The Melbourne International Film Festival has announced that Robert Connolly’s new film “Balibo” will be premiered at their 2008 event in July-August. Connolly is the director of “The Bank” and “Three Dollars” and his third film is currently filming in Darwin. Connolly may struggle to meet the festival date as he is finding it difficult to get accommodation for his cast and crew in Darwin’s tourist high season.
The film stars Anthony LaPaglia as Australian journalist Roger East who investigated the murder of five fellow journalists at the border town of Balibo during the Indonesian invasion of Portuguese Timor in 1975. East himself died in Dili at the hands of the Indonesian Army but it is the fate of the Balibo Five he investigated that has had the bigger profile as facts emerged after the event that cast shame on two Australian Governments of the era: Whitlam’s and Fraser’s.
Despite the fact there have been multiple official enquiries about the incident, the most forensic analysis of what actually happened in Timor appears in the book “Death in Balibo: Lies in Canberra” by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald. Ball is an intelligence expert with telling insights into the activities of the shadowy Defence Signals Directorate, the Australian government body charged with listening in on Indonesian operations. McDonald meanwhile was at the scene of the crime near the time. His fortune was that he was a Jakarta-based reporter (for the Sydney Morning Herald and the now defunct National Times, among others) so he saw the scene from the winning side.
This was not the case for five men who tried to report the war for Australian TV from the Timorese side. While it may amaze those that watch the rubbish served up by Channels Seven and Nine in the name of news these days, it was reporters from these stations that died while trying to tell the story. Their crews deliberately rushed to the border to report the unfolding story of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor.
It was a complicated story. Timor was a historical curiosity and a hangover from the earliest times of European navigation when Portugal was a major power. Their fall from power can be traced to the independence of Brazil in 1822, but they continued to maintain a scattered empire in the 20th century in places such as Angola, Mozambique, Goa, Macao and Timor. India liberated Goa in 1961 and the rest of the empire fell apart when the long-standing Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in 1974.
Timorese nationalists felt the winds of change and several liberation groups began to agitate for a role in their own destiny. The largest of these, Fretelin, took their stamp from Mozambique and were steeped in 1970s socialist liberation ideas. Its leaders included the journalist Jose Ramos-Horta and army lieutenant Roque Rodrigues. They sought the earliest possible independence from Portugal.
The second was the Timorese Democratic Union, the UDT, which was favoured by the 25,000 Portuguese-speaking middle class of the island. They were more favourable to Lisbon but also wanted eventually independence with a more cautious timetable of a decade or more. The least influential group of Timorese were the Association for the Integration of Timor with Indonesia which became known as Apodeti. Not only unpopular within Timor, they were mostly ignored by their larger neighbour until about 1974.
While Jakarta adopted a position of a Pan-Indonesian nation when it gained independence after World War II, it was content to set its borders as the old Dutch East Indies colony to begin with. This included West Papua which it annexed in 1961. But it left the Portuguese colony alone until its interest was pique by the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in the 1974 carnation revolution.
In September that year Indonesian President Suharto’s plans for Timor were boosted by a visit of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. According to the official Australian record of that trip, Whitlam explicitly stated Portuguese Timor should become part of Indonesia but only with the “properly expressed wishes” of the people of Portuguese Timor. Indonesia knew it could never influence the Marxist-leaning Fretelin, but with the support of Apodesi it could possibly buy off the middle-class UDT.
Meanwhile the Australian government began to assist Indonesia in its ambitions by denying Fretelin all official succour. They refused hospitality to Ramos-Horta in the Dili consulate and would not meet him in Canberra. Portugal was no help either as it dealt with its own internal problems. Throughout the rest of 1974 and into 1975 Jakarta began to launch a military build-up around East Timor. Radio stations blasted pro-Indonesian propaganda across the border claiming that Communist Fretelin were victimising the pro-Indonesian “majority”.
Australia was well aware of the build-up. The Indonesians went as far as briefing the Australian embassy of their plans, cleverly counting on the fact that if the Aussies didn’t complain to begin with, they were complicit in the eventual invasion. But if the Australian Government was compliant, the country’s media was not and was increasingly asking Canberra questions about the fate of Timor.
The trigger for action was the UDT coup of August 1975. In an effort to counter the growing strength of Fretelin, UDT took control of the Timorese capital Dili and sent the small Portuguese force packing. But this backfired when Fretelin overwhelmed them four days later. By September Fretelin had de facto control over East Timor.
The coup sent Australian newspapers and broadcasters scrambling to get people on the ground to report the quickly changing situation. Against a Government ban, then Channel Nine news director Gerald Stone and his boss Kerry Packer hired a fishing trawler to cross to Dili. Stone said Packer took his own arsenal along to enjoy target practise from the back of the boat. Fretelin encouraged journalists to come. Ramos-Horta said later: “it was the only weapon we had in this fighting for influencing, [and] for winning sympathy around the world”.
Channel Seven sent a three man crew to investigate the war. The crew’s reporter was 29 year old Greg Shackleton. Shackleton was keen for a challenge, bored as he was with his Melbourne round of stories on domestic politics, car sales and industrial disputes. With him went 27 year old New Zealand cameraman Gary Cunningham and 21 year old sound recorder Tony Stewart. Shackleton’s boss told him to be careful and avoid “foolhardiness”.
Fresh from the success of their trawler raid into Dili, Nine’s Stone wanted to launch a second expedition to obtain proof of Indonesian incursion into Timor. He sent in a two man team: 28 year old Scottish born reporter Malcolm Rennie and British cameraman Brian Peters who had accompanied Stone and Packer to Dili on the trawler. Stone also warned them against adventurism and told them the object of the trip was to get the story out.
Both crews were on the ground in Dili and working by 10 October 1975. All five men had just four days to live. The Seven crew drove to the Indonesian border accompanied by a Fretelin driver. On the 12th, Melbourne’s Seven news carried Shackleton’s earlier report from Dili of the Indonesian capture of a border village. A day later the two Nine men arrived in Balibo where they met the Seven crew. Balibo was the most forward position held by Falintil, Fretelin’s armed wing. An Indonesian frigate lay close to shore off the Indonesian border town of Motaain. Rennie interviewed Ramos-Horta near the border. Ramos-Horta predicted a “massive attack” and took both crew’s footage back with him to Dili. The Australians settled in an abandoned house they dubbed “the embassy” or occasionally the “Commonwealth Secretariat” to take into account the Brits and Kiwis in their ranks.
The last footage of the men alive was taken by Portuguese TV which was in Balibo on the 15th. Their film showed four of the men drinking beer in the square with their shirts off. It also showed their house with a sign and flag painted “Australia”. Next to it was a slogan “Falintil esta sempre com o povo Maubere” (Falintil is always with the Maubere people). Maubere was the Fretelin word for the East Timorese common man. Before the Portuguese left, the Australians asked them had they any beer or wine as they expected to stay in Balibo a few days.
Both Indonesian and Australian authorities were aware of their presence there. Indonesia was about to get into serious phase of “Operation Flamboyant” – their covert war in Timor. They were not about to let five nosy journalists get in the way of their ambitions and made plans to execute them as a matter of priority once they took Balibo. Their plans to do so were intercepted by the blandly named Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), Australia’s most secret intelligence organisation. The DSD grew out of Australia’s wartime collaboration with British and American forces to intercept radio transmissions and break ciphers.
By the 1970s, the key countries that the DSD were monitoring were Indonesia and China. DSD knew exactly what Operation Flamboyant was all about and also knew that five journalists were in the danger area. They intercepted one message about them that said “we can’t have any witnesses”. Whitlam’s Government knew this too. But with Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser about to instigate the dismissal by pulling the pin on supply, Whitlam’s own tenure was too insecure to worry about five journalists in Timor.
The invasion began at midnight 15 October with sustained mortar attacks on the border towns. By the following mid morning, armed attackers appeared in Balibo. There is conflicting testimony to what exactly happened to the five journalists. However the broad consensus is that Indonesian soldiers fired into the “embassy” before one of the journalists emerged. He was motioned to a back wall where he was killed with a knife in the back.
Another Timorese witness saw three more bodies inside the house slumped in chairs at the table while a fourth body lay against a wall. Others heard orders to “shoot them all”. Later, the Apodesi commander of the raid Tomas Goncalves boasted of having killed two himself with a knife. The Indonesians then burned all five bodies. The DSD intercepted a signal about the journalists which said “we already have them under control”.
Fretelin reported the five men as missing on the 17th. Later that day, Canberra and the embassy in Jakarta were alerted to the DSD intercepted signal. Their reaction was to pass blame to the TV networks for sending their men into a danger area. But to protect the DSD, they could not publicly acknowledge the men were dead. Jakarta wanted to conceal its involvement in what it pretended was a “civil war” while a complicit Canberra didn’t want their knowledge of it exposed.
On 20 October, the Jakarta daily Kompas reported an interview with the UDT leader who said the bodies of “four men” were found in a house in Balibo. This was corroborated by more evidence later in the week that Westerners had died but the numbers were always fuzzy. For three weeks, the Government pleaded ignorance until Whitlam wrote to Suharto asking for confirmation. Suharto never responded and Whitlam was sacked four days later.
A month after their deaths, Indonesian secret police handed Australian ambassador Richard Woolcott a box containing charred human remains, camera gear, notepapers and papers belonging four of the men. The next of kin of the men did not find out until 5 December, the day the remains of the journalists were buried in a Jakarta cemetery. The mourners were embassy staff and spouses, resident Australian journalists and one Indonesian journalist.
By then Indonesian forces had invaded Dili. Roger East was there to see them land. He reported most of the town’s citizens had fled to the hills. He refused pleas by Fretelin to retreat to the back of town. Instead he went to the communication centre where he said Indonesians were in the city, had taken the airport and would be at his building at any moment. This transmission cost him his life. But while the death of six Australian journalists in defence of freedom is a tragedy, it is far less than the one of a million Timorese that gave their life to their country over the next 25 years. The lesson of Balibo is that Canberra’s appeasement of Indonesia was not only cowardly – it was proved wrong by time. Suharto was overthrown in 1997 and Timor Leste became independent three years later. The 1975 graffiti held good: Falintil was always with the Maubere people.