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Issue #1429      23 September 2009


Balibo – the need to remember

It takes a long time for a country to come to terms with the shameful aspects of its past. Many Australians look on in frustration at the refusal of the Japanese government to face up to its wartime guilt, the refusal of Israeli authorities to deal honestly with their role in the dispossession of the Palestinian people. As Balibo – the celebrated film dealing with the murder of five Australian journalists in East Timor (Timor Leste) in 1975 – starts hitting the screens of multiplexes around the country, the public must wonder at what is keeping the Indonesian authorities from confronting the truth about aspects of the invasion of the tiny former Portuguese colony.

The guilt, presumably, would belong to the henchmen of the late dictator Suharto. Nothing is ever so simple, however. Two of the military figures allegedly responsible for the crimes are alive. One of them served in a senior government post in the post-dictatorship administration of President Habibe.

And, of course, Australia has skeletons of its own in this closet. By 1974 the Whitlam government in Australian had decided that East Timor should simply become absorbed into the Republic of Indonesia. As is now widely known, a major consideration was that Indonesia would be a more accommodating partner for the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the seas off Timor’s coast than would an independent East Timor. There was concern that the progressive independence forces would transform the emerging country into a “Cuba at our doorstep”.

Successive Australian governments looked on in silence as East Timor was subjected to one of the most horrendous genocides of modern times by Australian-trained Indonesian forces. Since the establishment of the independent republic of Timor Leste, Australia has sought to control the political development of the young country and steer its foreign policy.

Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University spoke up for those who would prefer to forget. “But for the country as a whole, our obsession with what happened at Balibo in 1975 has started to become a distraction from a whole lot of much more urgent and important questions, which include the nature of Australia’s relationship with the new Indonesia which is so different from the Indonesia of Suharto.”

Australians will be familiar with this type of argument. It has been used to try to bury the outstanding issue of the land rights of Aboriginal Australians. “We didn’t force the people from their land or steal their children from them. We should all just move on in the spirit of practical reconciliation,” is the convenient refrain. As was pointed out above, it takes a long time for a country to come to terms with its past. It was only last year that an Australian prime minister finally apologised on behalf of the Australian government to the stolen generations and their descendants. The task of “closing the gap” between living standards and life expectancy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are still to be tackled sincerely and effectively.

An estimated that 150,000 East Timorese out of a population of 650,000 died as a result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. The guilt of those responsible has not diminished over the years. And those responsible for the deaths of Australian journalists Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie are as guilty today as they were on October 16, 1975.

It has taken six inquiries into those deaths to finally shake off dubious political considerations and call the Balibo war crime by its proper name. The 2007 finding of the Glebe Coroners Court has finally led to the opening of an investigation of the murders by the Australian Federal Police. The release of the Balibo film might have forced the pace of events. The film has enraged Indonesian authorities. It appears unlikely they will permit the extradition of the main suspects but the war crimes must be pursued with the vigour they deserve.

Greig Cunnigham, brother of Gary, spoke plainly to the media last week about central issues involved. “The Cunningham family doesn’t believe in vengeance, we don’t believe in the death penalty but we do believe in justice. I don’t believe the bastards should be wandering around, bring them to trial, let them explain themselves.” The words could well have been spoken by the families of all the victims of the military aggression, occupation and genocide, crimes aided by Australia’s opportunistic collusion and cooperation.

Next articleFear and despair in Lightning Ridge

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