What We Really Knew About East Timor


In April 2007 I applied to the National Archives of Australia for access to records of the Defence Intelligence Organisation relating to Indonesia and East Timor in 1975. I wanted information from the period from 1 October to 31 December 1975, when the Indonesian military destabilised and then invaded East Timor, to establish how much the Australian government knew about the impending invasion — and also about the deaths of the Balibo Five, who were killed during this period.

My search turned up 42 documents relevant to the application. However, on the advice of the Department of Defence, Archives advised that a significant proportion of those documents were to remain unavailable to the public. So I applied to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for a review of the decision.

Prior to the hearing, Attorney-General Robert McClelland, issued a certificate under the Archives Act which meant that certain evidence would be heard in closed court. The effect of this? I was unable to hear a substantial part of the government’s case — but that they could hear all my arguments, and presumably try to rebut them in closed court.

Ian Latham, a Sydney barrister, volunteered to represent me pro bono. He drove down to Canberra the day before the hearing, accompanied by Professor Peter Donovan, an expert in mathematics and cryptography at the University of NSW. Donovan provided expert evidence as to the obsolescence of 1975-era encryption technology.

Two weeks ago the Tribunal ruled that while certain parts of the documents I requested some four years ago should still be exempt, about 250 lines should not have been censored.

These 250 lines show that the Australian government knew about the Indonesian military’s operations in great detail, and ahead of time. Although well-informed observers have argued this for years, this is the first time it has been confirmed with documentary evidence. Indeed, during a 2007 inquest into the killing of the Balibo Five, the NSW Coroner accepted the intelligence agencies’ position that nothing from the records should be made public.

The documents do not show that Australian intelligence knew that the journalists were in Balibo. But it would appear that Australian intelligence agencies knew within hours of their deaths on 16 October 1975 that the Indonesian field team in Balibo had advised their military commander that they had killed a number of foreigners. Australian analysts worked out the probable identity of these foreigners after hearing media reports that foreign journalists were missing in East Timor. A few hours later, Australian intelligence agencies were able to confirm this.

It’s important to note here that at the time, the Australian government was refusing to publicly confirm that Indonesian forces were even involved in East Timor.

Several days later, the Indonesian Department of Defence and Security asked its forces in East Timor to bring the bodies of the Balibo Five to Atambua, in Indonesian West Timor. They received this reply, according to the documents: "It is not possible to take the bodies to Atambua because they have already been reduced to ashes". Even two weeks later, on 31 October, Australian intelligence could not "reach firm conclusions about either the circumstances and manner of their deaths, or the circumstances in which their bodies were burned".

It was eventually established that Indonesian special forces had captured the town of Balibo at 7.55am on the morning of 16 October. They killed the five journalists, dressed the corpses in military uniforms, placed guns beside them, and took photographs of them in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets.

The attack on Balibo was part of a major coordinated attack in which six towns along the border were attacked by 1500-2000 regular infantry, special forces, marines and partisans supported by artillery, mortars, a B-26 bomber, a C-47 gunship and some armed helicopters. East Timorese resistance was much more robust than the Indonesians had expected, although it was "restricted to limited, initial opposition followed by withdrawal and the conduct of sporadic harassment," according to the documents. There was no overall East Timorese command and control system, and it would be unable to "sustain conventional opposition in the face of Indonesian military pressure".

Nevertheless, one Indonesian unit was surrounded and taking casualties. Its commander asked for reinforcements and a helicopter gunship to provide air support and to evacuate the wounded. The East Timorese resistance inflicted heavy losses on the Indonesian supply line between Balibo and Maliana, where the uphill, winding road and thick vegetation favoured the use of hit-and-run ambushes. Its mortar attacks caused great damage to the Indonesian forward command post on the weekend of 18-19 October. Indonesian forces received a nasty surprise in battle when they discovered that 70 per cent of their own mortar rounds failed to fire.

The killing of the five foreign journalists caused alarm in the Indonesian high command. Worried about the international diplomatic consequences, they called a halt to the military operation and, according to the documents, planned an intelligence operation to discredit Australia in case it openly criticised the murder of the journalists.

Previously, Australia had provided Malaysia with weapons and ammunition under a Defence cooperation program. But Malaysia had supplied some of them to Indonesia. Indonesia therefore began preparations "to publicize a false claim of Australian support for Fretilin. Indonesia would use as evidence not only the presence of Australians who were aiding Fretilin [i.e the murdered journalists whose corpses had been dressed in military uniforms and weapons and photographed] but also the supposed capture from Fretilin troops of hand grenades of Australian origin," the documents report.

Australian intelligence became aware of the plan and privately assessed that while "Australia has supplied grenades, identifiable as of Australian origin, to Malaysia", any Indonesian claim could be rebutted because "if Indonesia produced any of these in an attempt to substantiate an allegation of Australian support for Fretilin, it might be possible to demonstrate that the grenades had been part of a batch given to Malaysia".

Indonesia’s concern about a negative international reaction combined with its own logistical problems and the onset of the wet season led to nearly five weeks of inactivity as it waited to see what the reaction would be. But there was no adverse reaction from Australia, Britain or New Zealand. This was the real "green light"; the lack of international condemnation at the killing of five foreign journalists meant that the Indonesian military could treat the East Timorese as they wished.

In 2007, the coronial inquiry in NSW found that the journalists were unarmed, dressed in civilian clothes, and had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. They were shot and/or stabbed to death by the Indonesian military. Since the killings were associated with, and occurred in the context of, an international conflict, the coroner referred the case to federal authorities for possible war crime prosecutions.

The federal opposition leader at the time, Kevin Rudd, reacted to the Coroner’s decision by saying, a week before the 2007 election:

"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… 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."

When Labor came to office a week later, however, very little happened. It was only after the movie, Balibo, was released in mid-2009 that the Australian Federal Police announced that it had begun a formal investigation into the killings.

If Kevin Rudd, now Foreign Minister, still believes the matter "has to be taken through to its logical conclusion", then the he and his colleagues the Attorney-General and the Minister for Home Affairs, who have oversight of war crimes investigations, need to explain to the Australian public why nothing has happened more than three years later — and why the Labor government continues to follow in the tradition of its predecessors by restricting access to vital information about Australia’s complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.


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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.