A Shadow Over East Timor
A documentary by Mandy King and James Kesteven
Produced by Shadow Films in association with SBS Television
To be screened by SBS TV on Friday, May 3, 11.40 p.m. (11.10 p.m. in Adelaide)
Reviewed by Norm Dixon
Hidden away in the financial pages of Australia's newspapers last week was a news item which will have started the champagne glasses clinking in corporate boardrooms and federal ministers' offices. It reported that BHP Petroleum's Skua-8 well in the Timor Sea had struck oil.
The dry technical figures didn't mention another relevant statistic: the hundreds of thousands of human beings who have been murdered and starved in East Timor at the hands of the Indonesian military invaders.
A Shadow Over East Timor is a chilling chronicle of the genocide, of Pol Pot proportions, that began in 1975, and of the continuing resistance against it by the Timorese people, led by Fretilin.
It also exposes successive Australian governments since 1975 as ignoring, even encouraging, the brutality so that Australian big business could get its hands on the oil treasure it hoped lay beneath sea off the coast of East Timor.
On November 28, 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor's independence. Ten days later, Indonesian paratroopers invaded the former Portuguese colony. Since then, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese — almost a third of the population — have died through war and starvation. Tens of thousands more have been tortured and abused in that time.
Mandy King and James Kesteven interview Timorese refugees now living in Australia who graphically describe their awful experiences. They tell of inhuman torture and horrifying massacres, famine and terror.
Shadow documents the connivance of the Whitlam Labor government in the first instance and the selfish exploitation of the misery of Timorese people by the Hawke Labor government. Included is television footage of Australian journalist Greg Shackleton's last report filed from East Timor. In that report, he relayed Fretilin's plea for help from the Australian government. Two days later, Shackleton and four other Australian reporters were murdered by Indonesian soldiers.
The Australian government has never acknowledged they were killed, nor has it asked for an inquiry into their fate, even though — as this documentary reveals — senior federal ministers were informed by intelligence organisations within 24 hours of the killings taking place. In September 1974, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had already indicated to Indonesian President Suharto his government's support for East Timor's integration into Indonesia.
In December 1989, Australian and Indonesian foreign ministers signed the Timor Gap Treaty, which shared the potentially oil-rich Timor Sea floor between the two countries. Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas are shown quaffing champagne and guffawing uproariously, oblivious to the amorality of the occasion.
"I think an interest in the resources of the Timor Gap and a desire to exploit those resources has been a determinant of Australian policy on East Timor since 1975", says Pat Walsh of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, putting the sorry history of East Timor into perspective.
The film exposes the hypocrisy of the Hawke government's opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the light of its Timor policy. Hawke is shown telling the Australian sailors departing for the Gulf, "Big countries cannot invade small neighbours and get away with it". But "what about us?", responds a bitter Timorese refugee, "a country of 180 million invaded a country of less than 700,000, and a third have been killed."
As Sasha Stephen, author of Credibility Gap — Australia and the Timor Gap Treaty, points out "the treaty violates one of the most fundamental elements of international law, which is listed in many resolutions and the UN Charter, namely that territorial acquisition by force is never recognised as lawful."
Shadow provides a succinct and informative history of the struggle for an independent East Timor. It contains footage of mass Fretilin rallies prior to the invasion, as well as more recent film of the freedom fighters.
The situation portrayed is not hopeless. In recent years there has been an upsurge of political activity, spearheaded by East Timor's youth. The program contains interviews with student activists taped clandestinely by the film-makers inside Indonesia. There are also graphic scenes of the protests that erupted during the visit of the pope in October 1989 and the visit of the US ambassador to Indonesia in January 1990.
The people of East Timor have suffered terribly, and their plight has been brushed aside by many self-appointed "champions" of human rights. The makers of A Shadow Over East Timor deserve much credit for revealing the truth. SBS also should be thanked for giving us a second opportunity to view this important documentary.