The movie ‘Balibo’ headlining the coming Melbourne International Film Festival will again put in the spotlight the murder and its cover-up of six Australian based journalists in East Timor in 1975 - five in the border village of Balibo and one in Dili eight weeks later.
There will be some who argue that the events depicted in ‘Balibo’ are now part of history, that again raising this issue serves no productive purpose and, perhaps, that we still don’t know what really happened in that remote border village on 16 October 1975.
Despite these often self-serving objections, what ‘Balibo’ does remind us of is that grave crimes have gone unpunished. It also shows that the mistakes of our governments still reverberate, and its continued inability to be honest about these events tells us much about the difference between the type of society we think we live in, and that which we actually live in. As a society, we retain a stain that can only be removed with the application of transparency and accountability.
On 16 October 1975, Indonesian special forces led by Yunus Yosfiah murdered Australian-based journalists Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, who were reporting on Indonesia’s then covert invasion of East Timor. Roger East, who went to investigate their deaths, was murdered in Dili during the formal invasion, eight weeks later, on 7 December.
‘Balibo’ recreates these events, and the circumstances around them, with great skill and accuracy. But more than simply telling a story, ‘Balibo’ reminds us that the Indonesian military commanders who thereafter perpetrated massive crimes in East Timor continue to lead lives of impunity. As with the crimes against humanity that were pursued for decades after World War II, the crimes committed in East Timor have not disappeared because of the passage of time. It is simply that their perpetrators have managed to evade justice.
As a movie, ‘Balibo’ is confronting, heart-wrenching, and raises a sense of legitimate anger. These responses parallel how many Australians responded to events in East Timor in 1999, when by their numbers they compelled the Australian government to finally intervene.
Such responses also parallel how many Australians felt in 1975, and in the years since. If the concerns of 1975 faded, it was because our governments so effectively covered-up the truth of these events, and the horrors subsequently perpetrated upon the people of East Timor. The Indonesian government led that complicity, culminating in the carnage and its ignominious departure from East Timor in 1999. But our own governments, under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard, participated in that complicity.
The movie ‘Balibo’ also captures the reality that East Timor’s its people were just ordinary human beings caught in terrible circumstances. The scenes, too, in the forests and of streams, over the steep mountains and of the sea and sky are so accurate because they are East Timor. Dili’s emblematic Hotel Turismo had, and retains, the atmosphere of a Graeme Greene novel.
‘Balibo’s’ critics will attack it not for its art, but citing that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is, these days, positive, and East Timor is now an independent state with its own aspirations and struggles. What they are unlikely to admit it that the problems that East Timor has endured since independence have been rooted in its brutal past.
Importantly, too, two of the generals who were so instrumental in East Timor’s misery are now competing for Indonesia’s vice-presidency. Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto were not expected to be successful, but that men who might legitimately face charges of crimes against humanity could run for office a heart-beat from leading Indonesia speaks volumes. This impunity continues to gnaw at the people of East Timor, as well as the families and friends of the murdered Australian journalists.
On grounds of truth, it is difficult to fault director Robert Connelly’s film, from the order and accuracy of events to the dress of the characters. Colonel Dading Kabualdi is shown to murder Brian Peters, although it was Yunus Yosfiah who fired the shot, if on Dading’s orders. On the back of his gruesome work in East Timor, Yunus rose to become a Lieutenant-General, and later Indonesia’s information minister.
The remnants of Australia’s discredited ‘Jakarta Lobby’ might claim that its depictions have not yet been proven. Yet the now formally recorded eye-witness accounts have become too overwhelming for any doubt to remain. The 86 people, including Roger East, murdered on Dili wharf on 7 December 1975, is known because others who lived were made to count as they were shot.
In the following few years, somewhere between a quarter and a third of East Timor’s population were killed or died of starvation or preventable disease, establishing a record of brutality matching that of Pol Pot’s Cambodia. ‘Balibo’ takes us back to the first fearful moments of that unimaginable human catastrophe, precipitating that which followed.
Connolly is to be congratulated for creating, with ‘Balibo’, a landmark piece of Australian cinematography. He is also to be congratulated for reminding us of crimes still unpunished and of wounds that, without justice, remain unhealed.