Vale Shirley Shackleton, fighter for justice for East Timor

January 17, 2023
Shirley Shackleton was committed to ensuring justice for East Timor. Photo: Balibo House Trust/Facebook

Shirley Shackleton, East Timor activist and friend, has died aged 91.

A few days before Shirley died, I had sent her a letter hoping she would be able to visit South Melbourne Markets where she meets a lot of her friends. I had enclosed a Free Julian Assange badge: Shirley was an admirer of what he had done, revealing war crimes.

Shirley was an admirer of many fighters for justice and freedom: John Pilger, Mark Davis and Julian Assange. She also admired Abel Guterez when he was a bus driver and Timor activist in Melbourne and much later when he was East Timor's Consul General.

Peter Cronau let me know the sad news. Noam Chomsky emailed me to say he was very sorry to hear of Shirley’s death and that she was “a wonderful person”.

Shirley Vern was born in Adelaide and trained as a nurse. She also worked in radio. She married Greg Sugar (later Shackleton), a leading reporter at HSV7 in Melbourne, and had a son, Evan.

Greg was one of the five journalists killed in Balibó, East Timor, in a pre-invasion raid by a secret unit of the Indonesian military. This massacre of the journalists is graphically shown in the film, Balibo.

There was much deliberate obfuscation, at the time, by the United States-backed Suharto regime in Indonesia. The journalists were killed in cold blood as a way of hiding the crimes they were committing, and were to commit, when Indonesia invaded on December 7, 1975.

Roger East, another Australian journalist, was also murdered by Indonesian soldiers on that day.

Australia’s official complicity in the murders was indicated by the lack of protest from the Gough Whitlam government or the subsequent Malcolm Fraser government. How often in the years that followed did we hear claims that the journalists somehow should have known better, or had brought it on themselves?

The invasion by the Western-backed Indonesian military was a bloodthirsty killing spree: about a third of East Timor’s nearly 1 million people were killed either directly or by starvation and disease.

Shirley, even with her own tragedy, made common cause with the Timorese people’s struggle and resistance.

She did not join any one group, but stood in solidarity with all of them in Melbourne. She had a huge flair for publicity, in the service of the Timorese. She was never boring: she told me she would never say the expected thing.

She had a talent for telling the truth and for writing. Circle of Silence: a personal testimony before, during and after Balibo, published in 2010, stands as testimony to both.

Although there was some reporting on Timor, there was, essentially, a “circle of silence” in the mainstream media.

Shirley had a lot of courage: she confronted murderer General Benny Moerdani and confronted then Prime Minister Paul Keating on Australian complicity in the illegal occupation. This complicity, which included Australia training elite Indonesian soldiers, was part and parcel of making out the invasion was legal, that resistance was a lost cause (thank you, Gareth Evans) and Timor’s oil and gas was really Australia’s.

Both major parties were ambitious to steal East Timor’s resources to enrich Woodside and Santos. That did not end with the East Timorese’ heroic winning of their freedom in 1999 or official statehood in 2002.

Sister Susan Connelly remembers Shirley’s outspokenness and wit: she told an audience in Adelaide that any ASIO agent present should be ashamed of themselves and leave.

Shirley was no mourning widow: she fought for justice. The terrible suffering of the Timorese, their Holocaust stories, was also hers. Whole families had been slaughtered. Whole villages. But the resistance in East Timor always survived.

No Indonesian civilians were killed. The enemy was the Western-backed Indonesian military. Hence the title of Mark Aarons’ 1992 book East Timor: a Western made tragedy.

In the end, the Timorese, together with communities across the world, won against corporate tyranny and propaganda. We cannot claim many victories, and this one came at huge cost to the brave East Timorese.

I hope Shirley’s beloved house and garden in South Melbourne becomes a sort of shrine and a plaque celebrating her life of courage, wit and solidarity will be installed.

We miss you.

Shirley's funeral, on January 23 at 2.30pm in Melbourne, will be livestreamed here. The family will organise a memorial event to celebrate Shirley's life at a later date.

[Stephen Langford, Order of Timor, was Secretary of the Australia-East Timor Association (NSW) and is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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