Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 07:22 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 07:22 | SYDNEY

Australia, Indonesia and East Timor (1)


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

13 October 2009 12:14

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Australia is again proving its friendship with Indonesia in a time of tragedy, underlining why Australia has some rights to speak directly to Indonesia about an old tragedy.

Debate has rumbled through this blog about the interests and morality involved in the Australian Federal Police investigation into the murder of the Balibo Five journalists in East Timor in 1975. Hugh and Stephen offer the realist view that Australia should concentrate on the future of its relations with Indonesia, not the bloody past. The admirable Jim Dunn — unwavering in his energy and his argument for more than three decades — replies that Australia should not 'continue to help Jakarta cover up a brutal chapter in its history.'

Why are we still arguing about the six dead journalists? Partly, they are a link to the larger issues of East Timor and a reminder of a set troubling policy choices adopted by Australia; choices that didn't turn out well. We are talking about the murdered Australians because they are one of the many strands in the conversation we have about what Indonesia means for our future.

The realist argument is that there are still too many questions to make it worthwhile for Australia to pursue legal action. And Indonesia will always cling to the fiction that the five newsmen in Balibo were killed in crossfire as troops advanced during battle. So let's avoid going into that marsh of argument by instead pointing to the sixth journalists to die in East Timor, Roger East. 

East was not killed in crossfire or the heat of battle. He was murdered in the full light of day in front of dozens of witnesses. The day after Indonesian soldiers had taken Dili, East was among those marched to the wharf and executed with a bullet to the head.

There has been no coroner's inquest into East's murder. The closest we have come so far is the inquiry set up by the Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, in 1995 and conducted by the former Australian Government Solicitor and former chairman of the National Crime Authority, Tom Sherman, into the deaths of the Balibo Five and Roger East.

Sherman had two goes at Balibo. In his first report, in 1996, he accepted the Indonesian crossfire line, finding that the Five had been killed on October 16, 1975, 'in circumstances of continuing fighting between the Fretilin and anti-Fretilin forces.'

Asked to have a second go because of the growing weight of evidence undermining that safe finding, Sherman reported again in 1999; this time bringing himself to the point of actually blaming the Indonesian military rather than anti-Fretilin forces. But the Indonesian burning of the five bodies did not necessarily mean the journalists had been murdered, Sherman reasoned. Instead, he found it was a 'charade' to destroy all evidence of  a 'monumental blunder.'

The extreme caution of Sherman's judgement on the Five lends weight to the clear finding he had to offer about Roger East:

In contrast to the Balibo incident, the killing of Roger East took place in an urban area with a number of uninvolved persons in close proximity. The quality of the evidence on Roger East’s death was much higher. The evidence came from two eyewitnesses, supported by strong circumstantial evidence of the killing from two further witnesses. In relation to Roger East I have concluded that, it is more likely than not, he was summarily executed by an unidentified Indonesian soldier late of the morning of December 8, 1975, in the wharf area of Dili.

Roger East was dragged kicking and yelling through the streets of Dili. East loudly cursed the Indonesian troops as an Australian bloke would, identifying himself as Australian in every sense. He was taken to the end of the wharf. A bullet was fired into his head and his body was pushed over the edge.

In a strange way, the focus on Balibo has helped the cover-up culture in Jakarta and Canberra. With Balibo, some fig-leaf of doubt could still be waved. The word used could be 'death', not 'murder'. So Gough Whitlam could argue in 1980: 'It is still difficult to have an informed or rational discussion on East Timor in Australia because Australian journalists have been embittered by the death of five of their colleagues at Balibo…'

Once Roger East is added to the frame, the key word can not be passive. East didn't just experience death, he suffered execution. Or to requote Sherman, he was 'summarily executed.' East's fate since 1975 has been that of the forgotten freelancer. His professional testimony is a couple of print stories in fading scrap books, not the moving footage that the crews from Seven and Nine shot around Balibo in their last days.

Suddenly, though, Roger East is no longer faceless. Now he has the face of Anthony LaPaglia, the actor who plays him in the movie 'Balibo'. If Australian culture now perceives Gallipoli through the lens of a Peter Weir movie, something similar might just happen to the way Australians remember the death of six (not five) journalists. If that is what happens to the national conversation about Indonesia, then Roger East will no longer be absent from the national memory. The forget-and-move-on team will have a fresh problem, in some ways more clear-cut and potent than the Balibo Five.

If Australia does decide to pursue the Indonesian military, the murder of Roger East makes the case in its starkest form. East did not die in the midst of battle. He was executed on the orders of the Indonesian military command. That is worth remembering. Is it worth action against Indonesia? Thoughts on that dimension in the next column.

Photo courtesy of the official Balibo film website.