Alternative Law Journal
by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald; Allen &Unwin,2000; 199 pp; $24.95 softcover.
Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra is the fruit of many years of investigative journalism by the Sydney Morning Herald's Foreign Editor Hamish McDonald, supplemented by the formidable technical expertise and insider information of security and intelligence specialist Professor Des Ball.
The authors bring complementary talents to this book. McDonald, who was based in Jakarta at the time, con tributes a pacy and richly detailed account of the events in Indonesia and Timor leading up to the murders at Balibo on 16 October 1975, and the subsequent full-scale Indonesian invasion a few weeks later.
Meanwhile, Ball provides a finely-textured description of the labyrinth of interlocking military, diplomatic and intelligence programs and personnel both in Indonesia and Australia, without which it would be impossible to piece together the jigsaw. And surely it was he, whose little black book of contacts must be unrivalled in this field, who secured the authors those all important off-the-record chats with the anonymous chaps from Building L in the Defence Department complex on Russell Hill, not too far from the Professor's own digs at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.
Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra has deservedly attracted attention and acclaim because it authoritatively and comprehensively divulges the who, why, how and when of the deaths of Greg Shackleton and his colleagues, fleshing out the bones of the rumours which had been around for years, in no small part due to McDonald's own previously
Since the about-face in our East Timor policy, it has become commonplace to attribute the Australian cover-up of the events at Balibo to our government's supine appeasement of Indonesia. Ball and McDonald generally agree (singling out Whitlam for specific criticism in this regard), but their particular analysis focuses on the spooks' obsession with secrecy. The authors painstakingly trace the aborted path of a signal received in Darwin warning of the impending Balibo murders, but not passed all the way up the line. There might have been time to get the TV crew out, but apparently it was decided that to do so would tip off the Indonesians and thereby compromise our electronic intelligence network. The crucial signal was screened out of the daily Canberra briefing papers – and shortly afterwards the Balibo Five were dead.
In fact, assert Ball and McDonald, the Indonesians knew we were listening in to them all along, and only started to encrypt their signals when they got the technology to do so many years later. This is intriguing stuff, but unfortunately it is not matched by an analysis of the strategic and geopolitical issues involved. In particular, the authors gloss over the Americans' key role in shaping Australia's response to the rapidly unfolding events in Timor in late 1975.
Ball and McDonald's book apparently sent something of a tidal wave through the defence and foreign affairs establishment. A few weeks after publication, Foreign Minister Downer ordered the early release of a 68,000-page selection of the East Timor files-very much a case of opening the stable door after the horse had bolted. Soon afterwards the UN interim administration launched a forensic investigation of the affair in Balibo, led by an Australian police officer. The prosecution process has since commenced, despite the absence of the recalcitrant accused. Fresh calls for a Royal Commission following publication have apparently fallen on deaf ears, but there is talk of civil action against the perpetrators; of a NSW inquest into at least one of the deaths; and of legal action against the Australian government for having breached its duty of care by failing to act to protect its citizens in circumstances in which it is now clear that the government knew or should have known those citizens were in imminent danger.
One of the most fascinating episodes in the book concerns the secret daily briefings about Suharto's plans for Portuguese Timor (as it then was) given to two Australian embassy staff in Jakarta by an 'academic' actually working for Indonesian security. Initially, we were only too eager to jump through this 'easy window into Indonesian thinking', but it became apparent that by doing so Australia was drawn into a fatally compromised position, effectively complicit in the forthcoming invasion. This was a real intelligence coup all right -for Indonesia.
A quarter of a century on, it seems we're still being fed a line, this time by our own security establishment. Since Suharto's fall, it's now in Australia's strategic interest to add, albeit faintly, our voice to the international chorus baying for his blood and that of his cronies. So now at last it's time to tell ourselves - up to a point - about Balibo, and to name the perpetrators (who include Habibie's Information Minister, the current Governor of Jakarta, and the Indonesian Ambassador to Beijing). But in so doing let's impart a bit of spin here and there to minimise the inevitable collateral embarrassment. Ball and McDonald's story is only as complete as their sources allow it to be. Much, as they themselves lament, remains to be told.
Although the Balibo Five are often portrayed as heroes, Ball and McDonald emphasise their naive recklessness. However unpalatable, the characterisation rings true, authentically epitomising the feckless spirit of my own 'It's Time' generation. In December 1991, after 15 years languishing in obscurity, East Timor was catapulted onto the world's front pages by Alan Naim and Amy Goodman, two heroic journalists who survived, witnessed and indelibly filmed the Dili massacre at the Santa Cruz Cemetry. And what if Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Tony Stewart or Greg Shackleton had managed to escape, with their footage, to bring news of the looming holocaust of East Timor to the outside world? If being a hero means changing the course of history, then that's what they would have been. And surely they are anyway, for dying trying.
Russell Go/dflam is an Alice Springs lawyer.
© 200 l Russell Goldflam