New Statesman/John Pilger: East Timor’s Cover Up: A Travesty of Omissions

New Statesman [UK] Issue cover dated August 24, 2009

A travesty of omissions

John Pilger

It is ten years since East Timor’s referendum on freedom from
Indonesia – but, as the gaps in a new film show, the western cover-up

On 30 August it will be a decade since the people of East Timor
defied the genocidal occupiers of their country to take part in a
United Nations referendum and vote for their freedom and
independence. A “scorched earth” campaign by the Indonesian
dictatorship followed, adding to a toll of carnage that had begun 24
years earlier when Indonesia invaded tiny East Timor with the secret
support of Australia, Britain and the United States. According to a
committee of the Australian parliament, “at least 200,000” died under
the occupation, a third of the population.

Filming undercover in 1993, I found crosses almost everywhere: great
black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses in
tiers on the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the
earth and crowded the eye. A holocaust happened in East Timor, and it
tells us more about rapacious western power, its propaganda and true
aims, than even current colonial adventures. The historical record is
unambiguous that the US, Britain and Australia conspired to accept
such a scale of bloodshed as the price of securing south-east Asia’s
“greatest prize” with its “hoard of natural resources”.

Philip Liechty, the CIA operations officer in Jakarta at the time of
the invasion, told me: “I saw the intelligence. There were people
being herded into school buildings by Indonesian soldiers and the
buildings set on fire. The place was a free fire zone . . . We sent
them everything that you need to fight a major war against somebody
who doesn’t have any guns. None of that got out . . . [The Indonesian
dictator] Suharto was given the green light to do what he did.”

Britain supplied Suharto with machine-guns and Hawk fighter-bombers,
which, regardless of fake “assurances”, were used against defenceless
East Timorese villages. The critical role was played by Australia:
this was Australia’s region. During the Second World War, the people
of East Timor had fought heroically to stop a Japanese invasion of
Australia. Their betrayal was spelled out in a series of leaked
cables sent by the then Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Richard
Woolcott, prior to and during the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

Echoing Henry Kissinger, he urged “a pragmatic rather than a
principled stand”, reminding his government that it would “more
readily” exploit the oil and gas wealth beneath the Timor Sea with
Indonesia than with its rightful owners, the East Timorese. “What
Indonesia now looks to from Australia”, he wrote, as Suharto’s
special forces slaughtered their way across East Timor, “is some
understanding of their attitude and possible action to assist public
understanding in Australia”.

Two months earlier, Indonesian troops had murdered five newsmen from
Australian TV near the East Timorese town of Balibo. On the day the
capital, Dili, was seized, they shot dead a sixth journalist, Roger
East, throwing his body into the sea. Australian intelligence had
known 12 hours in advance that the journalists in Balibo faced
imminent death, and the government did nothing. Intercepted at the
Australian spy base Defence Signals Directorate near Darwin, which
supplies US and British intelligence, the warning was suppressed so
that it would not expose the western governments’ part in the
conspiracy to invade, or the official lie that the journalists had
been killed in “crossfire”.

The then secretary of the Australian defence department, Arthur
Tange, a notorious cold warrior, demanded that the government should
not even inform the journalists’ families of their murders. No
minister protested to the Indonesians.

This criminal connivance is documented in Death in Balibo, Lies in
Canberra, by Desmond Ball, a renowned intelligence specialist, and
Hamish McDonald.

The Australian government’s complicity in the journalists’ murder
and, above all, in a bloodbath greater proportionally than that
perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia has been cut from a major new
film, Balibo, which has begun its international release in Australia.
Claiming to be a “true story”, it is a travesty of omissions. In
eight of 16 drafts of his screenplay, David Williamson, the
distinguished Australian playwright, graphically depicted the chain
of true events that began with the original radio intercepts by
Australian intelligence and went all the way to Prime Minister Gough
Whitlam, who believed East Timor should be “integrated” into
Indonesia. This is reduced in the film to a fleeting image of Whitlam
and Suharto in a newspaper wrapped around fish and chips.

Williamson’s original script described the effect of the cover-up on
the families of the murdered journalists, their anger and frustration
at being denied information and their despair at Canberra’s
scandalous decision to have the journalists’ ashes buried in Jakarta
with Ambassador Woolcott, the arch-apologist, reading the oration.
What the government feared if the ashes came home was public outrage,
directed at the west’s client in Jakarta. All this was cut.

The “true story” is largely fictitious. Finely dramatised, acted and
located, the film is reminiscent of the genre of Vietnam movies, such
as The Deer Hunter (1978), which artistically airbrushed the truth of
that atrocious war from popular history. Not surprisingly, Balibo has
mostly been lauded in the Australian media, which took minimal
interest in East Timor’s suffering during the long years of
Indonesian occupation. So enamoured of General Suharto was the
country’s only national daily, the Australian, owned by Rupert
Murdoch, that its editor-in-chief Paul Kelly led Australia’s
principal newspaper editors to Jakarta to shake the tyrant’s hand.

I asked Balibo’s director, Robert Connolly, why he had cut the
original script and omitted all government complicity. He replied
that the film had “generated huge discussion in the media and the
Australian government” and in that way “Australia would be best held
accountable”. Milan Kundera’s truism comes to mind: “The struggle of
people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”



2 responses to “New Statesman/John Pilger: East Timor’s Cover Up: A Travesty of Omissions

  1. Facts
    Here’s what the Coroner had to say about Pilger’s claim that “Australian intelligence had known 12 hours in advance that the journalists in Balibo faced imminent death, and the government did nothing.”:
    “None of the witnesses who gave evidence at the inquest about sigint material they saw from 1975 onwards saw any material in terms of the alleged Murdani-Dading intercept. In summary, therefore,
    a) there is no extant intercept or report referring to it;
    b) no witness has ever seen such an intercept or report; and
    c) those nominated as being able to validate its existence, namely, Messrs. Brownbill, Cunliffe and Cameron have specifically given evidence to the contrary.
    Hence, there is nothing before the inquest to indicate that such a document ever existed.”

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