In October 1975, five Australian-based journalists were sent by TV Channels 7 and 9 to investigate Indonesian military attacks against a newly decolonising East Timor.
Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham were keen to cover what was then the biggest, emerging event in the region — acts of aggression by a military dictatorship against a democratising society, the collapse of the decolonisation process and the threat of invasion.
After filming an attack on the border town of Balibo, the five unarmed journalists were murdered while surrendering to a force comprising 100 red beret Kopassandha (Special Forces secret warfare) troops led by a then-Captain Yunus Yosfiah. He was promoted after Balibo and attended courses at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth (1979). He was also accepted by the Royal College of Defence Studies in Britain in 1989.
When the five journalists were reported missing, I received a telegram from Dr Henry Will in Jakarta stating that he had been asked to identify remains ‘said’ to be those of the journalists. He could only say that they were ‘possibly human’. Years later I tracked Dr Will down. He confirmed that though the information contained in his investigation was accurately reported in the telegram, he had not sent it to me.
With indecent haste the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, proceeded to hold a funeral in a Jakarta cemetery. None of the dead men’s families were invited. The bogus funeral was presumably meant to be the end of a highly embarrassing glitch in the Indonesian/Australian conspiracy against the East Timorese, but the devil was in the detail — there was only one coffin.
In September 2000, previously secret files released from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade archives revealed that an official transcript of a meeting between President Suharto and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 had been ‘sanitised’ as part of a cover-up to prevent the Australian public from knowing about Canberra’s support for an invasion of East Timor.
None of this was known in 1975. When I first heard that Greg was ‘missing’ something told me he was dead. I was so naive. I remember thinking that this would have to be skilfully managed by our Foreign Affairs officials or kids like my eight-year-old son could end up fighting Indonesian kids. Over the next two and a half decades I saw that when it comes to a choice between Australian lives and trade, trade wins. As far as Australian lives are concerned our officials just don’t care. I watched with horror as we were led right up to the brink of war.
On 7 December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor. Roger East, another Australian journalist, was shot on the wharf in Dili in front of hundreds of witnesses. No one has been charged with any of these murders. Eventually three Australian inquiries were held. The first was exposed as inadequate and the other two left many questions unanswered. A full judicial inquiry was never held.
Successive Australian governments, supported by an influential network of pro-Jakarta lobbyists, worked assiduously to preserve Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. British government neglect of their own citizens murdered in cold blood (Rennie and Peters were British) mirrors the cynicism of their heartless Australian counterparts.
Greg’s mother committed suicide. It was not the murders that destroyed her. It was a combination of official indifference, the Jakarta Lobby’s eagerness to blame the Balibo Five for their own fate, and the behaviour of Australian government officials.
Following 24 years of Indonesian military rape, torture and slaughter, the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999. The entire country was immediately subjected to State-sponsored terrorism by retreating Indonesian troops and the Howard Government (having previously tried to maintain the policy of its predecessors) was forced by unprecedented public pressure to take action. A multinational force was assembled to guarantee East Timor’s independence.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: after seven months of investigations, UN Civilian Police (CivPol) investigators recommended the prosecution of Yunus Yosfiah and two others over the Balibo murders. John Howard immediately recalled both Australian police officers conducting the CivPol investigation, despite the fact that the officers and Sergio Vierra de Mello, the UN Chief Administrator in East Timor, appealed for more time to complete their enquiries.
It is a miracle that confrontation between our two military powers did not ensue when Australian-led InterFET forces chased Indonesian troops out of East Timor. The Indonesian military was busy fomenting more trouble by training and arming extremist vigilante groups across the Indonesian archipelago. Despite playing with the fire of radical Islam for many years, the Indonesian military’s culture of impunity continued to enjoy official Australian support. In this sense, the road to terrorism in Bali runs via Balibo.
In 2000 the NSW Coroner was asked to hold a formal inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the Balibo Five, as he was a resident of NSW. Judge Abernethy has agreed to hold an inquest later this year.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.