The Balibo Five

Henry Kissinger and the tragedy at Timor…


1975. Greg Shackleton, aged 29, Tony Stewart, 21 years, Malcolm Rennie, 29, Brian Peters, 24 and Gary Cunningham, 27, together formed a group of journalists working for the Australian television networks based in the town of Balibo in Portuguese Timor (later known as East Timor) in Indonesia.

They were there to cover the invasion of Timor by the Indonesian army which had been sent on the instruction of an Indonesian government concerned about Timor’s bid for independence with the likelihood of a left-wing government. With the implied but not publicly stated support of Henry Kissinger on behalf of the US government, Indonesian forces moved in on the province. Using American weapons despite the fact they were in violation of an agreement with the US as well as breaking international law they waged a campaign which caused the deaths of in excess of 100,000 innocent lives. Upon his return from talks in Djakarta, Kissinger was reminded of America’s legal position on the invasion by their own State Department advisor, Monroe Leigh who was quickly admonished by Kissinger with a comparison to the US government’s own apathy to regular Israeli incursions into Lebanon. Kissinger remained unbowed.

The five journalists who worked for opposing stations and came from Australia, New Zealand and England believed that their declared status as journalists would save them from harm, Shackleton went so far as to paint an Australian flag on the side of a house in a bid to reaffirm their neutrality. It didn’t work. The official line was that they were caught in the cross-fire during a skirmish between opposing forces whilst more specific reports would suggest an orchestrated assassination and cover-up by Indonesian Special Forces. They were reported missing on the 16th October 1975 and subsequent reports of burnt European corpses found in the area would corroborate that date yet the Indonesian Army did not confirm the deaths until the 12th of November. They had been shot and stabbed to death.

Shortly after the news of their murders came out, another Australian reporter, Roger East travelled to Balibo in an attempt to uncover the truth about the killings and find out who was responsible for giving the orders. His arrival coincided with a full-scale assault by Indonesia on December 7th and the following day he was dragged to the Dili Wharf where he was murdered along with dozens of innocent Timorese.

The nature of the mass murders cannot be exaggerated, thousands were brutally murdered in a country where no reports save a singular Red Cross radio transmission could tell the outside world of the true scale and horror of what was happening. Men and women dragged into the countryside and shot or burnt to death, bodies thrown into makeshift graves and ditches, it was an appalling situation with an out of control invading army.

Kissinger’s obsession with the rise of communist super powers and the global balance of power extended even to this tiny group of islands. On the eve of the invasion and subsequent acts of genocide by the Indonesian army, Kissinger, alongside President Gerald Ford gave the green light for the Indonesian government to invade. The US had equipped the Indonesians with arms, equipment and food and weapons sales had been agreed on the basis they could only be used in self-defence, which leads us to the crux of the situation.

What we now know from transcripts and accounts by key US officials at the time was Kissinger’s insistence that any invasion be done after he and Ford had left and that the operation be swift and sure. Kissinger said that they could ‘influence reaction to the story in the US if whatever happens, happens after our return’. As they flew home the US State Department were left with no choice but to threaten sanctions against Indonesia for violating their arms agreement. A furious Kissinger rounded on his department and subsequent talks were held to mislead Congress on the use of arms in Indonesia’s perceived self-defence. Whilst the killings continued, arms sales soon resumed in the name of ensuring good relations with a country with newly found coal reserves as well as an important strategic position between Vietnam and Australia.

These five men, had they lived, would have returned very uncomfortable news reels. The day before Shackleton was murdered he sent a televised report from Balibo asking where the colonial Portuguese where, what the Australian and American governments were doing to help these innocent Timorese people and who would help repair their homes and lands once the invasion had taken hold. It was an impassioned report and one, which, to this day continues to affect relations between Australia and Indonesia.

It is yet another story of the thousands of lost innocents and brave journalists who have succumbed to the policies of the few.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s