with a little international support.  If indeed our support for US policy helped the alliance, then what a pathetic treaty it is! In the aftermath of the April 1974 coup, which led to the freeing up their colonies, the Portuguese were weak, and deserved our support which they did not get – that would have frustrated Indonesian designs. Why didn’t we challenge the US position, warning of the humanitarian consequences? In the UN our diplomats argued against in intervention by the UN body. We must not internationalise the situation, it was argued.

Then there was the negative Timorese role, the brief conflict between the two major Timorese parties. But how many journalists know that this conflict was the deliberate outcome of an Indonesian intelligence campaign masterminded by General Murdani to break up the Fretilin-UDT coalition for independence that had been formed earlier that year.  And when East Timor was a killing field, Australia’s offering was to discount or question reports of the slaughter coming from Church sources.

A very important message coming out of this film is that all of us – Indonesians, our politicians, and the community at large – have a lot to learn and both Indonesians and Australians need to take an honest look at the awful reality and the clear lessons of this disgraceful episode in our recent history.

It is something that must never happen again, and the best way to ensure that it doesn’t, is for both countries to be completely open about just how this regional tragedy unfolded, with its devastating impact on the East Timorese people, and to take a much closer look at those responsible for atrocities and other human rights violations, of which the Balibo killings were really only the tip of iceberg. That would surely be the best way to honour the memories of the victims.

*James Dunn, a CLA member, is author of 1. Timor: A People Betrayed, 2. East Timor: Rough Passage to Independence: The Balibo Incident; and a contributing author to Genocide in the Twentieth Century.  He is also a former intelligence analyst, diplomat and author, and was Australian consul in East Timor from 1962-64. He works on international human rights, and did so for the UN as expert adviser on crimes against humanity in East Timor.

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