Lowy Institute

Debate: Balibo

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One view is that morality demands that the Australian Government do everything possible to seek justice for the journalists killed in Timor in 1975. To give the other side of the argument puts one in the position of the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men: defending the indefensible.

But, just as Jack had some important points to make and dilemmas to expound, there are some arguments that should be heard before the moral grandstanding takes over:

  • The Balibo Five were, to put it gently, foolhardy in the extreme. While we all feel very sorry for the outcome, they should have known that you can't film a covert invasion without getting shot. And the Australian editors who sent them into the field are, if anything, more culpable. 
  • Of all the terrible and grossly unfair things that have happened in war zones in the past thirty years, the Balibo affair is sadly only a small example. If we are interested in improving conditions in war zones across the world, we should surely be more worried about the civilians being killed almost every day by Western armies. Civilians don't have much choice about being in war zones.
  • If it's war crimes we wish to pursue, and if we have any sense of perspective, then we should be more vocal on the limp response to the genocide in Cambodia, again involving victims who had no choice about being there. 
  • If we're thinking about consistency, why not take the Vietnamese Government to task for the similar killing of four journalists in Cholon in 1968
  • The leaders of East Timor, who have more reason than we do to seek justice for past acts, have decided that their people's interests are best served by getting along with Indonesia and looking forward, not back.
  • Foreigners (not least the Indonesians) might validly accuse us of hypocrisy, with so many unresolved atrocities in our own history.
  • Any AFP inquiry will surely seriously damage the important relationship built up between the Australian and Indonesian police. For purely selfish reasons, I want the AFP to go on cooperating closely and successfully with the Indonesian police because it makes things safer for me (and a lot of others) in Indonesia. And this cooperation has also served the cause of justice: the cooperation facilitated the arrest of the Bali bombers, responsible for many more deaths of people who did not intentionally put themselves into mortal danger.
  • An AFP investigation has no hope of achieving any 'convictions' or retribution. The Indonesians clearly will not cooperate. So any hope of setting an example to deter future acts is futile.

The pragmatic realists have spent several decades trying to bury the Australian journalists murdered by Indonesian troops in East Timor. The most brutal and explicit example of this was offered nearly three decades ago by one of the great Australian diplomats of his generation, Sir Keith Shann. The Australian journalists who died in Timor, he said, had 'asked for it and they got it.'

This is the less than glorious company Stephen Grenville has joined with his perspective on the new police investigation into the Balibo Five. Stephen's milder version of the Shann thesis is that the Balibo Five were 'foolhardy in the extreme' to be trying to film a covert Indonesian invasion. The journalists, he says, 'intentionally put themselves into mortal danger' and their editors were even 'more culpable'.

The pragmatic realist argument has always been that the need for good relations with Indonesia trumps moral or legal concerns such as the murder of Australian journalists. To buttress this argument, the Balibo Five have to be traduced as fools who went looking for the fate that befell them. This is to misrepresent or misunderstand what journalists do in the midst of conflict.

As non-combatants, media workers do what few other sensible civilian would do — they actually head toward the conflict. While not acting like other civilians, though, journalists are clearly protected by the Geneva Conventions. And their work is a powerful support for the Conventions. Telling the truth about conflict endangers journalists. It can expose uncomfortable and powerful truths that cause headaches for politicians and diplomats. This is more than telling truth to power. It involves holding power to account.

If the film shot by the Balibo Five had gone to air, it would have dramatised the reality of Indonesia's secret invasion. Australian politicians and diplomats knew all about the invasion, even before it happened, because the Australian embassy in Jakarta had been fully briefed on Indonesian military's plans as they were  developed. 

The Balibo Five broke one of the simple rules of reporting conflict. The line of control or the path of the advance is the most dangerous place to be. Unfortunately, that is usually where the main story is happening. Being there was a judgement call. They paid the highest price for that judgement. They were not foolhardy. They did not ask for it.

Photo by Flickr user drp, used under a Creative Commons license.


Graeme Dobell’s post on the Balibo Five makes the perfectly valid point that journalists covering wars must take risks, and they are justified in doing so because they perform an important function. For that reason he rejects the idea that the Balibo Five were wrong to be where they were and that they therefore in some sense deserve what happened to them. I completely agree. 

But that does not quite exhaust the question of what approach we should now take to these deaths. One can regard them as a tragedy and a crime, and still have doubts about how far we should sacrifice wider national interests in bringing those responsible to justice.

The main debate over the AFP's decision to investigate and presumably prosecute those responsible for killing the Balibo Five has pitted those who think it will damage Australia's relations with Indonesia against those who argue that securing justice takes precedence over maintaining good relations with Indonesia. 

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This is a slightly phoney debate in the present situation, because I do not expect that the AFP investigation will do much damage to our wider bilateral relationships with Indonesia. There may be more specific consequences for the AFP's relationship with their Indonesian counterparts, which has been very valuable to Australia over recent years and has probably saved Australian lives.

But if we did face a real choice between retrospective justice and current national interest, it would be hard to argue – as some in the present debate seem to — that the lives of Australians or justice for past wrongs should always take precedence over something as important to Australia as our relationship with Indonesia. Frankly, few of us consistently place such a high value on the lives of our fellow citizens. 

Anyone who is not a pacifist must accept that there are circumstances in which we are willing to sacrifice the lives of our fellow citizens for the national interest. Indeed, we are doing so right now, in Afghanistan. If, when necessity requires, we are willing to weigh the lives of soldiers today against supposed benefits to our national interest, we are surely also justified in weighing the benefits of retrospective justice against the costs to those national interests. Or am I missing something?

Photo by Flickr user p.medved, used under a Creative Commons license.


James Dunn is a former UN specialist on Crimes against Humanity in East Timor and author of East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence.

The latest move in the Balibo affair has taken Australia to a kind of watershed in a sensitive aspect of our relationship with Indonesia. Are we going to continue to help Jakarta cover up a brutal chapter in its history, or should we now encourage the Yudhoyono Government to open up the past to much-needed public scrutiny?

Indonesia's hostile reaction to the AFP Balibo investigation was predictable enough, because it came just as Jakarta was facing renewed criticism in East Timor, at the tenth anniversary of the Suai massacre, which was much more brutal than Balibo. 

The Balibo shooting and the Suai massacre span Indonesia's 24 year presence in East Timor, and remind us of an ugly fact: TNI (the Indonesian military) left the colony with the same cruel behaviour that it began with 34 years ago. Thanks in large measure to international accommodation (including from Australia), none of those indicted for war crimes has ever been brought anywhere near an independent tribunal. No other regime with links to the West has so completely escaped investigation for such serious crimes against humanity. AFP investigators may take the matter further, but they face huge obstacles, given the Yudhoyono Government's hostile reaction so far. 

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The Suai atrocity, in all costing over 200 lives, occurred only days after the results of the plebiscite were announced in Dili. A recent incident has revived Timorese interest in this incident, despite the urgings of their leaders to put the past behind them. It was the arrest of Maternus Bere, former leader of the Lauksur militia, who now lives in West Timor, but who returned to Suai to attend a wedding. His presence was noticed by a local policeman who arrested him, on the basis of a UN indictment for serious crimes.

The Indonesian reaction was extraordinary. His immediate release was demanded, with dark hints that there could be serious border problems if it was not heeded.

There is a possible explanation for this rather arrogant response. Based on my own investigations into the Suai affair, the militia were mere pawns, their orders coming directly from a TNI colonel then dressed in full uniform, and bearing an M-16 weapon. If Bere were to appear before an East Timorese court, his testimony could be of great embarrassment to TNI. The pressure was eased somewhat when the East Timorese prime minister ordered the release of Bere to the Indonesian embassy in Dili, a move that caused concern in the UN mission.

The rather arrogant and clumsy intervention by Jakarta caused an angry public reaction, and irritation and dismay in the government. The East Timorese Government may have quickly caved in, but the mood in the National Assembly is not so compliant. Jakarta's intervention was particularly hurtful and ill-timed for President Jose Ramos Horta, who had just delivered a very conciliatory address at the 10th anniversary commemoration, urging East Timorese to overlook their past sufferings and to end their campaigns for an international war crimes tribunal.

In the circumstances, why didn't Indonesia act more discreetly? One explanation is that the incident happened at a time when there are increasing calls from Indonesian democrats for a closer look at the TNI's past. Exposure of its command role in East Timor in 1999 would have led to renewed calls for the comprehensive investigation President Wahid's advisers had recommended in early 2000. Also, if Bere were to have appeared before a Timorese court, the leading role of Kopassus might have been exposed, at a time when this force is being rehabilitated as an anti-terrorist agency.

What most Timorese are seeking is Jakarta's full recognition of the war crimes committed and of Indonesia's responsibility. Without serious steps in that direction, reconciliation will be meaningless. A brooding resentment, especially  towards the Indonesian military, will continue to lurk in much of Timorese society, where thousands consider themselves victims of crimes against humanity.

As for Australia, we should urge Indonesia to take an honest look at what happened in East Timor between the Balibo and Suai incidents. A recognition of its lessons is an important step in the path to the kind of democracy Indonesians now aspire to. It would also be an important step towards a better enforcement of the UN's vital role in securing implementation of the humanitarian standards the world community has committed itself to.

Photo by Flickr user Nomad Tales, used under a Creative Commons license.


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.

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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.