Balibo questions must be answered
Date: August 15 2009
Balibo is a word and an issue that just won't go away from our foreign affairs debates, despite the efforts of successive politicians, experts and officials to get it filed and forgotten while we all ''look to the future'' in the relationship with Indonesia.
It took a gutsy Indonesian journalist, Yuli Ismartono from Tempo magazine, to raise it at Kevin Rudd's love-in on Australia-Indonesia links in Sydney in February, arguing that bereaved families deserved the truth and clos- ure on this and other atrocities from the Soeharto era.
The fact that a major feature film about the Balibo killings was in post-production and would hit screens mid-year didn't seem worth mentioning.
Now the film is out, and it is an extremely powerful one. How the surviving relatives of Greg Shackleton, Malcolm Rennie, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart felt watching the re-enactment of their vicious murders by Indonesian special forces troops hardly bears thinking about.
While appreciating that this is a dramatisation, needing to telescope and adjust a true story lasting two months into 111 minutes, some who have spent long years piecing together what happened to the Balibo five and the ''sixth man'', Roger East, executed on Dili wharf a few weeks later, have mixed feelings about elements of fiction in the Robert Connolly film.
But Peter Cronauer, an ABC journalist writing a biography of East, hopes it will not be the end of the story. ''I hope the fictional depiction assists in unearthing the final fragments of truth to fit into the picture assembled by investigators and families over the past 34 years, so justice is done, '' he said.
Already Indonesian spokesmen have dismissed the whole movie as fiction. The film does deviate from the known record. Roger East didn't need to be cajoled out of his Darwin public service job by the young Fretilin foreign spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta in 1975. He and Ramos-Horta didn't make a perilous jungle trek into Balibo after the killings. The Indonesians didn't attack up the hill in front of the Balibo fort, but from around the back of the village. East wasn't captured trying to send his last report from Dili's Marconi radio office.
The senior commander of the Balibo operation, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, didn't put a pistol to the head of Brian Peters and shoot him dead. He wasn't there then; it was Captain Yunus Yosfiah who ordered his troops ''Tembak saja!'' (''Just shoot!'') at the surrendering newsmen. It's unlikely that General Benny Murdani, the Indonesian army intelligence chief, was observing the executions of East and Fretilin families on Dili wharf on December 8, dressed in a white safari suit, though he did parachute into Dili some time that day.
Still, it's close enough to what happened to the six journalists, and audiences will emerge both shocked and angry. Some of that anger will focus on blame - blame on the Indonesians who carried out the murders and the commanders who gave them their orders, blame on the Australian leaders and officials who have consistently tried to avoid addressing war crimes against their own citizens or Australian residents, blame on the TV channels who sent the five to Timor, blame on the newsmen themselves for putting themselves and each other at such risk.
Richard Woolcott, then the ambassador in Jakarta, has placed responsibility with the TV channels, although at the time he questioned whether the Foreign Affairs Department had done its job matching up the inside information his embassy was sending back about the impending Balibo attack with its knowledge of Australian nationals in East Timor.
In his new book Shooting Balibo, the former ABC reporter Tony Maniaty, who met the five on their way to Balibo as he was going back to Dili, puts a harsh light on the abandoned neutrality and peer pressure that kept the five newsmen in the front line to the point where any hope of extricating themselves, let alone their film, became very slim.
Still, killing civilians is a war crime. In November it will be two years since the NSW Deputy Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, sent Canberra the results of her inquest in which Mark Tedeschi, QC, pointed the finger at Yunus Yosfiah and another Balibo attacker, Cristoforus da Silva. This was just before the federal election, and the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd insisted that ''those responsible should be held to account''.
The evidence has been sitting on a Australian Federal Police desk, an agency known for taking its cue about prosecutions from the political leaders of the day. This process allows Rudd and others now to argue it's in the hands of the judicial machinery and can't be commented on.
It's not unusual for political parties to be tougher in opposition than in government about war crimes. East Timor's Fretilin, for example, was in power between 2002 and 2006, and along with then President Xanana Gusmao took the ''truth and reconciliation commission'' approach to Indonesian crimes between 1975 to 1999. This week, with the 10th anniversary of the 1999 independence vote coming up on August 30, it was demanding a full-scale debate in parliament about the results of two of these truth commissions.
But the re-election of Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last month, beating rivals with Soeharto-era generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto as running-mates, has removed one sound political reason for holding back a case that stands up strongly, according to such international criminal law experts as Sydney University's Ben Saul.
Mainly on the word of one survivor, a Munich court has just given a 90-year-old former German army officer a life sentence for the reprisal massacre of 11 Italian civilians in 1944.
The chances of Yudhoyono extraditing Yunus Yosfiah and da Silva or putting them on trial in Indonesia might seem small, but at least laying charges would end the saga of complicity on Canberra's part and perhaps tease out the remaining fragments of the story.
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