Was The General Really There?


In October 1975, the Indonesian military was conducting a terror and destabilisation campaign in the border regions of East Timor. Its aim was to generate atrocities that could be falsely attributed to pro-independence East Timorese forces. It would then be able to invade under the pretext of "restoring order". 

Five journalists employed by Australian TV stations went to East Timor to cover the conflict. If the journalists had obtained film footage of the military campaign and conveyed it to the outside world, the Indonesian military’s cover story would have been blown. The five were killed within days of arriving at the border town of Balibo. A sixth journalist, Roger East, was killed a few weeks later in front of more than 100 witnesses.

In 2007, a coronial inquest established that the five journalists — Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart — clearly identified themselves as Australians and as journalists. They were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes. They had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. They were killed deliberately on orders that emanated from the highest levels. Their corpses were dressed in uniforms, guns placed beside them, and photographs taken in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets.

I was consulting historian for the film Balibo and I was fortunate to work with director Robert Connolly, who was committed to historical accuracy. Audiences unfamiliar with the events of 1975 may wonder at their relationship to Connolly’s film. Although Balibo is based, as its opening credits declare, on a true story, there are certain discrepancies between the events depicted in the film and the historical record. These do not compromise the historical claims made by the film, however, as an examination of some key differences between the film and the record reveal.

The film begins and ends with an East Timorese character, Juliana. The first words spoken are in Tetum, and the first name heard is an East Timorese name ("Mazarella"). The interviewee, Juliana da Costa, is not an historical figure but a composite character derived from the extensive work of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The Commission, known by its Portuguese initials CAVR (A Comissao de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliaçao) was established as an independent statutory authority in July 2001 by the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor. It was mandated to inquire into human rights abuses committed by all sides between April 1974 and October 1999.

Juliana appears both as a child in the Hotel Turismo in 1975 and as an adult providing a statement to the CAVR. Her statement to the interviewer not only provides a rationale for the film’s flashbacks, it serves to reflect the activities of the Commission — some 7,824 statements were collected from the 13 districts and 65 sub-districts of East Timor. This excerpt from the CAVR’s Final Report describes the Commission’s methodology:

"Deponents gave their statements in narrative form. Thus they were able to tell their stories in their own words rather than be guided by a series of questions. This method was chosen because it encouraged deponents to provide a richness of detail and background information about violations and the circumstances surrounding them. This procedure also tended to be less intimidating for those unaccustomed to being questioned in official settings …

"The statement-taking program allowed any individual who wished to do so to approach the Commission and to report information relating to the political conflict. The expectation was that by throwing such a wide information net across the districts, a significant amount of information about all aspects of the 25 years of political conflict would become available. Analysis would then allow a clear picture of what had occurred to emerge. This broad, untargeted approach meant that information was received about all aspects of the political conflict, including events or circumstances that had not been previously widely known …"

Just as the adult Juliana da Costa serves to typify the process of truth-seeking, the child who appears in the film stands as the emblem of Indonesia’s failure to fulfil its duty of care towards the children of East Timor. The CAVR found that children in East Timor "experienced the full range of human rights violations". It concluded that the "overwhelming majority of these violations were committed by the Indonesian military and their auxiliaries. These forces killed, sexually violated, detained and tortured, forcibly displaced and forcibly recruited children."

The film departs from recorded events significantly in a prolonged poolside confrontation between Jose Ramos-Horta and Roger East about whether or not to continue the search for the missing journalists. This scene is entirely fictitious. It was written into the movie partly to confront the audience with an obvious question: why care so much about five journalists when so many East Timorese are dying?

The fact is that those who campaigned — and still campaign — for justice for the Balibo Five also campaigned for the independence of East Timor. The journalists were murdered because they were trying to tell the world the truth about East Timor. Manuel da Silva, a Fretilin soldier who was one of the last to leave Balibo on 16 October 1975 subsequently told the coronial inquest: "The reason why I came to be a witness was that I believe that the journalists are martyrs for East Timor and I believe they are East Timorese as well."

As for the real Roger East: he was a thoroughly committed person who — as the real Jose Ramos-Horta acknowledges — was "driven by a profound sense of mission". To this end, it is worth quoting at length from Horta’s 1987 memoir, The Unfinished Saga of East Timor:

"I had told Roger about my idea of setting up a news agency, to be called "East Timor News Agency" or simply ETNA. I viewed such an agency as an indispensable instrument of the struggle … To launch ETNA, I worked out a simple scheme: I arranged an exclusive interview for Roger with six Fretilin soldiers who had been in Balibo and actually witnessed the fall of the town and the killing of the five Australian newsmen by Indonesian troops. No other journalist had such a privilege, and Roger scooped everybody else. The next day, his bylines were featured front-page in most Australian newspapers, and ETNA began to be quoted …

"In the days before the invasion, when all other foreign correspondents had left the country, Roger was flooded with requests for stories. Even the Sydney bureau chief for Reuters phoned Roger, pleading with him to be their special correspondent. I was with him at the time and heard him saying, ‘I will file for you, but I am doing it for the Timorese, not for you.’

"Roger was driven by a profound sense of mission. He was not a Fretilin partisan as his detractors claimed. He cared about the Timorese and felt very strongly that the Australian public ought to know the truth. He was angry at his government’s cowardice and connivance with Indonesia."

In the film, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, the overall commander of the Indonesian forces in East Timor, is depicted in the thick of the action at Balibo and appears as a participant in the killing of the Balibo Five. Even though his dress in the film is based on his actual clothing from that time, Kalbuadi was not at Balibo when the journalists were killed — he was in his tactical headquarters approximately 10 kilometres away. He flew in by helicopter immediately after Balibo had been captured.

The film shows him participating in the killing in order to highlight an important legal conclusion reached by the Coroner: "There is strong circumstantial evidence that Colonel Dading Kalbuadi gave orders to his field commanders that anyone found in Balibo was to be killed, including the five journalists."

She continued, "I am satisfied on the totality of the evidence that Colonel Dading Kalbuadi was aware that the journalists were in Balibo prior to the attack on 16 October and that he subsequently disclaimed any knowledge of their presence in order to distance himself from his actions based on that knowledge, including orders to kill them, to destroy their bodies and to engage in an orchestrated cover-up of the circumstances of their deaths."

The wilful killing of the Balibo Five was a war crime. War crimes can be prosecuted wherever they occur and regardless of the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. There is no statute of limitations. This means that the alleged killers of the Balibo Five can be prosecuted in Australia following extradition from Indonesia. Since the killings were associated with, and occurred in the context of, an international armed conflict, the case was referred to federal authorities for possible war crime prosecutions in 2007.

A week before the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd responded to the Balibo coronial inquest with the following words, "This is a very disturbing conclusion by the coroner concerning the fate of the Balibo Five back in 1975. I believe this has to be taken through to its logical conclusion. I also believe those responsible should be held to account."

He also said, "My attitude to this is dead set hardline. I’ve read a bit about what happened in Balibo, I’ve been to Balibo, walked up there, I’ve seen the fort, I’ve seen where these blokes lost their lives. You can’t just sweep this to one side."

A more exhaustive analysis of the relationship of the film Balibo to the events of 1975 by Clinton Fernandes can be found here.

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.