'Stop lying about East Timor'

August 10, 1994

On July 13, the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation met in New York and received submissions from a range of human rights, solidarity and Timorese groups on East Timor. The following is an abridged version of the submission from Maureen Tolfree, whose brother, Brian Peters, was one of five journalists murdered by Indonesian soldiers in Balibo, East Timor, on October 16, 1975.

Brian went to Balibo on assignment as a cameraman for Channel 9, Sydney. He died a terrible death trying to help the people of East Timor.

When Brian was about 18, he emigrated to Australia. In September 1975 he wrote and told us he had had an incredible week in a place called East Timor. Though there had been some fighting between Fretilin and UDT, he and Gerald Stone, his news director from Channel 9, discovered that Fretilin was in control of most of Dili. When he left, he helped a group of 140 UDT refugees to go to Darwin.

Brain also brought out an urgent appeal from the then president of Fretilin, Francisco Xavier do Amaral addressed to "the brotherly people of Australia". It asked for help for his people's "inalienable right" to "total and complete independence" and to resist any foreign intervention.

Brain was asked by Channel 9 to go on a second assignment to East Timor. He went to Balibo.

Brian's ex-girlfriend phoned me on October 18 to say he had gone out with four other journalists and that four bodies had been found. She told me the fifth man had not been found, and we hoped that he may have gone into hiding.

A few days later Gerald Stone phoned to say he feared all five journalists had been killed. He said we'd get a telegram, which we did. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, but we got no more news. I went to Australia on November 20, 1975 to sort out Brian's effects.

Soon after I arrived, I had a phone call from a foreign affairs official, saying how sorry he was about the death of my brother but "there was nothing I could do or say that would help in any way".

On my way back home from Australia, I decided to stop over in Jakarta in the hope of finding the remains of my brother. Four men came to fetch me from the plane. They were in khaki and had guns in their holsters and they took me to a room where one stood guard at the door.

Someone from the British or Australian embassy advised me by phone that they couldn't guarantee my safety and urged me to get on my booked Pan Am flight.

Back in Bristol, I got two letters from my MP, Tony Benn. The second one said "the Australian embassy doctor confirmed that positive identification of the bodies was not possible". It also said "the authorities handed over documents and a camera said to have been found beside the body of a fifth European whose remains had been burned".

Later I read a Newsweek report of November 10, 1975 which said that one of the journalists "Malcolm Rennie, reported ... that he had film of Indonesian warships and helicopters taking part in the fighting on Timor ... 'It's no secret that Indonesian troops are crossing the border', said one Australian diplomat in Canberra last week. 'And the last thing they want is to have a foreign TV crew catch them red-handed.'"

The Newsweek report was illustrated by three photos. One was of the building used by the TV crews with "Australia" in huge letters on the wall. Two smaller photos of Brian and Malcolm Rennie were captioned: "Strong suspicions of foul play".

Apart from a statement by an Australia official and an account of an investigation said to have been conducted into the five deaths suggesting that they had died in mortar fire, I heard nothing more.

Some months ago, I heard John Pilger speaking about East Timor on a radio program. In March, I heard of a demonstration on East Timor in Bristol. For the first time, I realised that many people in the UK were working for East Timor.

Since then I have heard that journalists tried to contact me and my father after Balibo but were told by the Foreign Office not to do so. I've also found out that the Foreign Office was informed about the deaths of the five journalists within 24 hours. They knew from Australia's defence minister that the Indonesians had killed those men but hid the fact.

I want the people of East Timor to have an internationally-supervised referendum on their future. I also want governments, including my own, to stop lying about East Timor. I want to know why my brother and his colleagues are buried in Jakarta. I want their bodies to be re-buried in East Timor or Australia.

I want a properly-conducted investigation into the deaths of the five journalists. But most of all, I want everything possible to be done for the people of East Timor. I'm 100% sure that is what Brian would have wanted.


[From East Timor Action Network/US]

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