Balibo: exposing the cover-up

October 25, 2009

Balibo
By Jill Jolliffe
Scribe Publications, 2009
416 pages, $29.95 (pb)

"In one fell swoop, I have lost my past, present and future and nobody really has put out a hand of compassion", wrote Shonny Dryden, mother of slain Australian journalist Greg Shackleton to Australian foreign minister Andrew Peacock in 1976.

Dryden recounted in the same letter the close relationship she had with her son, who she had brought up almost single-handedly. She later committed suicide in 1982 at Bendigo Hospital in loneliness and despair that nothing was done about the deaths of the five journalists in Balibo.

Jill Jolliffe's book Balibo was first published in 2000 by Scribe as Cover Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five. It documents what happened to the five journalists.

Jolliffe was one of a handful of journalists who, after the outbreak of civil war between the Timorese national liberation front Fretilin and the UDT (Timorese Democratic Union) in August 1975, based themselves in Portuguese Timor to cover political developments there.

From October 1975, the Indonesian military, together with Timorese non-Fretilin supporters, swept eastwards towards the capital, Dili. Before the landing of Indonesian paratroopers in Dili on December 7, 1975, the Indonesian military was already taking over towns in the western region.

Fretilin resisted but they were outnumbered and outgunned.

Jolliffe was evacuated just prior to the invasion, but had known the five men and Roger East, another Australian journalist, slain by Indonesian forces during the invasion.

The revised version of Jolliffe's book contains new sections on Roger East and the 2007 NSW coronial inquiry into the death of Brian Peters, a Channel Nine journalist and one of the Balibo Five.

The five Balibo men were all in their 20s, while East was 52 years old when he went to East Timor, enticed by the story of the five missing newsmen. East had an interesting life. His father was a Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) supporter.

Contrary to Wobblies principle, Roger East joined the military and was stationed in Singapore during WWII, just before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese.

He was discharged from the military and travelled throughout the world, working as a freelance reporter and running a newspaper in Franco's Spain.

There is some evidence that Australian intelligence agencies kept a file on him for his leftist sympathies and had movements monitored. He had been placed on a passport alert list by Australian authorities.

Balibo is a valuable political history of East Timor. Reading this book, one begins to understand the political differences among the Timorese in 1975.

Civil war broke out between Fretilin and UDT in 1975, but Timorese political leaders downplayed these differences in the latter course of the independence struggle in the name of national unity.

The two largest factions were pro-independence Fretilin and the UDT. The other major political forces were the pro-Indonesia Apodeti and the monarchist KOTA.

The recent film Balibo, which relied on aspects of Jolliffe's book, opted for a simpler portrayal between bad Indonesians (admittedly in the form of the invading force mainly) and the good Timorese. It would have been far too complex to portray the various political factions in the film.

After the invasion, Jolliffe painstakingly collected material and interviews with eyewitnesses, among them Timorese refugees living in Portugal and Australia.

She examines how the issue lay dormant in the public eye until the advent of the Sherman inquiry in 1996 called by then Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans but which proved to be toothless.

Indonesian and Australian authorities maintained that the men were killed in "the heat of battle" either between Timorese warring factions, or between UDT forces that Indonesia was assisting, and Fretilin.

Jolliffe disproves these assertions in the book through testimonies of Timorese present in Balibo and who had worked alongside the Indonesian soldiers at that time.

An end to Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999 opened up possibilities to find new witnesses in East Timor and renewed media interest on the issue.

Similarly, the 2007 NSW coronial inquiry into the death of Brian Peters, led by NSW Deputy Coroner Dorrelle Pinch at the request of Peters' sister Maureen Tolfree, provided a new impetus to reinvestigate the deaths.

You can only thoroughly understand how the Balibo Five fitted into Timorese (and Indonesian) political history, and the stinking manoeuvres by successive Australian governments to hide the truth about Balibo, through a close reading of this book.

Balibo is a cracker of an investigative report, with the witnesses and those accused of being guilty jostle for space in this book. Patience is required to deal with the volume of material in the 34 years that have lapsed in this case. The anniversary of the Balibo deaths was on October 16.

Issue