Balibo the Film and the Reality
The ban on screening Balibo recalls the 1975 deaths of five foreign journalists in East Timor. One witness of this incident, a former intelligence officer, believes the element of dramatization is inevitable, resulting in a fictional film featuring images of a brutal military.
FEW people recognized the small, 62-year-old man wearing a faded blue T-shirt over black denims, his face lined with the beginnings of wrinkles, his thinning hair turning grey. He sat relaxed with his legs stretched out in a corner of the Utan Kayu theater in East Jakarta, on Thursday a week ago, waiting for the screening of the film Balibo, which tells the story of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in October 1975.
The man is Colonel (ret) Gatot Purwanto, a former army intelligence officer, who served quite some time in East Timor (now Timor Leste). His last position was Assistant Intelligence Officer of Command Operations in East Timor. He was discharged following the Santa Cruz incident in Dili, which erupted in November 1991. That evening, he toldTempo that his colleagues had warned him about watching Balibo. “Why should a witness watch a film about something he personally experienced?” they taunted him.
In fact, Gatot was at Balibo 34 years ago. Under the code name Team Susi, he and dozens of Indonesian troops crossed the East Timor border in preparation of Indonesia’s invasion into the former Portuguese colony. “I was a first lieutenant at the time, just three years out of officer training school,” he recalled. The team commander was Major-General (ret) Yunus Yosfiah. “We were assisting partisans of UDT and Apodeti,” he said. UDT and Apodeti were two political parties in Timor who at the time were pro-Indonesia. About 100 pro-integration militia members had joined them.
When the film began, Gatot quickly recognized locations used as settings for the film. “That building used to be the Finance Department” he said of the opening scene. Gatot, who is fluent in Tetum, could understand the dialog in this local Timorese language. He immediately began shaking his head when the film depicted a scene about Fretilin ideology, the leftist party fighting for an independent Timor. “They were communists,” he said with certainty. In the scene, where the lead actor is shot in the forest by an Indonesian helicopter, Gatot also shook his head murmuring, “That’s not true.”
But, when the film moved into the main scene with the killing of the five Australian journalists, Gatot stared with his mouth open. He sat motionless with his eyes glued to the screen. When the scene changed to the story of what followed the shooting, he sat looking surprised and speechless for a long time. Only when Tempo asked him if his memories of the time were similar to the way the incident was portrayed in the film, Gatot turned and replied, “No, no, it wasn’t like that.” He took in a deep breath, whispering softly, “Not exactly like that.”
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IT is a pity that Gatot Purwanto and Greg Shackleton never met, considering they have more in common than the first letters of their first names. They were both 27 years old in 1975, when their fates led them both to Balibo.
Balibo is a small town in Bobonaro district. The distance to the border with West Timor is only about 10 kilometers. The remains of a 400-year-old Portuguese fort still stand on a hill facing the beach. Gatot admits that his forces captured and shot Shackleton and his four colleagues: sound man Australian Tony Stewart, 21, Gary Cunningham, 27, from New Zealand from Channel 7, British nationals Brian Peters, 29 and Malcolm Rennie, 28, from Channel 9.
The film Balibo, according to Gatot is overdramatized. Even though he later admitted that the troops did try to hide the bodies of these journalists by covering them up with dry rice husks so they would burn slowly. “Until the bodies were completely destroyed; it took two days,” he explained.
Balibo shows the political escalation heating up near the time of the invasion and the moments of the five journalists’ deaths. The director and scriptwriter is the Australian cinematographer, Robert Connolly. Originally the film was to be shown at the Jakarta International Film Festival last week. But the Film Censorship Board (LSF) banned it. The reason given by Mukhlis Paeni, Director of LSF, was that, “it has the potential to open an old wound.”
That “old wound” did not come from the south. The Balibo incident had been diplomatically bandied back and forth, between Jakarta and Canberra. Yet, the two countries have come to an agreement. The Australian government accepts the version of the Indonesian government stating that the five men died in cross-fire. “This film does not express the opinion of the Australian government,” said Jenny Dee, press attaché for the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
Those who disagree with the Indonesian government’s version are the families and friends of the slain journalists, and human rights activists in Australia, who are demanding justice. They believe the five journalists were executed by the Indonesian Military (TNI), like Roger East, another Australian journalist who was lost and presumed to be shot dead on the first day of the invasion of Dili harbor on December 7, 1975. They want the perpetrators brought to court. For 34 years this case had surfaced and resurfaced in Australian politics. Those concerned about human rights kept charging that both the Labor Party as well as the Conservative Party supported the invasion—as did the United States and the United Kingdom—to prevent the spread of communism.
The “old wound” Muklis may be referring to could be the public at home. Many scenes in the film bring back memories of human rights abuses carried out by the military in the not-so-distant past. The familiar icons are disturbing: red berets, camouflage uniforms, AK-47s, as well as the actors playing the roles of familiar military figures like Benny Moerdani and Colonel Dading Kalbuadi (both of whom have died). What is frightening is the action depicted in the film: groups of civilians being shot at, public executions, and the faces of women and children crying in fear.
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THE LSF invited Sutiyoso to view Balibo, two days after the ban, when they had difficulty contacting Yunus. The former Governor of Jakarta, Sutiyoso, was a Special Forces soldier in the same operation as Gatot. According to Sutiyoso, the intelligence operation called Flamboyan was aimed at assisting the pro-integration militia to clear the area of “enemies,” or the Fretilin militia. “This was like entering a lion’s den, a one-way ticket operation. We didn’t even get to say goodbye to our families,” he told Tempo, one Saturday morning.
To support the operation, the forces formed three teams, each with about 50 Special Forces troops. The 1965 Group led the operation, the second in command came from the 1968 group. The three teams were given women’s names: Susi, Tuti, and Umi. Sutiyoso confirmed that Yunus Yosfiah, a major at the time, led Team Susi. His second in command was Sunarto. Team Tuti was led by Major Tarub with Agus Salim Lubis as his second in command. Sunarto and Agus Salim have both passed away. Team Umi was led by Major Sofyan Effendi with Sutiyoso as his second in command. “Gatot was in Team Susi,” he recalled.
With the command center in Motaain, they went back and forth to the border areas. They all wore civilian clothing, their hair long, with tight shirts in the style of the time over wide-legged or denim pants. Dading, the leader of the operation (in the film he is seen as the first one to pull the trigger in the shooting that killed the journalists), is shown wearing a scarf around his neck and a cowboy hat. Everyone had a code name. “My name was Captain Manix, like in the film,” laughed Sutiyoso.
Team Umi then seized Batugade in a shootout with a Fretilin ship. But unlike usual procedures, the commander, Major-General Benny Moerdani told them to remain in the beach town about 40 kilometers from Motaain. “This was strange. It was unusual for the intelligence forces to do this. Our specialty was hit and run,” he said, “It was difficult for us to hold the area, because we were armed only with assault weapons. A month later, he heard that Team Susi had moved to Balibo and Team Tuti to Maliana.
“The shooting of the journalists occurred when Team Susi arrived,” says Sutiyoso. At that time, communication was not easy, but members of the same team visited each other. So everyone there heard the news of the five journalists’ death. “In that battle, no one knew anyone, whether they were foreigners or Javanese. It was only kill or be killed,” he said.
From his side, the director of Balibo, Roger Connolly, used the services of historian, Dr Clinton Fernandez from the Australian Military Academy at the University of New South Wales to give guidance on the historical context, as well as from a pile of documents from East Timor, Australia, England, the US and even Portugal (none from Indonesia). Fernandez concluded that “the Indonesian Military were involved in efforts to terrorize and destabilize which were later blamed on pro-independence groups. After that, they just had to come in to maintain order,” he said on the official site for the film Balibo.
The sources that Connolly used to describe the moments of the siege and capture of Balibo come from the prosecutor’s investigation of the court in New South Wales in February 2007. Downloadable from the Internet, there are more than half a dozen witnesses describing what they saw in detail, including the role Yunus played in the fate of the five journalists. Yunus, when contacted by Tempo, was not willing to update his previous statements. Through a text message from his son’s cellphone he replied, asking what would happen if a national leader were to be tyrannized by another nation. “If the question is the same, Pak Yunus’ answer is still the same.” This former Information Minister (1999) has repeatedly said that he was not involved in the killings.
According to that report, only one or two of the Fretilin militia were killed in the shootout at Balibo, the same number as the victims of the pro-integration side. What caused a lot of talk from the day of the incident were the deaths of the journalists, the main theme of the Balibo film.
This testimony is very different from what was recorded by TVRI journalist, Hendro Subroto, who arrived at the scene a few hours after the incident. According to Hendro in his book, Eyewitness to the Integration of East Timor, 17 people died in the battle of Balibo. The burnt corpses of 15 of them were found at the Fretilin headquarters, which was bombed by mortar fire. “Four of the 15 were foreigners. Two more bodies were found in the forest, one of whom was a foreigner,” he wrote, based on a joint report by the pro-integration militia. Interestingly, the witness who said there were 17 victims is the same witness who testified in the Australian court. But he admitted to lying and giving a false statement, which he later withdrew.
Then there is the fictional “aspect” of the film. Admittedly, Balibo does contain a few fabrications. Let us not forget that Balibo is not a documentary. The film is not free of fictional scenes. It includes many imaginary figures and incidents, such as the character of Juliana, taken from the testimonies of East Timorese about human rights abuses on the first day of the invasion. There is also the matter of the fight between Roger East and Ramos Horta at a swimming pool which never took place.
However, the LSF had no problem over the details of whether this film was close to reality or not. What is important, said the director of the Evaluation and Socialization Commission, Djamalul Abidin, is that the LSF has the mandate to apply censorship on political or ideological grounds. In other words, it is not necessary to cut the sadistic parts, but in the name of politics and ideology, the entire film can be thrown out. Take Sutiyoso, who firmly disapproves of screening this film because it degrades the TNI. “The TNI is not like that. TNI follows the principles of Pancasila,” he said.
The question is when: In the film or in reality?
Kurie Suditomo, Wahyu Dhyatmika, Nieke Indrietta, Martha Warta Silaban, Sutarto, Suryani Ika Sari (Jakarta)