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Fools step in

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 21 December 2009

For 25 years the invasion of East Timor and the murder of five Australian journalists at Balibo by members of the Indonesian armed forces defined the relationship between the two countries.

It is still significant. In November 2007 the NSW Deputy Coroner, Dorelle Pinch found that, “The Balibo Five ... were shot and or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle”. The murders were carried out by Indonesian special force soldiers.

The findings were referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation as war crimes. Nothing happened under AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty. It couldn’t. Keelty was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had developed a relationship with the Indonesian police and military to thwart people smuggling. He feared that investigating the military over the Balibo deaths would hazard the finely balanced refugee disruption operation in which the AFP was a player with the Indonesian military and police.


Keelty retired in May 2009 and August his successor Tony Negus announced that the AFP would begin its investigation into the deaths. In September the Indonesian government said that the case should remain closed. In October refugee boats started to arrive in Australian waters and in November the Indonesian government banned the feature film Balibo which portrays the deaths and the events surrounding them. The film was, however, screened in Jakarta by the Independent Journalists’ Alliance on December 3.

The arrival of the refugee boats could be co-incidental because events in the source countries of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka saw conditions favouring the exit of persecuted individuals and families. Nonetheless the Indonesian military does have the capacity to turn on and off the flow of boats.

The Australian government is well aware of this and has sought to minimise this eventuality with increases in aid to police and military institutions. However, when events eventually dictated a different approach, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd sought a government to government agreement through the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The catalyst was a boat of Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing detention from Indonesian holding prisons. How they managed to get out of detention and find a boat to take 260 people to Australia remains a mystery.

Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread and so it was with Rudd. In mid October Rudd thought he had a deal with the Indonesian President after a hasty, and one suspects some-what desperate, phone call. Domestically the Opposition were braying at his heals and he ran even though he held an opinion poll lead of some substance over them.

Rudd was able to get the President to have the boat turned back by the Indonesian Navy. He followed this up with an agreement for Indonesia to accept asylum seekers bound for Australia. The agreement lasted less than a month when Rudd concluded a special deal with another group of Tamils on board an Australian vessel, the Oceanic Viking.

Local Indonesian officials and the military demonstrated the limitations of the President’s direct authority away from the city state of Jakarta. They refused to accept the refugees under the terms of the newly concluded agreement.


As the AFP can attest, the military and police control politics and the many and varied rackets outside the capital. The military has the primary domestic role of holding the archipelago together. It gives them considerable power. The President and other national politicians exercise power through influence and that power takes time to translate into action which sometimes is effective and sometimes is not. In this instance it was not.

Rudd should have known better. He should have been properly advised; perhaps he was and yet again didn’t listen. What possessed him to believe that the Indonesian military would be keen to save his domestic political hide? Yudhoyono’s lapse of judgment was just that and it cannot have been long before he was made aware of it from the quarters which matter.

What if anything did Rudd offer to make his deal stick? Cancellation of the order of US built F35 fighter bombers? Vast amounts of money into the pockets of Indonesian generals?

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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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