The Balibo probe: How deep will they dig?

21 September 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

The Australian film Balibo has triggered a new Australian Federal Police investigation in to the deaths of five Australian television journalists during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor — Jakarta maintains that they were killed in crossfire. But an extensive investigation of the atrocities preceding East Timorese independence may reveal darker agendas.

“Something happened here last night,” journalist Greg Shackleton reported days before being shot and stabbed to death, “that moved us very deeply.”[i]

“Why, they ask, are the Australians not helping us? When the Japanese invaded they did help us.”

The declassified U.S. Department of State document, Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State[ii], details the meeting former U.S. President Gerald Ford and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had with then Indonesian President Suharto — one day prior to the 1975 invasion of East Timor.  The recorded conversation confirms Washington’s approval of the invasion.

“We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action[iii],” the documents reveal Suharto saying. “We will understand and will not press you on the issue[iv],” replied Ford.

Kissinger stressed the need for the operation to begin after he and Ford had returned to the U.S. “We understand your problem and the need to move quickly but I am only saying that it would be better if it were done after we returned[v],” the former secretary of state said.

23 years later, in December 1998, mounting violence in East Timor prompted former Australian Prime Minister John Howard to write a letter[vi] of advice to then Indonesian President B.J. Habibie — inadvertently triggering a final resolution on the status of East Timor.

The letter itself evolved to become one of Howard’s greatest political weapons, albeit, erroneously. Contrary to popular representation and belief, the two-page letter reaffirms Australia’s support for an Indonesian controlled East Timor. “I want to emphasise that Australia’s support of Indonesia’s sovereignty is unchanged,” Howard writes, “It has been a longstanding Australian position that the interests of Australia, Indonesia and East Timor are best served by East Timor remaining part of Indonesia.”

Habibie construed the letter as a challenge to Indonesian sovereignty. “As I read that, I was upset,” Habibie said in an interview to the ABC’s The Howard Years, “It is John Howard who make me make a quick decision[vii].” Perhaps Habibie doesn’t take kindly to advice or maybe he was spooked by a Howard government public relations campaign sympathetic to an independent East Timor. Nevertheless, this projected sympathy served the Australian government well in masking its assistance to Jakarta’s objectives.

Confidential cables uncovered by The Bulletin revealed that as early as February 1999 an officer from the Prime Minister’s own department -Peter Varghese- argued in Washington that peacekeepers were not necessary. “Mr. Varghese noted that an early offer of a peacekeeping operation,” the foreign affairs cables said, “would remove any incentive for the East Timorese and Indonesians’ to sort out their differences.”[viii] This dialogue is consistent with Howard’s letter to Habibie. “It might be worth considering,” Howard advises, “a means of addressing the East Timorese desire for an act of self-determination in a manner which avoids an early and final decision on the future status of the province.”

One month earlier in January 1999, Defence Intelligence Organisation documents[ix] reported that the Indonesian military was sub-contracting out its security responsibilities to the militias to avoid international criticism. Confidential cables uncovered by The Bulletin detailed former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s discussions about the military arming militias with Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas (23 February, 1999). 

“This is the legitimate arming of auxiliaries,”[x] Alatas told Downer.

“When I raised it with Ali Alatas the other day,” Downer claimed, “{he} said that it certainly wasn’t happening, …they weren’t arming paramilitaries.”[xi]

After the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 British ambassador John A. Ford sent a secret telegram to Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office saying, “If asked to comment on any stories of atrocities I suggest we say that we have no information.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Downer made the following comment. “The military give one story,” Downer suggested after the infamous Liquica church massacre in April 1999, “Others give another story.  Still others give a different story again.  So our report is that you’re getting very conflicting accounts, wildly different accounts of what actually happened, but what you can be sure of is that some people did die.”[xii]

The deaths of the Balibo Five is a fragment of the history of East Timor’s bloody struggle for independence.  A new AFP investigation may revise the account of their deaths, but how deep will they dig?

Glen Clancy is a journalism student at La Trobe University.

[i] AM ABC Local Radio, East Timor – Historical montage, 30/8/1999,

[ii] Gerald R. Ford Library, Kissinger-Scowcroft Temporary Parallel File, Box A3, Country File, Far East-Indonesia, State Department Telegrams 4/1/75-9/22/76, Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State, 6 December 1975,

[iii] Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State, 6 December 1975,

[iv] Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State, 6 December 1975,

[v] Embassy Jakarta Telegram 1579 to Secretary State, 6 December 1975,

[vi] Howard’s letter to President B.J. Habibie, 19 December 1998,

[vii] ABC TV, The Howard Years, Episode 2,

[viii]ABC 7:30 report, Documents reveal Australia argued against peacekeeping, 5/10/1999,

[ix] AM ABC Local Radio, Leaked files challenge Govt’s East Timor stance, 24/11/1999,

[x] ABC 7:30 report, Documents reveal Australia argued against peacekeeping, 5/10/1999,

[xi] ABC 7:30 report, Documents reveal Australia argued against peacekeeping, 5/10/1999,

[xii] AM ABC Local Radio, Secret Defence documents point to East Timor cover-up, 23/11/1999,