John Pilger speaks on East Timor

November 6, 1995

In October we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the murder of two Australian television teams in East Timor. Senator Gareth Evans has denied that the government covered up the facts of the killings in Balibo on October 16, 1975. Like so much of what Evans says on East Timor, however, that denial is refuted by the evidence of honest people. His government's cover-up and the cover-up of preceding Australian governments is a fact.

On September 4, 1975 the CIA reported to President Ford that the Indonesians had secretly invaded East Timor. On September 17 the CIA reported: "Jakarta is now sending guerrilla units into the Portuguese heart of the island in order to engage Fretilin forces and encourage pro-Indonesian elements and provoke incidents that would provide the Indonesians with an excuse to invade."

The CIA and other US intelligence agencies had intercepted much of Indonesia's military and intelligence communications traffic at a secret base run by the Australian Defence Signals Directorate at Shoal Bay near Darwin. The information was shared under treaty arrangements with Canberra and summarised in the National Intelligence Daily which the CIA publishes and places on the desk of the president every morning.

Reading this, there is no doubt in my mind that the Australian government knew that the Indonesian special forces were planning to land in Balibo in mid-October. There is also no doubt that the Australian government knew that the TV crews — Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters and Gary Cunningham — were in grave danger and that it made no attempt to warn them.

To do so would have revealed that it knew about Indonesia's invasion plans, which were being denied in Canberra. So it is reasonable to assume that the lives of the five newsmen were sacrificed to what has almost become a cult in Canberra — the relationship with Jakarta. The Australian government did not want the Australian public to know the truth. In a cable sent to Canberra in August 1975, the then Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, argued Indonesia's case for the invasion, and how Australian public opinion might be "assisted", as he put it.

"What Indonesia now looks to from Australia", cabled Woolcott, "is understanding of their attitude and action to assist public understanding in Australia rather than action on our part which could contribute to criticism of Indonesia". Translated from the diplomatic-speak, Woolcott was urging his government to lie in order to cover for one of the world's most brutal regimes as it invaded and illegally occupied a territory to which it had not the slightest claim.

And that is exactly what happened after the murder of the two TV crews. Of course, the journalists knew the risks they were taking. They expected to be captured. But they also had good reason to believe that the flowering of the so-called "special relationship" between the Australian and Indonesian governments offered them protection. They also made every effort to show that they were not armed — they dressed in non-military clothing and painted a large Australian sign on the wall of the house they were staying in.

I have sometimes found myself in similar situations and have decided not to stay. Staying on in such circumstances demonstrated a commitment on their part which their government, employers and compatriots ought to have been proud of. Everyone who has seen Greg Shackleton's camera piece, recorded the night before he was killed, and which was meant to be broadcast on Channel 7 in Melbourne, must feel that pride.

Shackleton said: "Something happened here last night that moved us very deeply. We were brought to this tiny village in East Timor and were the targets of a barrage of questions from men who know they may die tomorrow and cannot understand why the rest of the world doesn't care. Why, they ask, are the Indonesians invading us? Why, they ask, are the Australian's not helping us? I said we could certainly ask that Australia raise this fighting at the United Nations. At that, the second in charge rose to his feet, exclaimed, 'Camerado journalist!' and shook my hand and we were applauded because we were Australians. That's all they want — for the United Nations to care about what's happening here."

The next day the journalists were murdered.

A retreating Fretilin soldier saw them shot and stabbed. He reported that the Australians had their hands up and were made to face the wall of the house. Brian Peters, the Channel 9 cameraman, was shot with his camera turning on his shoulder. Tony Stewart, the young sound recordist for Channel 7, was shot dead as he tried to speak into his tape recorder although he was terribly wounded. As James Dunn has pointed out, the events on that day have been the subject of extensive research by a number of investigators and the differences in the conclusions are a matter of detail and not substance.

The journalists were murdered because they would have exposed Indonesia's conspiracy to invade East Timor, thus revealing the lies of the Jakarta regime — lies in which the Australian government was complicit. The Australian government made no formal public protest to Jakarta. Six months later, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser agreed that his government would take part in an Indonesian-run inquiry which was stage-managed to the point of farce. Australian officials, led by an embassy counsellor, Allan Taylor, flew to East Timor and interviewed East Timorese who were not East Timorese at all but Indonesian soldiers playing the part.

Others were East Timorese collaborators and trusted agents. It beggars belief that the Australian party did not know this. Not surprisingly, the report they submitted to parliament was "inconclusive" as to the cause of the journalists' deaths. This has been the government's line ever since. The man who led that charade of an inquiry, Allan Taylor, was rewarded with the job of Australian Ambassador to Jakarta where he is today, spreading the good word about Indonesia's "economic development" of East Timor.

Under Taylor and his predecessors, the Jakarta embassy has become something of a bad joke among honest elements in the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is known as the "good news post" because that is what it pumps out about a regime which Amnesty International and countless other human rights organisations describe as one of the most barbaric of the 20th century.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Australian Parliament has judged that "at least" 200,000 East Timorese have died under Jakarta's illegal occupation. The Australian embassy officials have consistently applied crude pressure to journalists not to publish what they call "bad news" about the regime.

This happened following the demonstration during the Pope's visit to East Timor in 1989. And it happened following the Santa Cruz massacre two years later, when at least two Australian witnesses to that massacre were subjected to offensive questioning by Australian embassy officials, trying to find holes in their stories. Again, earlier this year, as Ambassador Taylor and other Australian officials were taken on one of their regular guided tours of East Timor by the regime, an Australian nurse, Simon De Faux, attempted to tell them about the victims of massacre, torture and rape he had personally treated. An embassy official told De Faux that under no circumstances was he to speak to the media.

Moral debt

Some 60,000 East Timorese died in World War Two protecting Australian soldiers. We owe them an historic blood and moral debt. Yet now refugees from East Timor, our former allies, are to be sent back — that is, if Senator Evans is allowed to call them Portuguese. On one day, if it has to do with oil, he will call them Indonesians. On another day, if he wants to kick them out he will call them Portuguese. We should not allow the government to send these people back under any guise. Evans says we will never know the truth about the Balibo killings; just as he said the Santa Cruz massacre was an "aberration", just as he has consistently apologised for the Jakarta regime by claiming that its human rights record is "improving".

He usually times his statements of faith in Jakarta just as Amnesty International is about to document yet more atrocities. Fortunately, he cannot keep this up much longer.

Recently, a former intelligence officer with the Defence Signals Directorate, Michael Darby, confirmed that the government knew that Greg Shackleton and his colleagues had been murdered. A former puppet governor of East Timor has also described how he and other collaborators were made to sign, under duress, a paper covering up the truth of the Balibo killings. We will hear much more about that in the near future.

Here, I would like to pay tribute to Greg Shackleton and his comrades, who offer a model of professionalism, initiative and courage for all journalists. It is time that journalists honour their memory by following their examples. I would like to pay a special tribute to Shirley Shackleton who has fought an often lonely, always informed and brave battle to bring about not just the disclosure of the truth of her husband's death but the truth of what the Indonesian regime's friends in Canberra have done to the people of East Timor.

I also want to make mention of an Australian journalist for whom there have been no commemorations, no tributes. Roger East went to East Timor in November 1975, outraged at the killing of the two television crews. Before he left his home in Darwin he told his sister, "The people of East Timor have been betrayed; someone's got to go and get the truth out". Roger East was the only Western journalist to stay on in Dili when the Indonesian paratroopers landed on December 7, 1975. He managed to file a dispatch to AAP in Darwin before he was caught. He was dragged to the sea front, bound with wire and shot in the face. His body fell into what the East Timorese now call "the sea of blood", because hundreds of men women and children suffered the same fate. An Indonesian report later claimed that Roger East was an armed revolutionary.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra did nothing and said nothing. I salute a man whose memory we must never forget, just as we must never forget the East Timorese comrades fighting on in the bush, providing support for the resistance in countless ways, including those in Indonesian prisons.

Suppression of truth

In April last year, Paul Keating launched what he called a "trade and cultural promotion" with Indonesia. His speech was praised in the Australian media for its "maturity". He announced a partnership with Jakarta which would "stand as a model for cooperation between developed and developing countries". He described the "stability" of the Suharto regime as, "the single most beneficial strategic development to have effected Australia and its region in the past 30 years".

He made not a single reference to human rights, let alone to the fact that in coming to power, Suharto and his generals had killed between half a million and a million Indonesians, and that in East Timor they caused the deaths of a third of the population, or proportionally more people than Pol Pot killed in Cambodia.

The Keating speech exemplified the suppression of historical truth in pursuit of a "free market" strategy. The deaths that have been paid for this "great benefit" to Australia were also excluded from the press reporting of Keating's speech, in the same way that Stalin's crimes used to be eradicated from the press of eastern Europe. Australian journalists who find that a sobering comparison should go back and look through the newspapers of the time where they will find an editorial in the Australian which said that the Suharto regime can now be declared "moderate".

Keating's speech was made on the same day that a distinguished Indonesian academic, George Aditjondro, risked his livelihood and possibly his life to speak out, to take "the veil of secrecy" off what was happening in East Timor. Aditjondro's two research papers have had no substantial publicity in Australia. He quotes a figure of 60,000 East Timorese (10% of the population) killed in the first two months of the occupation.

He writes, "The death toll quickly escalated during the first three years of the war. The population in the territory fell from 688,000 in 1974 to 329,000 in October 1978. What has happened to the shortfall of 359,000 people? "About 4,000 went into exile, a large number were forced to flee or went voluntarily into the forests, but anecdotal accounts point to an exceedingly high death toll." Aditjondro is saying that the figure of 200,000 is an under-estimate. Aditjondro also gives credence to the reports of foreign observers of the use of napalm and agent orange, dropped in East Timor by American-supplied aircraft.

He chronicled the decimation of the people of East Timor who, before the invasion of 1975, lived in the valleys of the western interior of the country. He put their population in 1974 at 406,000. After four years of bombing it was 68,000. This is genocide by any definition of that term. Aditjondro documented the "various ways of executing the survivors of the aerial bombings" and how the Catholic Church in East Timor was prevented from distributing famine relief in the late 1970s, when starvation claimed many thousands of lives as a direct result of the occupation.

He also describes how Indonesian soldiers have systematically abused East Timorese women, a practice confirmed by De Faux this year. The most important indirect consequence of the war in East Timor, says Aditjondro, is the fostering of a culture of violence.

"This reached its zenith" he wrote, "with the massacre of 271 young people at the Santa Cruz cemetery on the 12th of November 1991". Paul Keating has recently been to Bali to meet Suharto for the fifth time. I wonder if it was pointed out to him that under the car parks of some of the most notable hotels in Bali are mass graves from the mid-1960s. The Balinese suffered terribly during that period when Suharto came to power.

We should bring the public's attention to this. I believe in boycotts and the Jakarta regime is extremely vulnerable on tourism which is probably the single biggest dollar earner. A campaign might be directed at those Australians who go, often unaware, to the scene of massacres that were a precursor to the genocide in East Timor.

The former Indonesian Ambassador has described Paul Keating as a "comrade in arms". That is an accurate statement because Australia is now part of the Indonesian war effort in East Timor. The Australian army is training Indonesian Strategic Command troops, whose units took part in the original invasion and who committed some of the worst atrocities in East Timor.

The Australian army is collaborating with an army which Amnesty describes as not in any way configurated to defend its own country, but existing to control and subjugate its own people. There have also been secret exercises with the Indonesian navy. At the time of the Dili massacre the Department of Defence in Canberra welcomed General Mantiri, the man whom a Boston Court last year found had been responsible for the death of the son of Helen Todd in the Dili massacre.

More recently, General Baker, the commanding officer of the Australian army, telephoned Mantiri, who fortunately did not reach us as Ambassador, to tip him off about all the problems that he might face here. What this all adds up to is a lucrative trade in defence technology, weapons and so on.


We read in the newspapers that East Timor is really doing well, that it is being "developed". This is a myth. I have travelled extensively through East Timor and can assure you that the "development" to which diplomats like Ambassador Allan Taylor and others refer to are show-places. Inland, away from Dili, the conditions are primitive. Clinics and schools have no equipment and young East Timorese are unemployed.

The centrepiece of Indonesian "development", the transmigration policies, aim to reduce the East Timorese population to a minority. We should campaign against transmigration and against the World Bank's involvement, through the granting of "aid" to the Indonesian regime, in this sort of "development".

What we should not forget is the honourable past of the Indonesian people. Between 1945 and 1959 Indonesia had one of the freest parliamentary democracies in the world. The subsequent oppression at home and in East Timor is unworthy of such a people, with such a history. Many Indonesians are fighting back now. The independent trade unions, journalists and the pro-democracy movement are actively opposing the regime.

Other Indonesians will not be silent for long. There are changes coming. I believe that within the foreseeable future, East Timor will get its independence and Indonesia will be on a path to its own liberty. Being in East Timor was an unforgettable experience for me. One impression I came away with was of a resistance whose stamina and courage is a matter for historical record.

When the Indonesians or Senator Evans talk about Fretilin as "finished", or refer to the small number of troops, what they leave out is that for every soldier in the bush, there are hundreds of people supporting them. Those people will never be defeated and we must again pledge ourselves to support them in every way until they are free.
[Abridged from a talk to a Green Left Weekly sponsored public meeting at North Melbourne Town Hall on October 20.]

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