A Film By Robert Connolly

Peace Researcher 40 – July 2010


- Jeremy Agar


On Mount Victoria, in the heart of Wellington, a native tree was planted and a park bench was officially opened, in May 2010. The plaque indicates that the simple memorial honours the memory of Gary Cunningham, a TV journalist working for an Australian network in East Timor who was murdered by Indonesian soldiers in 1975. The memorial was organised by the Indonesia Human Rights Committee with support from the Media Freedom Committee and Wellington City Council. It’s a suitable site. Cunningham once lived nearby and he won an award for his coverage of the 1968 Wahine disaster when the inter-island ferry sank in the harbour below. There’s another link. The view from Mount Victoria has something in common with the view from Balibo, the place Cunningham died.


Balibo is high on a hill in East Timor, near the border with Indonesian West Timor. The Balibo Five, as they’ve come to be called, were journalists covering an anticipated invasion from Indonesia. As we see in the film, the five had stationed themselves in an old Portuguese fort overlooking the sea, where Indonesian warships were arrayed. Armed men in civilian clothes emerge from the bush, photographed by the Australian team. The crew sense they’re in danger and flee. Hiding in the fort, they’re shot in cold blood. These scenes are chillingly effective.


They’re also historically accurate, as was established by a sixth journo. Connolly tells the story via Roger East’s search for the missing quintet some days after they had failed to return from their Balibo assignment. The film opens with East in Darwin. He’s a frizzled, cynical veteran at first unmoved by the plea from an East Timorese democrat (the young Jose Ramos Horta, now his country’s President) to pay attention to the imminent plight of his homeland. It’s a movie cliche perhaps, but in this instance the cliche happened. East thrashes through the jungle, finds evidence of the butchery, and reports back. East stayed on in Dili, determined to honour his colleagues by reporting on the invasion, so he, too, was murdered by the Indonesian military. Roger East, subtly played by Anthony LaPaglia, is the centre of the story.   


Indonesia didn’t want the world to know that it was crossing an international border with no provocation except that the East Timorese wanted an independent country in the same way that a generation earlier Indonesia had successfully fought for its own independence from the Dutch. If you look at a map, which depicts East Timor as part of an Indonesian island within an Indonesian archipelago, it might seem that Jakarta at least had a case for wanting East Timor to become part of the country. But the map is misleading. We have to look at history. Indonesians followed the normal logic of post-colonial nationalists by fighting for a country that would take over the areas that had been Dutch possessions. That’s why New Guinea has a line running down the middle, separating Papua (formerly Dutch and now Indonesian) from Papua New Guinea (formerly Australian). So, by its own rules, independent Indonesia should not have expected to annex East Timor, a former Portuguese colony.  


In the context of unprovoked brutality this background might seem academic, but it could be part of the reason for Indonesia’s behaviour. Under international law it knew it couldn’t justify its claim for East Timor. So did all the governments that connived at the aggression. This is the significance of Balibo. It’s why Gary Cunningham’s name is largely unknown in Wellington and New Zealand. The governments of NZ and Australia collaborated with Indonesia in covering up the massacres. They actively went along with the Indonesian lie that the journalists had been caught in crossfire. The version of events that the film depicts, of a sustained and deliberate mass murder of unarmed civilians, is accurate, as even the Indonesian Army now admits.    


It’s not as if the incident can be explained away as the emotions of the moment, like the killing of Japanese prisoners of wars during World War 2 (as happened in both New Zealand and Australia). This happened in 1975, when the most passionate public event in NZ was the replacement of the Rowling Labour government by the Tories led by Muldoon. Neither Indonesia nor East Timor has a history of bad relations with NZ or Australia. We’re not talking Gaza or the Balkans. Yet the events at Balibo were officially being denied for the next generation.  


US, Australia, NZ Accomplices


Why did successive governments of NZ and Australia - along with the UK and US - behave so deplorably? The first pointer is to look towards America. Indonesia would not have been brazen without at least a hint from the US. The Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, saw the world as a playpen for American adventures. When it came to the “South”, the part of the globe that was neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) nor the former Warsaw Pact, he was contemptuous. Places like Indonesia and, even more so, tiny East Timor, were pawns in his global game. Immediately before the invasion Kissinger and President Gerald Ford were in Jakarta for talks with Suharto, the Indonesian dictator. As soon as Air Force One left Indonesian air space, the Indonesian military invaded East Timor and started killing people. That’s as close to a smoking gun as it gets (similarly, in 1975, Gough Whitlam, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, gave Suharto the go ahead. The film shows their meeting in a photo in a newspaper used to wrap Roger East’s fish and chips in Darwin. There has always been a bipartisan consensus in Australia that is obsessed with “instability” in their huge Asian neighbour. Ironically, Whitlam gave that go ahead whilst he himself was, fruitlessly, fighting for his political life against being unseated by a bloodless coup waged by the Australian Right and its American backers. After a carefully manufactured political and economic crisis his Government was dismissed by the Governor General and heavily defeated in the ensuing election. Ed.).


Kissinger was obsessed with fighting Communism, and it was announced that the East Timorese freedom fighters (Fretilin) were Communists, an analysis about as useful as saying that they were bogeymen. The complicit governments wanted to keep on side with Indonesia, regionally a big player which could be relied on to be brutal in suppressing freedom. Suharto himself had come to power by killing anywhere from half a million to more than a million opponents, people he called Communists and thus deserving of death (see Peace Researcher 25, March 2002, Special Issue, “Ghosts Of A Genocide: The CIA, Suharto And Terrorist Culture”, by Dennis Small, Ed.). All concerned had been there, done that. It’s possible that by allowing speculation that Balibo followed a US nod and wink, Kissinger and Suharto were signalling to the region that they were in charge and weren’t to be messed with (remember that 1975 marked the humiliating defeat of the US and its puppet governments in the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).


US allies, governed by elites who had to put down their own domestic bogeymen, had traditionally taken Commie panic at face value. It was a default setting. But this time, didn’t they take it too far? Measured purely as an act of naked aggression, the invasion could be seen as cruder than other more documented events such as Hitler’s attacks on Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939. The East Timorese were subjected to 24 years of brutal occupation, throughout which our governments continued to deny all. The film is based on Jill Jolliffe’s book “Cover Up”. It tells the story by cutting between the Balibo Five and East’s covering of the same ground. It’s a particularly effective solution to the tricky narrative problem of dealing with interlocking periods. It’s gripping stuff.


183,000 Deaths Before Independence Won


Thanks to the work of groups like the Indonesia Human Rights Committee the events that followed the Balibo massacre became well known and after 183,000 deaths East Timor won independence in 1999 (Jose Ramos Horta, East’s guide, started off as Prime Minister and is now President). Yet the NZ government was still doing all it could to see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil. For a detailed account of New Zealand’s shameful quarter of a century of appeasement of Indonesia vis a vis East Timor, see my review of Maire Leadbeater’s book “Negligent Neighbour” in Peace Researcher 34, July 2007, The East Timorese were still to be punished for being a small and non-strategic society, and for having suffered too long under Portuguese military dictatorship (in that, had Portugal been a democracy in 1949, when, after prolonged struggle, Indonesia was let go by the Netherlands, East Timor would have been allowed independence).


Early in their relationship, when a frustrated Horta is imploring East’s support, the young East Timorese accuses the older Australian of being interested only in a few deaths of white people rather than the rape of a culture. Given Horta’s experiences, this is a sentiment that’s easy to identify with, but in the immediacy of common struggle the difference is soon forgotten. Beyond the Balibo Five and Roger East, there’s a third framing of the narrative. The first shots are of a young East Timorese girl who witnesses East’s execution. She reappears as a mature woman at the end, an indication that Connolly sees his story in terms of a human solidarity which transcends race, time and gender. Cultural tension is not his theme. Balibo is an expose of complicit governments and a statement about freedom of the press.     


No representative of the NZ government was present at the Mt Victoria ceremony. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, said he had raised the matter of war crimes with the Indonesian government on a visit in 2009 but had not sought an apology and an admission. The present Government is not the sort to wear its heart on its sleeve, but apologies are in fashion. Lots of institutions have been saying they’re sorry, with varying degrees of sincerity. The apologists tend to share a confidence that the thing they’re apologising for is buried in the past with no present implications (by contrast, in 2009, the Australian Federal Police, a mere 34 years after the event, launched a war crimes investigation into the murders, following a 2007 coroner’s inquest. This investigation, specifically the suggestion of prosecuting the Indonesian senior officer in charge at the Balibo massacre, who went on to become a politician and minister, has led to diplomatic tensions with Indonesia, which has banned this film. The inquest also forced evidence into the open that the Australian Defence Signals Directorate, the spy agency equivalent to the NZ Government Communications Security Bureau, had, via its Darwin spybase, been fully aware of the Indonesians’ invasion preparations and of their murder of the Balibo Five. Ed.).   


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