Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015



8:26 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I rise to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murders of Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Roger East.

The first five were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian military on the morning of Thursday 16th October 1975 at Balibo, in what was then Portuguese Timor and is today the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. They were all in their twenties at the time of their murders. All were working for Australian media organizations. Two were Australian, two were British and one was from New Zealand. They have come to be known collectively as the Balibo Five. The sixth was veteran correspondent Roger East, who was in his fifties when he was executed on the wharf in the capital, Dili, in front of more than 100 witnesses soon after the 7 December invasion.

The background to the killings is that in 1975 the Indonesian military was conducting a terror-and-destabilisation campaign in the border regions of East Timor. The Australian government was aware of what was going on. Declassified intelligence records obtained under the Archives Act by the Australian scholar of international relations, Dr Clinton Fernandes of the University of New South Wales Canberra, and published by him in 2011, have left no doubt on this point. With his permission, I draw on his account in my remarks tonight.

The Joint Intelligence Organisation—the JIO—today known as the Defence Intelligence Organisation, reported that on 7 October Indonesian special forces troops and local allies captured the border village of Batugade, triggering an international armed conflict to which the 1949 Geneva Conventions applied. JI0 reported that Brigadier-General Chamid Suweno, the commander of the Airborne Special Forces Centre, visited Indonesian-held areas in East Timor in order to see the situation for himself. Suweno would later command the full-scale invasion of East Timor on 7 December 1975.

Three days after the seizure of Batugade, President Suharto approved a plan to set up small enclaves just inside East Timor in order to nibble away at the East Timorese resistance from these enclaves. The first of these enclaves would be established around the strategic town of Maliana. It was hoped that this strategy would demoralise the resistance, make its position untenable and induce the population to rally to the pro-Indonesian side.

At this time three journalists from Channel Seven and two from Channel Nine were at the town of Balibo, which was not militarily significant in itself but was on the road to the Indonesian objective of Maliana. If the journalists had obtained film footage of Indonesia's military campaign and conveyed it to the outside world, the cover story would have been blown.

Indonesian special forces captured and killed them on the morning of 16 October. Australian intelligence reported that the Indonesian high command was very alarmed at the killing of the five foreign journalists. Worried about the international diplomatic consequences, they called a halt to the military operation. Their concern about a negative international reaction, combined with their own logistical problems and the onset of the wet season, led to nearly five weeks of inactivity as they 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. And that is what they did. The consequences for the East Timorese people were horrific. In 2005, East Timor's Truth Commission estimated that the lowest possible number of conflict-related deaths was 102,800. It did not estimate an upper limit, though it did speculate that the death toll could have been as high as 183,000.

To improve on the accuracy of this figure, Sarah Staveteig, a demographer at the University of California, Berkeley, applied standard demographic methods of indirect estimation and found it likely that 204,000 is a conservative upper-bound estimate on excess mortality. From a starting population of about 648,000 on the eve of the invasion, the scale of the death toll in East Timor is perhaps the largest relative to a total population since the Holocaust. In these circumstances, although journalists are not any more special than other civilians, we commemorate them because journalists played a crucial role in East Timor's independence struggle. In East Timor itself, the Balibo Five and Roger East are remembered with great respect. As Manuel da Silva, an East Timorese man, stated at the 2007 New South Wales coronial inquest into the murders of the Balibo Five:

The reason why I came to be a witness was that I believe that the journalists are martyrs for East Timor and I believe they are East Timorese as well.

Deputy Coroner Dorelle Pinch conducted the New South Wales coronial inquest. It was the first independent judicial inquiry into their deaths. She had the power to compel witnesses to testify and called 66 witnesses, including a dozen East Timorese who had originally fought on the Indonesian side. The Deputy Coroner found that the journalists could not have been and were not mistaken for combatants. In addition, they clearly identified themselves as Australians and as journalists. They were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes. They all had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. The Coroner also found that they were shot and/or stabbed to death by the Indonesian military in a deliberate act to prevent them from revealing the truth. The Indonesian military tactical commander gave the order to kill. He was almost certainly acting as part of a plan that emanated from the highest levels of the Indonesian military. The five corpses were dressed in military uniforms, guns placed beside them, and photographs were taken in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets. And these are findings of the New South Wales Coroner.

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 crimes prosecutions. On 20 November 2014 the Australian Federal Police said, during Senate estimates, that they had terminated their investigation principally on jurisdictional grounds, but:

… there is no doubt in the minds of the AFP investigators and the AFP generally that an unlawful killing occurred with respect to these five Australian journalists.

The Balibo Five were not the last journalists to die at the hands of the Indonesian military. Roger East, as I mentioned earlier, was executed on Dili's wharf six weeks later. Sander Thoenes of the Financial Timeswas murdered on 21 September 1999, one day after the INTERFET landed in East Timor. Sander Thoenes is also remembered with respect. There is a memorial for him in Becora, in the east of Dili, and commemorations are held for him every 21 September—the anniversary of his murder. The last journalist to be killed was, in fact, an Indonesian, Agus Muliawan, a 26-year-old man who worked for Tokyo-based Asia Press International. The leader of the unit that killed him had trained alongside Australian troops in the early 1990s. Agus Muliawan is also remembered with respect. As I speak, members of East Timorese civil society and some of their international friends are involved in a five-day Walk Against Impunity from Dili to Balibo:

… to pay respect to the victims of the Indonesian occupation … and to raise awareness about the consequences of impunity: victims see no justice done and perpetrators have green light to continue the atrocities elsewhere …

The Walk Against Impunity began at Becora on 11 October, at the monument to Sander Thoenes, and is traversing Santa Cruz, Liquica, Maubara, Kuikora, Berita, Batugade and Balibo. It will conclude in Balibo, for obvious reasons. I send them my heartfelt greetings and congratulate them on their efforts. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote, 'The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.'