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Balibo inquest shows the futility of appeasement

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 14 June 2007

The New South Wales coronial inquest into the killing of five journalists in East Timor in 1975 has achieved far more than earlier government inquiries into the deaths.

The Deputy NSW Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, has been able to uncover facts that other investigations could not, and the inquest has confirmed the cover-up engaged in by successive Australian governments.

This cover-up was maintained through a loose consensus of foreign policy-makers, known as the pro-Jakarta lobby, including public servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs, politicians, journalists, academics and businessmen.


It came into being and was maintained to try and protect the Indonesian government from adverse commentary and scrutiny which it was felt might damage a fragile relationship. This policy amounted to appeasement and brought few rewards.

Maintenance of the policy included sweeping under the carpet Indonesian military atrocities in Aceh, Flores, East Timor and West Papua and complicity in military corruption.

There were three previous inquiries. The first was conducted in 1976 by an official from Foreign Affairs, Alan Taylor, which reiterated Indonesian denials and regurgitated publicly available information that the deaths by shooting were accidental.

Under pressure, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer instituted an inquiry in 1996 by the former head of the National Crime Authority, Tom Sherman; it concluded that the five had been killed by crossfire.

This finding did not satisfy those outside the pro-Jakarta lobby and under further pressure Downer, in 1999, again whistled up Sherman, who surprisingly came to the same conclusion, although adding the useful rider that if the journalists had been murdered it was the result of a blunder.

The coronial inquest lays bare the Australian attempt to get Indonesia off the hook over the cruel and calculated murder of five journalists done in an attempt to hide the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. It also exposes the shallowness and expediency of the policy of appeasement peddled by the pro-Jakarta lobby.


However, it fights on under the patronage of Downer who apparently urged NSW law authorities not to serve the visiting Governor of Jakarta, Sutiyoso, with a subpoena to appear before the coroners court. A police request to do so was met with flight and anger expressed on his return home which prompted the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, to apologise, no doubt on advice from Downer.

Given what has transpired at the coroners court, I would have thought that Indonesia should be apologising to the families of the victims and the Australian people. Imagine the fuss if the boot was on the other foot.

Indonesian forces invaded East Timor on October 7, 1975. The five Australian journalists were murdered on October 16 in Balibo.

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First published in The Canberra Times on June 8, 2007.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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