War Crimes: The Movie – ISN

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After a movie based on the deaths of five journalists at the hands of the Indonesian army in East Timor hit the screens, Australian police launched a war crimes investigation into their deaths, sparking ire in Indonesia and ambivalence in East Timor, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

Looking back: history of Timor-Leste in pictures at CAVR museum in Dili (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Almost 35 years ago, five Australia-based journalists died while reporting on the early stages of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Jakarta maintains that the men died in the crossfire as the Indonesian army fought Timorese

fighters in Balibo, which sits a few kilometers from the border separating Indonesian West Timor from the eastern half of the island, now known as Timor-Leste.

The murders made headlines recently. On 24 July,  Balibo’ premiered in Melbourne, with Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta in attendance. The movie does not stick to the events of the day, digressing into a fictionalized scenario where the young Ramos-Horta accompanies another journalist, Roger East, to Balibo, to investigate the five’s disappearance. East went to Timor and, according to dozens of eyewitnesses,was shot on the Dili waterfront when the Indonesians took control of the city.

Real-time impact

The movie seems to have had some real-time impact beyond the silver screen. On 20 August, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) announced that it would launch a war crimes investigation into the deaths, based on 2007 recommendations by the deputy New South Wales coroner.

The coroner’s report concluded that Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart were shot or stabbed as they tried to surrender to the Indonesian-led troops who stormed the border town on 16 October 1975. According to the coroner, the men’s bodies were dressed in military uniforms and photographed with guns, before being incinerated in an attempt to portray them as combatants killed in a mortar attack.

Since then, the deceased men’s families have unsucessfully lobbied successive Australian governments for justice.

Partners at odds

It is not clear how effective the AFP investigation will be, as it will require Indonesian cooperation. Indonesia has ruled out extradition and is angry that the AFP is opening the case.

This has prompted some ‘realists’ to argue that Australia should not compromise its now-steady bilateral relations with Jakarta. Speaking to ISN Security Watch, spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry Teuku Faizasyah said “we regard this as a closed case. and while we value our excellent partnership with Australia, this is something of an irritation, and will have implications for bilateral relations, depending on how Australia approaches it.”

Australia has worked closely with the Indonesian police on counterterror operations since the 2002 Bali bombing, in which dozens of Australians died. That collaboration has yielded some spectacular results – such as the killing of Noordin Top three weeks ago –

Others have stated that the Balibo 5 were foolhardy and reckless, venturing  willingly into the danger zone. This view overlooks the fact that under international humanitarian law, reporters cannot be treated as combatants.

Teuku Faizasyah said “we are sympathetic to the families of the deceased, but we hope that they understand this past tragedy happened during a war.”

As a young journalist, Tony Maniaty reported from Balibo just days before  the five were killed. He now teaches journalism at the University of  Technology in Sydney, and is author of Shooting Balibo. He told ISN Security  Watch that nowadays war reporting is a much more dangerous business than in  1975, adding that “although the insurgents, terrorists and government forces  can kidnap and kill reporters with impunity, the Balibo story can help raise awareness of journalist’s rights and responsibilities in warzones.”

Dark dealings

The case could re-open the dark dealings carried out as Indonesia undertook its then-undeclared and illegal invasion of the former Portuguese colony.

In the book Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra by academic Des Ball and journalist Hamish McDonald, the authors outline how Australian diplomats knew in advance that the invasion would take place, but that Canberra did nothing to prevent it.

Had the Australians warned the TV stations, they would have conceded foreknowledge of the invasion, in turn promptingquestions about why it was not trying to prevent it.

Indonesia held on Timor-Leste until 1999, when a UN-backed referendum saw Timorese vote to leave Indonesia, whose occupation was never recognized under international law.

That anniversary came and went one month ago, with President Ramos-Horta reiterating his view that no international tribunal should take place to investigate crimes committed during Indonesia’s occupation. Pat Walsh is Senior Advisor to the Post-CAVR secretariat in Dili- the CAVR produced a 2,800 page report which is considered the definitive account of Indonesian occupation. He told ISN Security Watch that the Balibo movie and AFP case will “intensify lobbying and advocacy for justice to be pursued on behalf of thousands of Timorese.”

Like Australia, Timor-Leste’s leaders do not want to jeopardize relations with Jakarta, and are full of lavish praise for the democratic progress made by Indonesia since 1998. While this prompted predictable derision from human rights activists, those wary of Balibo causing an Australian-Indonesian rift found renewed succor. The argument goes along the lines of ‘if the East Timorese can let bygones be bygones, when perhaps 200,000 of them died, then surely Australia should not make a special case for five people.’

A subtle counter-argument suggests that it would show self-confidence and maturity for Indonesia to acknowledge abuses in Timor.

The Balibo murders were among the earliest atrocities committed by the Indonesian army and/or its Timorese proxymilitias.. One of the last acts of barbarism was a massacre of over 200 people in a Catholic Church in Suai, in the southwest, just days after the 30 August 1999 secession referendum.

The ringleader was an Indonesia-based civil servant named Maternus Bere, indicted by a UN investigation in 2003. He was arrested in Timor-Leste in mid-August, but soon released after Indonesia threatened to boycott Dili’s 10th anniversary celebrations, in turn prompting protests from Timorese victims groups and a threat by the parliamentary opposition to stop Ramos-Horta from travelling to the UN General Assembly.

Given the zeal with which President Ramos-Horta wants to move on from the past, some Timorese may find it incongruous that he supports an an investigation into Balibo 5 killings. However, as Tony Maniaty put it to ISN Security Watch, “President Ramos-Horta has to be pragmatic. Timor’s nation-building and security challenges mean that it needs a good relationship with Jakarta going forward, even though there are many thousands of Timorese who deserve justice.”

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  1. Pingback: Simon Roughneen – From Balibo to Bangkok: Journalists Under Fire – The Irrawaddy | simonroughneen.com

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