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Roger East and the Balibo Five: a long official silence

By Adam Henry - posted Friday, 7 August 2009

The people of East Timor have been betrayed; someone's got to go and get the truth out (Roger East to his sister before going to East Timor in 1975).

The film Balibo (based on 30 years of research by Jill Jollife), tells a story that will be unfamiliar to most Australians. It is not just the story of the journalists (the Balibo Five), who were murdered by Indonesian troops, but also the story of Roger East.

East, was a freelance journalist, who travelled to East Timor in 1975 at the behest of Jose Ramos Horta, to investigate what had happened to the five journalists and report on the situation there. He was present to witness the beginning of Indonesian military rule in East Timor. Indonesian rule in East Timor began in much the same way as when it eventually collapsed in 1999 - in state sponsored crimes. On December 7, 1975, Indonesian paratroops landed in the East Timorese capital of Dili and went on a rampage of theft, murder, rape and pillage. By December 8, Roger East was dead and the last independent eyewitness to the illegal Indonesian invasion was silenced.


[East] managed to file a dispatch to AAP in Darwin before he was caught [by the Indonesian military]. He was dragged to the sea front, bound with wire and shot in the face. His body fell into what the East Timorese now call "the sea of blood", because hundreds of the men, women and children who suffered the same fate. An Indonesian report later claimed that Roger East was an armed revolutionary. The Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra did nothing and said nothing. (John Pilger speaks on East Timor on November 7, 1995.)

In 2007 Magistrate Dorelle Pinch (who presided over the Brian Peters Coronial Inquest) concluded that invading Indonesian soldiers murdered the five journalists at Balibo:

Brian Raymon Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvey Rennie, Gregory John Shakleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as the “Balibo Five”, died at Balibo in Timor-Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo. There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah. (Magistrate Dorelle Pinch.)

Despite this long overdue judicial acknowledgement, there are some Australian citizens who knew virtually from the very beginning what had happened at Balibo (and indeed East Timor). These individuals are seemingly the chosen few i.e. they are fully aware of what occurs in places such as East Timor, West Papua and Aceh and maintain an officious silence.

While there have been some sensational published exposés that have brought evidence of this reality to light, let me be blunt, at no stage was there any great mystery over Balibo, Roger East or East Timor. This type of information is always well known to the very highest levels of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC), the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Australian politics. Ever since the establishment of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in 1951 (and its special focus on Indonesia), not only is such information supplied to certain individuals at these highest levels, this information helps to define their understanding of Jakarta.

Australian intelligence gathering

The Australian capacity for electronic intelligence gathering in South-East Asia has long been formidable and is given the greatest respect by its closest allies (the USA and UK). The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) on its own has the ability to intercept any number of electronic and satellite communications (official and unofficial) in South-East Asia and particularly Indonesia. Desmond Ball and Hamish MacDonald have done much to bring this fact to the attention of the Australian public. Even in the 1970s, the only question the Indonesians could possibly have was the exact extent of Australian knowledge of their operations.


[In December 1975] DSD was monitoring Indonesian military activities. It listened in to the Indonesian attack on Balibo. At 6.45am (East Timor time) on October 16 it heard the military report on the dead white men. This evidently shocked DSD, which had assumed that the journalists were being protected. The only member of the Whitlam Government who had known of the DSD before entering office was the Defence Minister Bill Morrison (a former career diplomat). About 10 hours after the shooting, the permanent head of the Defence Department, Sir Arthur Tange, briefed the Minister on what had happened. Sir Arthur explained that the Government could not reveal what had been learned about Balibo for fear of alerting the Indonesians to the accuracy of DSD's work. The Indonesians burnt the bodies. DSD listened to the military radio conversations about the bodies being turned into ashes. (Keith Suter, Balibo: The Massacre That Won't Go Away, July 26, 2009)

Therefore, the lives of the Balibo Five and Roger East were judged to be less important than the maintenance of Australia’s intelligence edge over their Indonesian counterparts. After all in regard to Indonesia, since 1965 the strategic, economic and intelligence priorities of Australia, Britain and US had already trumped the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians and West Papuans.

This is what those hard nuts in “the game” call the “bigger picture”; those of us not in the great game are condemned to only seeing this as morally reprehensible. In 1975 the highest sections of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Australian politics had already decided that East Timor should become a part of Indonesia. Therefore, the lives of the Balibo Five, Roger East and 183,000 East Timorese can now be added to the list of what British historian Mark Curtis calls “unpeople”.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 19501966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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