The Myths of Balibo

The last time I saw Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, two of the five newsmen killed in Balibo, East Timor, in October 1975, they were wearing military uniforms and were about to leave for the border with Indonesia in a jeep with Jose Ramos-Horta. The last thing Peters said to me was, “I am going to the border to get footage and I am not coming back until I have it.”

They were going to the border because they had heard reports of an impending invasion from Indonesia. I had flown up from Sydney with them the day before and was calling at their hotel early in the morning to pick them up for a visit to Oecusse, the little enclave of East Timor in West Timor. No foreigners had been there since the civil war and I was going to survey the medical needs; but they had found a far more exciting prospect.

Three days later these men from Channel Nine, and the team from Channel Seven, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham, were dead and on their way to becoming the “iconic, even mythological figures” described by Tony Maniaty in his book Shooting Balibo.

No one seems to believe me about the uniforms except Gino Favaro, the son of Frank Favaro, who owned the Hotel Dili in those days and did a bit of moonlighting for ASIO. Gino also talked with Peters and Rennie that morning and warned them they “might as well put a bull’s eye on the middle of their backs” as wear military clothes to the border. I did not foresee the danger. I remember the incident clearly because I was disappointed by what seemed to me to be their pretentiousness.

I had travelled to Timor with Peters earlier in the year, in August, with Kerry Packer and his Channel Nine team in the chartered Kon Piri Maru, which had arrived in the middle of the civil war, and I had enjoyed his company. I had joined the voyage as medical superintendent of an aid organisation. On that trip, Peters had told me he regretted never having gone to Vietnam as a reporter and I could see he was keen to make up for that lost opportunity by covering reported trouble on the border. Though it was common for journalists to wear military clothing in Vietnam, to see him and Rennie so quickly decked out for serious reporting seemed just a bit too mug-lairish.

I was not worried about their safety because I had long succumbed to a prevailing delusion in Timor that nothing could go wrong, that being Australian would diffuse any threat and ward off any bullet. In August, on several occasions, I had been close enough to stray bullets to feel their pressure, let alone hear the report and, frankly, had found it exciting.

I cannot explain the origin of this delusion. Perhaps it was the welcome by the Timorese and their encouragement for Australians to go anywhere and do anything we wanted. We seemed to be above the conflict. I have not suffered this delusion in any other country. In 1967, I had worked in Vietnam and experienced no such stupidity. In 1977, I worked in Lebanon and developed a chronic sense of debilitating vulnerability. Whatever its cause in Timor, it proved malignant, killing the newsmen.

They had expected to be able to stay in a little village and film its onslaught by an invading force and to emerge unscathed because they represented Australia, as evidenced by the flag they chalked on the wall of a house. No one in their right mind would have thought along those lines in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam of 1968, or in the onslaughts in Beirut in 1976.

Since their deluded deaths, those newsmen have indeed become icons: innocent larrikins cruelly murdered for their pursuit of truth and freedom by that favourite enemy of the Australian Left, Indonesia. Maniaty’s book, however, ought to reduce them to more human proportions. It is an engaging account of the five, revealing the dangerous enthusiasms and egoism of young men and, of course, their fatal delusion. It focuses on Shackleton and suggests an essential unsoundness, as a symptom of which he had swapped his last name for that of the Antarctic explorer only a year or two before his last stand in Balibo. It appears that, in Timor, Shackleton found a quest for Fretilin as powerful as the explorer’s for the Pole.

Jill Jolliffe’s book Balibo, and the movie Balibo, starring Anthony LaPaglia, sustain the iconic status of the journalists, air-brushing minor details and ignoring fundamentals that might challenge belief. The matter of the uniforms is, for me, an irritating example. I don’t believe any clothing would have made any difference to the outcome: dressing as clowns would have been more appropriate to their behaviour but no less dangerous. But I did see two of them in uniforms three days before, and others have reported some of them being in uniform after their deaths. For Jolliffe, the contortion that best promotes the maturity of the reporters and the evil of the Indonesians is that uniforms were applied to the corpses for the sake of publicity. Did the invading force carry spare uniforms, or did five soldiers disrobe?

Maniaty was in Timor at the time, reporting for the ABC, and he summarises the prevailing mood of journalists: “a wild adventure … carefree and committed” based on a conviction of being “bullet proof and … brilliant”. He reveals, however, that he was one Australian who did not share this mood. He was traumatised by some shells landing near him in Balibo and concludes that the Indonesians had learned of his presence in the town and had fired them specifically to warn him off and that, thereafter, they were after him.

I find it difficult to believe the Indonesians took that much notice of his presence in Balibo and, moreover, were able to land shells with sufficient accuracy to warn and not dismember. His heightened sense of danger, however, might well be interpreted as common sense which, causing him to leave Timor before the final invasion, undoubtedly saved his life.

Sadly and unreasonably, ever since then Maniaty has been burdened by “survivor guilt”. He confesses continuing “anger” at himself for “abandoning the East Timorese in their hour of need” and for “cowardice”, and is wounded by the presumed judgment of his colleagues. Writing his book, the story of which is entwined with the making of the movie Balibo, appears to have been cathartic, and I hope it lasts.

It is time for forgiveness with regard to some things in Timor. Maniaty should forgive himself for possessing wisdom that was lacking in others. Had he stayed in Balibo, like the five, and had he stayed in Timor, like Roger East, he would be long dead.

He was not the only person to be heartbroken to leave before the Indonesian invasion in November. I was medical superintendent of the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid—Timor, which had provided medical and other care since the civil war in August. Our team was running a health project in Dili when we had to evacuate. Our nurses wept and we felt guilty for a long time.

Jill Jolliffe, in her book Balibo, calls for Australians to “examine the history … and apportion blame where it belongs … whether in Jakarta or Canberra” for the killing of the journalists and other events in 1975. Her account is a ponderous attempt to lay individual blame for the killing of the newsmen who, she argues, were murdered in cold blood. I think it is time to apportion blame where it really lies—on the journalists themselves. It is time to blame them, and to forgive them for being young men.

Jolliffe argues that the murder of the Balibo Five was premeditated and conducted in “cold blood” to prevent news escaping about the Indonesian attack on Balibo. The movie pursues this line in moving detail. Jolliffe, however, describes a lengthy attack on Balibo complete with artillery and mortar bombardment, the exchange of fire, and then a final rush by the attacking troops. She reports this fighting lasted for at least two hours, maybe longer, and emphasises the ferocity of the exchange of fire. The battle appears to have had sufficient heat and duration to warm the blood lust and challenge the discipline of an invading horde. Prisoners of war are at greatest risk in those earliest moments of captivity.

Despite their reported protests to the attacking troops that they were Australian journalists with that inherent claim of neutrality, Maniaty reports that Shackleton had “indelibly painted himself as a key player in the Fretilin war machine. He passes on tactical information; he is not a journalist but a participant in the Balibo drama.” If the Indonesian intelligence was that clever in those days before mobile phones, perhaps the murders were retribution, but I favour the idea of blood lust. Amok is supposed to be an Indonesian word.

The killings in the movie are gruesome, as intended, especially so for me as I remembered two of the victims. I too was moved to despise the Indonesian officer portrayed as responsible for the brutality—but it turns out he was not even there. Just another construction by this film based on “fact”.

For me the most poignant scenes in the movie preceded the murders. The journalists are filming the attack on their village. They are positioned behind a low wall, but when the firing is overwhelming, the Fretilin troops are long gone and the Indonesians are upon them, they poke their cameras over the wall and film blindly. “Oh, Brian,” I thought, “you idiot.”

Should the spirit of forgiveness be extended to the historical bias of Jill Jolliffe’s book and its transference to the movie? Jolliffe maintains a utopian commitment to Fretilin, an inability to concede that some people really did believe in Marx, and that communism was fundamental to the history of 1975.

Jolliffe describes her mood in Timor in 1975. She recalls that “the atmosphere” for “those of us who visited the territory” at the time was “of infectious optimism, the belief that liberty was at hand” and this was “unforgettably exciting”.

I first went to Timor in July that year in order to assess medical needs and consider the possibility of developing a rural health program for the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid—Timor. I met with leaders of the three main political parties—Fretilin, the Democratic Union of Timor (UDT) and the integrationist Apodeti—and the Catholic Church. I travelled by road through many of the villages along the northern coast and south of Dili and was flown to inland centres by the Portuguese, who were enthusiastic at any concept of help.

I observed little “infectious optimism”. Fretilin had renamed itself in line with Frelimo, the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Front for an Independent Mozambique, and some of the Portuguese were expecting a similar commitment to revolutionary violence. Church leaders knew of the civil wars in Africa and were frightened by the growing fervour of revolutionary ideology.

UDT supporters were frightened, especially because they had reported Fretilin paramilitary training centres to the Portuguese government and had been ignored. They believed some of the Portuguese military officers were aligned with Fretilin in Marxist ideology and intent. These included the “Red Majors”, Jonatas and Mota, who ultimately vindicated UDT’s fears by ensuring the military stores fell to Fretilin. The police weapons of UDT were no match for the military weapons of Fretilin. Maniaty confirms this access in a conversation with a Fretilin leader who declared, “When the Portuguese left … they left it all there [the armaments] … Maybe they wanted us to have it, to win.”

Chinese inhabitants of East Timor were frightened, especially by one of the militant leaders of Fretilin, Mari Alkatiri, who had declared plans for the appropriation of foreign ownership and the need for the expulsion of “foreigners”. Some believed this meant “destruction”.

Rural villagers were frightened and already there were reports of clashes between pro-UDT and pro-Fretilin tribes. The allegiances were tribal and the conflicts may have been traditional but there was a fear of disintegrating law and order as Portuguese governance withered and nothing was done to reduce physical intimidation. The integrationist Apodeti leaders were frightened, and claimed that only Indonesia could prevent the country from descent into anarchy.

I agree, however, that Fretilin leaders were optimistic. Was this optimism based on the belief of inevitable progress under the leadership of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Were they, in other words, communist?

Did Jose Ramos-Horta believe? In June, before I went to Timor, I had spoken with him in Australia. He recounted the sins of the bourgeoisie, the glories of the proletariat and the coming wonders of independence and so on, but I had the strong feeling these proclamations were for a presumed audience and not from the heart.

Part of the wider audience would have been Denis Freney and others in the Communist Party of Australia who were early supporters of Fretilin. Therein may have grown some of the roots for tragedy, as Freney became the very public secretary for the Campaign for an Independent East Timor which functioned as a kind of Department of Foreign Affairs for Fretilin from well before the Indonesian invasion.

In July I had spoken with Xavier do Amaral, who became the first president of Fretilin after it declared independence in November 1975, and had considered him more influenced by his seminary origins than by Marx. When I spoke with him again in 2004, he recounted his personal concerns in 1975 about the ideological commitment to Marx and Lenin of some of the leaders of Fretilin and especially of students who had returned from Portugal. He said he had been deeply concerned by the association between Fretilin and Frelimo.

In that conversation on a pleasant afternoon, looking out across the bay, he said he regretted that Fretilin had declared it was a Marxist-Leninist party after taking to the bush after the Indonesian invasion. “What?” I asked. “Oh, yes, it declared itself Marxist-Leninist,” he replied, as if it were a matter of common knowledge.

Neither book—nor, of course, the film—considers the political backdrop to the events in Timor in 1975, but the background is fundamental to the events. One must understand Timor against the fall of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to communism earlier that year; to the success of Marxist-Leninist revolutions in Africa, particularly in the former Portuguese colonies; to the concurrent rise of the New People’s Army in the Philippines and the People’s Revolutionary Party in Sri Lanka; to the prior rise (and fall) of communism in Indonesia; to the strength of Communist China as confirmed by its rout of Indian forces along their border; to the reasoned belief that the Soviet Army could be at the Rhine by tomorrow and the Channel by the weekend; and the retreat of America.

Against this background lay the reality of Timor: primordial and poor, and with at least the semblance of shared belief with powerful communist movements in surrounding countries. In 1975 the concept of a Cuba in the soft underbelly of Asia was not unreasonable.

Jill Jolliffe performs contortions in her efforts to downplay the importance of communism. Dismissing it as a self-serving allegation against Fretilin, and a right-wing bogeyman in Asia, she is forced to discuss it with regard to Roger East, the sixth journalist to be killed in Timor and the hero of the film Balibo. East had gone to Timor to take over the foreign broadcasting for Fretilin, but is always portrayed as a neutral enthusiast for peace.

Jolliffe admits he was probably a member of the Communist Party, but strains to minimise the ideological implications. East merely possessed “strong leftist views” and was more of a “sympathiser” than a committed member of the party, which “was in any case, a legal political party”.

She recounts East’s journey to contact “renegade Australian journalist William Burchett” in Vietnam and join him in telling “the other side of the story”. This journey involved his visiting China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, but this astonishing access is not questioned by Jolliffe. She appears more concerned to answer any discomfort in the mind of the reader. She refers to an exculpating letter of East in which he later declares to his brother, “Once I supported China.”

Jolliffe complains that both Burchett and East were “harassed” for most of their adult lives by ASIO because of the “entrenched philistinism by Australian officials towards journalists”. Their renegade, larrikin desire for the truth is unworthy of such “contemptuous treatment”.

In the film, there is no suggestion of any darker ideology in East, whose innocence is manifest by a love for children and a mystical relationship with Mother Nature. He is so loyal to the pursuit of the truth of Balibo that he sets out to visit it not long after the invasion. Losing his vehicle, he must complete the remaining thirty or more kilometres by foot, and off he allegedly goes with Ramos-Horta but without any food or water or anything. In the jungle, they are confronted by an Indonesian helicopter specifically dispatched to finish them off. Luckily, the hovering gunner is short-sighted, short of bullets, and colour blind. After a few rounds the attack is abandoned and our hero can escape in the jungle, although the colour of his clothes stands out against its greenery.

East continues his walk, now in the night, down the main road to Balibo, led by a Fretilin soldier who pokes his rifle at the shadows. Luck again favours our hero, for Balibo is conveniently deserted, even of dogs, and he is able to find the house with the bloodstains.

Not surprisingly, the next day our hero becomes lost in the jungle, but this is an occasion to reveal there is even more to East than the pursuit of truth. He is a spiritual man. The jungle is beautiful, as pictures of it always are when you are not in it, lost, without food or water, and surrounded by people who want to kill you. But East is bathed in light and evocative music, and the camera dwells on crystal water and little fish. A philistine might conclude that he is thirsty and hungry and about to tuck in, but no, he is having a spiritual moment. For this viewer, this fantasy was too much.

In other scenes, East is justifiably horrified by the dead bodies of villagers and we, of course, conclude they were victims of the enemies of Fretilin. Neither the film nor Jolliffe alludes to any of the atrocities committed by that organisation.

In August, I had observed Chinese fleeing in terror from Fretilin soon after its victory. They waded pathetically into the sea to be rescued by Indonesian sailors, and they crushed in panic against the steel gates of the port. I observed cowed and beaten UDT prisoners. I had met many of the UDT who had been captured in Bacau and were later murdered by Fretilin. And I had met some of the Apodeti leaders whose bodies were later disinterred from mass graves or had simply disappeared.

Jolliffe talks of liberty, but the words of Jose Ramos-Horta should be more widely known. As reported by Maniaty, Ramos-Horta explains:

my mother still hates Fretilin. She cannot stand them because she saw with her own eyes what happened. Of course, she hates the Indonesians as well. She’s a simple woman who doesn’t play politics, but she says what she saw, and what she saw was Fretilin kill as much as Indonesia did …

Speaking of liberty, the story of Xavier do Amaral should be more widely known. When Fretilin had retreated to the mountains with many women and children in tow and had begun the guerrilla war against Indonesia, do Amaral concluded that women and children were better off in Dili under the Indonesians than with Fretilin in the bush. A revolutionary People’s Court found him guilty of treason and forced him to dig a grave-like prison, which they covered with bamboo. Every time they moved, he had to dig another hole. He asked me, “Can you imagine what it is like to live in a hole for months?” I could not. He said, however, that the hole was his salvation because he was in it when Indonesians attacked a camp and Fretilin withdrew.

The real story of Timor has yet to be told. Maniaty is closer to the truth than Jolliffe. Both books should be read, even if Jolliffe’s is a period piece of left-wing distortion. The film is ridiculous.

The claim that Canberra, specifically Gough Whitlam, was responsible for the journalists’ deaths is also ridiculous. Everyone, including Canberra, knew the invasion was about to happen. That is why the journalists were there. They were warned, as was my wife, who received a telephone call from Foreign Affairs when I was in Timor in October.

Was Whitlam right in his apparent acquiescence to the incorporation of Timor into Indonesia? I am on record as condemning that invasion. But in retrospect, what other decision could he have made? Whitlam could not have predicted the brutality, but the problems were obvious. Even now, after ten years of independence, with international aid and without the original pressure of communism, the country still needs foreign troops to forestall anarchy, and the governance is so weak the people are as poor as ever, despite all the oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

Dr John Whitehall is a paediatrician who was superintendent of the medical work of the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid—Timor which began before the civil war in 1975 and continued until the eve of the Indonesian invasion. He is now Chair (elect) of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Sydney.

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