Australia and East Timor: the continuing denial

The Australian Timor information gap and the legacy of Shirley Shackleton

Shirley Shackleton, veteran campaigner for the independence of East Timor and the wife of Channel Seven journalist Greg Shackleton, who with five other Australian-based journalists was killed by Indonesian forces in Balibo on 16 October 1975, died in January this year at the age of ninety-one. Her death was met with well-deserved recognition with the publication of numerous obituaries and commentaries. Some demonstrate, however, that misconceptions about Australia’s role in the Indonesian occupation of East Timor remain, even among those sympathetic to Shirley and her legacy.

Shirley’s death invoked calls by José Ramos-Horta and others for key Australian documents relating to the Indonesian invasion and occupation to be released by the Australian government. While this long-overdue development would be welcomed, there remains no mystery about how the five journalists died. In 2007 a Sydney-based coronial inquiry into the death of Channel Nine cameraman Brian Peters determined that there was ‘strong circumstantial evidence’ they were killed by Indonesian Special Forces on the orders of their commander, Major General Benny Murdani. Neither is there any doubt about the Australian government’s advance knowledge of the Indonesian clandestine operation that led to their deaths.

At the instigation of Prime Minister Whitlam, Indonesian intelligence operatives provided detailed briefings to Australian officials in the Jakarta embassy from mid-1974 on, outlining Indonesian plans to destabilise the territory and sabotage the Portuguese decolonisation program. These included strident radio broadcasts from Indonesian West Timor propagating disinformation and division, the undermining of the relationship between Timorese parties, the encouragement of a coup d’état by the conservative Timorese Democratic Union against the leftist independence movement Fretilin, and ultimately a lethal and illegal military campaign in which Indonesian armed forces pretended to be Timorese.i Details of the Balibo operation in particular were provided to Australian officials in the month leading up to it, including a briefing by Indonesian intelligence operative Harry Tjan on 30 September 1975 stating that ‘up to 3800 Indonesian soldiers from Java would be put into Portuguese Timor gradually’. On 13 October Tjan was more explicit still, informing his Australian contacts that an Indonesian offensive in the following days would go ‘through Balibo and Maliana/Atsabe’.ii

The Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, dined with Murdani on the evening of 15 October. According to the Peters inquest, Woolcott was further informed about plans for the attack, although it is not clear whether he was told of the presence of the journalists. There is no doubt, however, that the ambassador would have known that Timorese would die in the illegal offensive (in international law) and that, deeply complicit as the Australian government was by then in Indonesian plans, he raised no objections.

As a cable to Canberra from the Australian embassy made clear on 18 October, the key Australian priority once the deaths became known was that the incident should not ‘inflame public opinion’ against their Indonesian confidants.iii The killings were clearly motivated by the Indonesian understanding that the journalists had the capacity to make the nature of the Indonesian operation known to the world, hampering their plans to integrate East Timor by force. With the Australian government supporting such plans, it worked stridently to support Indonesian goals.

The embassy attempted to obtain a statement from the Indonesians in accordance with the fiction that the operation had been an offensive by pro-integration Timorese rather than the Indonesian military, despite its clear knowledge that this was not the case. Whitlam wrote to Suharto on 7 November referring to ‘the valuable exchange of views on Portuguese Timor’ he had had with Suharto in their meetings in Yogyakarta and Townsville and asking for some official statement that could be used to placate Australian public opinion. In the lead-up to the full Indonesian invasion, which occurred on 7 December, this would have made it clear to the Indonesians that any action they might take, even the killing of Australians, would invoke no serious criticism from Australia. On 12 November, the day after Whitlam’s dismissal, Indonesian Intelligence head General Yoga Sugama told Woolcott that their investigations had concluded that the journalists were dead, handing him four boxes with their supposed remains. The ambassador informed Canberra that the Indonesians ‘will I believe do no more’. The contents of the four boxes were buried in a single grave in a small embassy-organised funeral in Jakarta on 5 December.iv

In the following years Australian supporters of Indonesia’s actions in East Timor showered an avalanche of disinformation on the Australian public about the deaths, including slurs and insults about the journalists themselves. The Balibo Five, as they came to be known, were called irresponsible and naive, accused of being adventurers. Senior Australian diplomat Sir Keith Shann incorrectly claimed that they had donned Fretilin military fatigues and had been killed in crossfire, stating that ‘they asked for it and they got it’.v That they reported on Indonesian operations at all was seen as improper by some. Woolcott wrote in his autobiography that ‘the journalists had identified themselves with one side’ and ‘should not have been where they were’.vi So wedded were he and others in the Australian power structure to supporting Indonesian efforts to force integration through violence and subversion that they came to see any attempt to unveil these illegal and lethal actions as biased and inappropriate.

It was in these circumstances that Shirley Shackleton campaigned relentlessly for the truth. Receiving only nominal compensation for the death of her husband and with a young son to support, she was often in financial hardship. For a time she cleaned houses for a living. This did not stop her. In her autobiography, she writes that from the day of the invasion she ‘was never going to be the same’ and felt an obligation to fight for the Timorese cause in a way she believed her husband would have had he lived.vii She wrote articles and letters to newspapers, gave radio and television interviews, lobbied politicians, and organised and spoke at events and rallies.

David Scott, a founder of Community Aid Abroad and a long-term Timor campaigner wrote that, ‘East Timor supporters had to be prepared to be patronised as “attention seekers”, “communists”, “fellow travellers”, “bleeding hearts”, “un-Australian” and the cruellest of all, “naïve”’.viii Lack of interest in the catastrophe underway in Australia’s near north extended to much of the activist Left, with other causes receiving far more prominence. While the evidence was there to see for anyone prepared to examine it, the accounts of the testimony of Timorese refugees and Catholic clergy simply did not have the impact on people’s consciousnesses as those television images conveying the situations in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, as time went by, Shirley became better known. She made contact with the members of the Australian forces who had fought in East Timor during the Second World War and campaigned with them. She was invited to speak in the Netherlands, England, Ireland and the United States. She became a rallying point for political and government insiders who wanted to divulge information about the Australian position and its actions anonymously. After the Suharto regime ended the blockade of East Timor, she went to visit in 1989, coordinating her visit with that of Pope John Paul II for cover. In an event widely reported in the Australian media, she confronted General Murdani over breakfast in the dining room of the Hotel Turismo in Dili, demanding answers about the fate of the Balibo Five and berating him about atrocities committed against the Timorese people. She also met with members of the resistance and ordinary Timorese and returned to Australia with letters from Xanana Gusmão. When Prime Minister Paul Keating visited Ireland in 1993 she went too, drumming up considerable publicity about East Timor with the help of Irish activists and causing annoyance to Keating when Irish media and citizens repeatedly confronted him on the issue.

Throughout the occupation, the Australian government worked as chief propagandist for the Suharto regime in the international arena on the Timor issue. It disseminated a distorted narrative about the events leading to the invasion to cast Indonesia in a more favourable light, denied the reality of the extent of the suffering occurring in East Timor, blamed the Timorese for what it could not deny and belittled those trying to bring the reality of what was occurring to the world’s attention. It propagated this false narrative both domestically and internationally, working proactively to remove the Timor issue from the UN agenda.

Vestiges of the disinformation campaign inflicted by the Australian government on its own citizens remain. One sympathetic obituary in a major Australian newspaper states that the journalists were sent ‘to report on the civil war in East Timor between the left-leaning Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and factions covertly supported by Indonesia’. This is a statement that would have infuriated Shirley. The conflict the journalists reported on in October 1975 was not a civil war but an intervention by covert Indonesian forces pretending to be Timorese. The idea that it was a civil war was used by Indonesia and Australia as part of a false narrative to make the Indonesian invasion appear justified. It is a measure of the extent of public misunderstanding regarding the events that led to the invasion, and the Indonesian and Australian involvement in it, that even a well-intentioned and otherwise well-informed piece should say this.

The invasion and occupation of East Timor was among the great humanitarian catastrophes of the twentieth century, and one that played out in our close region, leaving up to a third of the population dead. Australia needs to develop a greater understanding of it and the key role our government played in facilitating it. In her last years Shirley was adamant that we should go further, advocating compensation for the hundreds of millions of dollars in resource revenue that our government stole from the Timorese people—a debt that remains unpaid. An apology from the Australian parliament, along with recompense not only for these stolen revenues but for the broader Australian role in enabling the invasion and occupation, would be a fitting tribute to Shirley’s legacy. We owe no less to the Timorese people.

i David Scott, Last Flight out of Dili: Memoirs of an Accidental Activist in the Triumph of East Timor, Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2005, p. 71.

ii Job, A Narrative of Denial, pp 52–53.

iii Richard Woolcott, The Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalin’s Death to the Bali Bombings, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2003, p. 154.

iv Job, A Narrative of Denial, p. 51.

v Peter Job, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor, Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2021.

vi Shirley Shackleton, The Circle of Silence: A Personal Testimony Before, During and After Balibo. Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2010, p. 151.

vii “Slain newsmen ‘asked for it’, Shann says,” The Canberra Times, October 14, 1981.

viii Job, A Narrative of Denial, pp 45–47.

About the author

Peter Job

Peter Job has a PhD in International and Political Studies from the University of New South Wales in Canberra. His book, A Narrative of Denial: Australia and the Indonesian Violation of East Timor, was published by Melbourne University Press in June 2021.

More articles by Peter Job

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