Blood Under the Carpet


The 2007 NSW Coronial Inquest into the killing of five journalists in Balibo, East Timor in 1975 has achieved far more than earlier government inquiries into the deaths. The Deputy NSW Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, has been able to uncover facts that other investigations could not.

Most importantly, the Inquest has confirmed the cover-up engaged in by successive Australian Governments — a cover-up maintained through a loose consensus of policy makers, known as the ‘Pro-Jakarta Lobby’, that included public servants, politicians, journalists, academics and businessmen.

The cover-up came into being to try and protect the Indonesian Government from adverse commentary and scrutiny which it was felt might damage its fragile relationship with Australia. This ‘policy’ amounted to appeasement and has brought few rewards.

Maintenance of the policy has necessitated sweeping under the carpet Indonesian military atrocities in Aceh, Flores, East Timor and West Papua and complicity in military corruption.

There were three previous inquiries into the Balibo killings. The first conducted in 1976 by an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Alan Taylor, regurgitated Indonesian denials and publicly available ‘information’ that the deaths by shooting were accidental.

Under pressure, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer instituted a second inquiry in 1996 by the former Head of the National Crime Authority, Tom Sherman. It concluded that the five journalists had been killed by crossfire. This finding did not satisfy anyone outside the Pro-Jakarta Lobby and under further pressure Downer, in 1999, whistled up Sherman for a third inquiry which, unsurprisingly, came to the same conclusion as the second inquiry, although it added the rider that, if the journalists had been murdered it was the result of a ‘blunder’.

The current Coronial Inquest lays bare the Australian Government’s attempt to get Indonesia off the hook over the cruel and calculated murders, and it exposes the shallowness and expediency of the Pro-Jakarta Lobby’s policy of appeasement.

Despite this, the Lobby fights on under the patronage of Downer who said that he understood how the visiting Governor of Jakarta, Sutiyoso, might have been ‘humiliated’ when he was subpoenaed last week to appear before the Coroner’s Court. The subpoena prompted Sutiyoso to flee Sydney, and the anger expressed on his return home led the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, to apologise, no doubt on advice from DFAT.

Given what’s been revealed at the Coroner’s Court since February, I would have thought that Indonesia should be apologising to the families of the five murder victims and the Australian people. Imagine the fuss if the boot was on the other foot!

Indonesian forces invaded East Timor on 7 October 1975. The five Australian journalists were murdered on 16 October in Balibo. They have long been referred to as ‘journalists’ but were, in fact, war correspondents. They went to Balibo because they, along with other members of the media, intelligence, defence and foreign affairs officials, were convinced that Indonesia would invade East Timor. I spoke briefly with Greg Shackleton before he went to East Timor and that was the gist of the conversation.

Presumably, they have never been accorded the status of war correspondents because Australia has, for so long, tried to demonise them, blame them for their own deaths and accord them the role of non-persons, not deserving respect.

Well, they do. They were five brave men dedicated to exposing the truth and by doing so perhaps prevent a great injustice to the people of East Timor.

If the Government can put money into finding the Australian WW1 submarine AE1, and if it can put money into bringing back the bodies of two formerly missing Vietnam veterans, then it can put money into bringing back from Indonesia the bodies of Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton, Malcolm Rennie, Anthony Stewart and Brian Peters. They should be posthumously awarded the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal and an appropriate memorial should be erected in Canberra which might go some way toward making amends for 32 years of Australian Government vilification and denial.

National self esteem demands nothing less. If a nation cannot honour its heroes it will slowly decay from within.

The reason the bodies of the newsmen were not brought back to Australia for burial was because of fears a funeral would stir up anti-Indonesian sentiment. This should not now be the excuse for not bringing the boys home and honouring them.

The best way to develop a strong long-term relationship with Indonesia is on the basis of honest exchanges — anything else has a well demonstrated propensity to unravel, with negative results. Australians are angry at their war correspondents having been shot by members of the Indonesian Army and the Indonesian Government should be told so.

The Coronial Inquest has demonstrated that the Taylor and Sherman inquiries were fundamentally flawed. Where does this leave the Flood Inquiry into the Intelligence Services, Refugee Detention Camps, and the Cole Inquiry into the AWB?

There is a lesson in this for the Howard Government. Eventually, the truth will out.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.