“No-one’s laughing at God on the day they realise / that the last sight they’ll ever see’s a pair of hateful eyes.”
– Regina Spektor.

When you’re from a place, people always want to associate you with it. “My sister lives in Toronto these days,” I offered to the Canadian geologist on the Antarctic ship. “Don’t know her,” he said. Fair call. When I say where I’m from the reaction in Argentina is “Aus-tra-lia?”, and then invariably “Kangurou!” Yes, there are indeed kangaroos, I tell them. Most of us don’t see ‘em day to day, but they’re out there. In this vein, Nora’s stepdad was quite pleased when he realised he had an Australian movie on DVD. He was very keen I should watch it. Mercifully, though, it didn’t turn out to be Crocodile Dundee or Dead Calm. No, instead I watched Balibo, and it hit me harder than any film since 25th Hour, a movie which saw me leave the cinema in such a semi-deranged emotional state it nearly ruined a budding relationship. (Really not a date movie, for reference.)

Some of you will have seen Balibo, but many more of you will know vaguely the story: that of five Australian journalists killed by Indonesian soldiers during the invasion of East Timor in 1975. They were Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. Technically they were two Australians, a New Zealander, and two Brits, but all were Australian residents and working for Australian media in the form of Channels 7 and 9. An older AAP journalist named Roger East went to follow up on their disappearance, at a time when they were yet to be confirmed dead, and two months later was executed himself when the Indonesians took the capital Dili.

For those who haven’t seen it, you should. Just be warned that while the ending of the story is already known, this article still contains a bunch of spoilers.

NB: This article was first written in March 2010, so governmental and other references reflect that period.


There are reasons why it hit me so hard. Even more than its amusing portrayal of a young and particularly spunky Jose Ramos Horta, the big surprise was just how restrained this film was. The ‘story’ component was mostly taken up by the portrayal of East: his hunt for the journalists, his relationship with Horta. Interspersed, in flashback to four weeks earlier, we see the five young journos progressing toward their fate. It’s not a perfect film: there are a couple of fairly contrived contrivances, and some clunky moments between East and Horta. But in its treatment of the five journalists, the touch is perfect: light-handed and utterly respectful. Balibo doesn’t take the cheap and obvious route, deriving its emotional power from making you love the characters and then killing them off. Rather, in many of their scenes the five men seem incidental, almost passing through. We view them always from a kind of distance.

Nobody is canonised. They’re not fearless crusaders for truth and justice; there’s far more room for complexity. They’re idealistic and cocky and looking for adventure. They’re friendly and likeable and carrying an unconsciously arrogant sense of entitlement that says of course they’ll be ok. They’re egging each other on. They’re naive and a bit thick, lacking in cultural sensitivity. (Daubing the Australian flag on a town building in the middle of a war with an anti-colonial power might not be the smartest move in the world.)

In these ways they’re closely related to the Aussie backpackers you meet on well-worn overseas trails today. Because we get to view them from a distance, we can see these qualities, good and bad. And because we’re not drawn into too close a relationship with them, we’re better able to draw parallels with people we know ourselves. Maybe this only worked for me because I’m Australian, but the characters acted as a kind of template, yet one so well-drawn as to be completely recognisable rather than generic. I knew these characters, or versions of them. They were the same kind of age I am now. In one detail or another they were like so many friends that I have. Even their accents brought on a wave of nostalgia. And they were allowed to function as everymen, giving a documentary authenticity that closer characterisation would not have allowed. I felt I knew them, and then saw them die. It was this that gave their final scene such emotional resonance: the men themselves were utterly real, the portrayal was resolutely credible, and you knew on watching it that things like this have and do and will continue to happen in the world.

I tend to have strong reactions to films, but I couldn’t speak for hours after this one. I sat around numbly for a while and then mumbled an excuse and went home. It took a couple of days to reach some kind of level. The thing that really threw me was the depiction of their final moments, and the final moments of Roger East awaiting execution on a Dili wharf. For those young men in Balibo, there was a long period leading up to that day when they believed that their status as non-combatants and foreign citizens would keep them safe. They understood their situation was risky, but always inherently assumed they would make it through. Roger East knew from their fate that he was very much in danger, but he had planned to withdraw with Fretilin into the hills and carry on reporting via radio. A ballsy move for a man in his fifties. All six were aware of the risks, but still planned, hoped, expected to survive.

But then for all six there was the moment when that finally changed, the moment when they could suddenly see with clarity what was going to happen. For however many seconds or minutes it was, they knew for a fact they were going to die. The scene featuring the five is extraordinary. You can see it on each one of their faces. And then there’s the final hit of Tony Stewart’s experience. In something that’s confirmed from the eyewitness accounts and recreated in the movie, Stewart escapes while the other four are killed and locks himself in a toilet block. The soldiers don’t try to break the door down. They don’t bother. There’s nowhere for him to go. They just lean against the wall as easy as you like and call to him to come out. And eventually, he does. Of course he does. There’s nothing else to do. This is the image that won’t leave my head – Tony Stewart, all of 21 years old, sweating with panic, his back pressed up hard against the door to block an assault that won’t come, panting and squeezing his eyes closed, waiting with the knowledge that there isn’t any hope, and eventually, knowing that he’ll have to open that door and go outside.

It’s this moment that makes the crime of murder so heinous. That there exists a moment when you know that someone can be so presumptuous as to deprive you of your very life. This is why that Regina Spektor line leapt out at me like an angry ferret to the face. This is what makes Death Row such a drawn-out horror. It’s what I’ve never been able to fathom in the reports of WWII firing squads, dozens of pages of them, where trucks of people are taken out to be shot. I can’t understand sitting in the back of that truck. I can’t understand walking obediently to the edge of the pit, standing and waiting. Die running. Die fighting. What happens in someone’s head? Does that knowledge of imminent death make you freeze up? Or do you cling right to the very end to some irrational hope of survival? Perhaps it’s an archaic Trojan view, but to die fighting is at least a free death, one of your own choosing and in which you are the active party. It’s a death that comes while you can still imagine that you might just survive. In that sense a death in battle is glorious. At least it is free of the taint of that other kind of death.


It makes me feel ill, and it makes me sad in a hungover marrow-deep kind of way. I can feel my bones hurting. But the thing that makes me mad, the thing that makes me so blood-boilingly gut-bustingly angry that I want to see Burley Griffin reinvented as a lake of fire, is that the Australian government, successive Australian governments, knew. They fucking knew all about it, and they didn’t do a thing.

Admittedly what was going on was pretty muddy at first. In 1975 Portuguese power in Timor was collapsing. Fretilin had seen off its rivals and occupied the vacuum. Jakarta claimed that Fretilin were communists, which immediately got America onside. Indonesia had plenty of post-colonial sympathy, having only 26 years earlier been well bloodied in their independence fight with the Dutch. The irony of them turning colonists will not be lost on anyone, but at the time they could pose as double-good guys, wanting to unify Indonesia after colonial rule and fight the communist scourge at the same time. Not wanting to be seen as aggressors, Indonesia employed the same tactics as they later did during the independence ballot in 1999: raising and equipping ‘pro-integration militias’ to fight Fretilin, and sending their own soldiers in plain clothes to fight with them. In this way they could claim it was a civil war and that most of Timor really wanted integration, and then eventually claim they should step in to ‘restore order’.

But shit got a lot clearer very quickly, and with the privileged intelligence our government was receiving, it should have been crystal. Yet when the five journalists disappeared, the government sat there and said nothing. When confirmation of their deaths came through, nothing. When Indonesian forces invaded the capital, not a murmur. When it was verifiably reported that East had been executed by Indonesian soldiers, nothing. It makes me seethe. Sure America was never going to get involved in another South-East Asian shitfight, not with the embers of Vietnam still glowing and the phonebook-sized bill for the barbeque coming home in the post. But Australia had the clout to act alone. Maybe diplomatic channels wouldn’t have been enough. But had we put ourselves on the line – had we massed some warships off the north Australian coast and told the UN that any attack on Timor would prompt a military response – then there’s no way it would have happened. Indonesia might outnumber us 20 to 1 in population, but we’ve always had a big advantage in military technology and industry. They knew there was no way they could have taken us, and so there’s no way they would have tried. And acting early was the key – it’s a lot easier to stop an invading force going in than it is to get it back out again.

The reason nothing was done, though, is that the invasion had already been approved by Australia, America and the UK. This isn’t conspiracy-theory stuff, there are declassified government documents in all three cases to prove it. (I’m not going to include footnotes on a blog post but I can send you the sources if you contact me.) Australian PM Whitlam took the same pro-Indonesia line as the previous Liberal administration. As tensions rose in the region, he was continually reminded by Ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott to take “a pragmatic rather than a principled stand”. Australia would make more money working with Indonesia, argued Woolcott, a career creep who continues to get plush gigs within the Rudd camp, and who has had the gall to release books about his life as a diplomat. Presumably he omits the parts where he abetted the murder of a third of a country’s population, and where he sold his own countrymen for oil money. I hope he burns in the Seventh Circle. Suharto also met President Ford the day before the invasion in December 1975. As with the Suharto-Whitlam meeting in 1974, the agreement was “privately to support Jakarta in its attempts to occupy East Timor by force.” America continued to sell Indonesia large amounts of weapons. Britain gave similar assurances without a meeting, and also continued arms sales.

Whether by accident or design, it was a great piece of timing by Indonesia to avoid Australian scrutiny, public and government. As they geared up for invasion in October 1975, Australia was deep in its worst ever constitutional crisis, with Fraser’s senators blocking the budget. Whitlam’s government was sacked on November 11. A vitriolic election campaign began, and eyes couldn’t have been further from Timor. Whitlam had done nothing to help Timor to this point, but caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did just as much nothing in the weeks that followed. The election was viewed as a crucial contest with huge ramifications for the country’s future direction. On December 7, just six days before Australia’s electoral polls opened, Dili was invaded in the Indonesian military’s first official act of war.

In the month of electoral chaos leading up to the invasion, it’s easy to see why Timor mightn’t have been on Fraser’s radar. Also government staffers expecting that Whitlam might well be returned at the election probably weren’t going to hand over much information to the stand-in. And by the time the invasion occurred, so close to polling day, neither Labor nor the Liberals would have risked an electoral self-inflicted wound by bringing the issue into the campaign. One might argue that as caretaker, Fraser had no right to articulate foreign policy position, especially when he may not have been elected to see that position through. But even as caretaker there was a moral imperative to publicly object to the invasion, whether via the United Nations or otherwise. And only a few days after Timor’s capital was first showered with shells and paratroopers, Fraser was in control of a new government after a landslide victory. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to effect some change, and perhaps it was an opportunity missed: standing up to Indonesia could have been a perfect chance to show strong leadership and to unite the country after an incredibly damaging and fractious period. He could have sold the idea as a departure from morally bankrupt Labor policy. But Fraser too chose to remain silent, and for that he’s every bit as culpable as Whitlam. He just wasn’t game to risk the potentially unpopular move of another Asian conflict. This was another reason why Timor was so roundly ignored, according to ABC correspondent Tony Maniaty. When the last Americans left Saigon, he says, “there was a kind of a distancing from the events in Asia; people were very tired in a news sense, from the horrendous debacle of Vietnam… [East Timor] was, frankly, a side show.”

Generally, since a young age, I’d been quite a fan of Whitlam. He pushed through a huge amount of important reforms in his few years, things like free university education and most importantly the introduction of Medicare, reforms that three decades of subsequent governments have spent a large part of their energy trying to tear down. But this kind of idealism, the urge to do what’s right, was completely absent in his foreign policy. From economic rationalists like the Liberals this kind of stance doesn’t surprise me, even if Fraser has in recent years reinvented himself as your sweet old refugee-hugging Uncle Mal. But from Whitlam it’s a bitter disappointment. I was well aware he was far from perfect, but I did have admiration for him and I don’t know that I do anymore.

More than just doing nothing about the issue, Whitlam was weirdly belligerent. When Shackleton’s wife Shirley tried to raise awareness about what had happened, he publicly stated she had no right to comment, because she and Shackleton had separated before Shackleton died. Which seems like a grossly insensitive thing to say to a recent widow, regardless of the state of her relationship (her own business, one would have thought). And over the years, Whitlam has stuck by his line that it was the journalists’ own fault because they put themselves in danger. Well, yes…just as war correspondents always have and will. As Maniaty retorts, “it’s a bit like saying a fireman shouldn’t go into a burning building.” They consider it their responsibility to report back to those of us who can’t be there, especially when situations involve injustices like Indonesia’s invasion. The idea that a government can therefore wash its hands of responsibility for such people, and of pursuing justice on their behalf, is repulsive. They should be given ten times more support from their governments, not have that support taken away.

It’s distressing just how much our leaders knew and have known since. Back in 1975, Woolcott’s cables explicitly state that an attack on Balibo is imminent well before it took place, and the Department of Foreign Affairs knew there were Australians in the area. Nothing was done, and to this day Whitlam denies he knew anything about it. Intercepted Indonesian transmissions stated that orders had been issued to kill the journalists, and later transmissions stated that this had been carried out. Whitlam’s government knew what had happened, as has every government since then. There are also strong suggestions from the film’s researchers and from Tony Maniaty that government operatives (on whose sanction is unclear) were feeding the Indonesians information about the journalists’ movements. Despite all this, Woolcott was two-faced enough to read the oration at the journalists’ funeral service in Jakarta. It’s difficult to imagine a more disgusting human being.

His policy of silence, though, was meticulously observed by all in power until 2007. Then, after spirited resistance from sectors of the government and judiciary, a NSW coronial inquiry was launched into Brian Peters’ death. Witnesses were brought to Australia and cross-examined, and eventually the coroner found that Peters (and by inference, the other four in Balibo) had been murdered by Indonesian forces under specific orders. The unfathomable bit was the government’s part in the story. “When news of the deaths came out,” said Mark Tedeschi QC in his submission to the coroner, “not a single word in public or in private, was uttered by the Australian Government or political leaders to suggest involvement or blame on the part of the Indonesians for the deaths of the journalists. Instead, Australian officials in public and in private persisted in what can only be called a bizarre charade of asking the Indonesian Military to use their good offices in seeking information from their Timorese militia allies…”

Indeed, five successive governments from Whitlam’s on have preferred the convenient fiction that the men were killed in crossfire during the battle. Whoops. No harm, no foul. Each has refused requests to follow up the issue for fear of ‘damaging our relationship’ with Indonesia. The evidence was there, but too inconvenient to be acknowledged. Keating was especially keen to cosy up to Jakarta, all the uglier when you consider his first term came only sixteen years later. If your dad or husband was murdered in 1994, it wouldn’t seem that long ago. Timor eventually got its independence in 1999, and Howard showed the only bit of leadership of any Prime Minister since the invasion, sending troops to head off Indonesian sabotage. But even he was content to let the journalists be forgotten.

The sixth government, Rudd’s, can no longer deny what happened. At least with the coronial report the fate of the Balibo Five has been put on the record – a big step forward after 32 years of fingers in governmental ears. But of course we’re still waiting for something more to be done. No charges have been laid, or look imminent. As Hamish McDonald reported for the SMH, “The evidence has been sitting on an Australian Federal Police desk, an agency known for taking its cue about prosecutions from the political leaders of the day. This process allows Rudd and others now to argue it’s in the hands of the judicial machinery and can’t be commented on.”  It seems that it’s still in the too-sensitive basket. But as many commentators have said, we’re still going after criminals from WWII. Why should Balibo be any different?

Regardless of whether you believe we should take a firmly non-interventionist stance in foreign affairs (Woolcott gives a predictably odious argument in his autobiography), the murders of six of our own residents had to be recognised. Instead they were covered up for crass political gain. I loathe the idea (or indeed the knowledge) that I or a bunch of my friends could be killed in cold blood and our own representatives would refuse to do anything about it. The killings were carried out and sanctioned by high levels of the Indonesian military and government. People need to be held accountable. To hell with diplomatic relationships, to hell with trade. A strong economic base doesn’t mean shit if it’s holding up a rotten moral structure. A stink needed to be raised in 1975. It still needs to be raised. Roger East’s death has never been officially investigated. He deserves that respect.


So what am I concluding here? I don’t even know. I’m just so tired of our appalling behaviour to each other. In my historical studies I’ve found plenty of awful things. I’ve seen men shot on film, real men, real deaths. I’ve dug up shell casings from a supposed massacre site. I’ve trawled through the Germans’ records of organised atrocity. In a way, killing a man is nothing special. A death is just a death. Happens every day. In our minds murder has a kind of grandeur, but when you see it happen it can seem so easy, so pedestrian, so ordinary. And this is the truly horrific part that the film’s climactic scene rams home – that something that important, someone’s very existence, can be flicked off like that. That this act can appear ordinary, when it so thoroughly deserves its reputation as the worst sin we can commit. In Balibo, it’s the fact these deaths happen in a place with which we’ve become familiar, inside a plain empty house; it’s the fact that the decision is taken and carried out with such a casual air. The Monthly’s review was spot-on in describing the depicted deaths as “both so harrowing and so tawdry.”

It’s a strange polar world in which I’m disgusted with Whitlam and admire Howard, even for one achievement. But an even stranger inversion, a perfect irony, is that while the Balibo Five were killed in an attempted cover-up, their deaths have played the most important part in keeping Australian attention on Timor even all these years later. It’s sad that their deaths should mean more to the Australian public than those of 180,000 Timorese, but this is the pragmatic truth of how tribalism works. As East tells Horta in the film, “the people I’m writing for? They don’t give a fuck about 400,000 brown people, mate. That’ll hit the back pages of the fuckin’ newspapers.”

It wears me out. That familiar feeling of being sickened by governments who prize political benefit above ethical behaviour. The fact that governments who will go to effort and expense to stamp out pornography, because it’s immoral, or drugs, because they’re dangerous, and then let massacres happen on our doorstep without even coughing politely. I want to punch Gough Whitlam right in the face. I want to punch Fraser and Hawke and Howard as well. Right now we seem to think East Timor should love us because we bailed them out back in ‘99. And yeah, we did. But we’re also the ones who sold them into trouble in the first place. Do we really expect them to be grateful? One in three people in their country wound up dead, for fuck’s sake. If I was them I’d want to punch us in the face too. It’s just another shitful story to come out of the 20th century’s honour roll of shitful stories – the blatant lie of civilisation. The only ones who come out of it looking good are the journalists: the Balibo Five, Roger East, and all the others who still risk their lives to report from the front lines, trying to make sure that one or two fewer criminals get away with what they do.

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14 Responses to Balibo

  1. Clarissa Tan says:

    This is intense and moving. It is also a bit like watching a movie through someone else’s eyes.

    Thank you.

    • Geoff Lemon says:

      Thanks for commenting, and reading it. I’m glad a few people have. It was definitely defying internet protocol to post such a long piece (an essay more than a post, really) on a blog. But…I was feeling quite emotional about it, and that’s what came out. I’m hoping to tackle a few bigger issues from time to time rather than just passing on the lighthearted.

  2. Clarissa Tan says:

    It seems impossible, but to date there is only one literary work written in English by an East Timorese who lived through the 24-year struggle against the Indonesian government. The book is called Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor, and is by Naldo Rei. Rei was born in 1975 and became a child resistance fighter. He was subjected to his first bout of torture at 9, his body sliced with razors and bayonets. I believe the entire text of his book can be found on the internet.

    OK. I will comment on happier subjects from now on. x

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  5. Phil says:

    Just saw the movie. Whitlam and Fraser sicken me to the stomach. The Australian Government must bestow honours on these six men in serving their nation (journalism is after all a frontline public service purveying both palatable and unpalatable truths in a free society) and now seek justice for them. It is not too late – though some political reputations (in US, UK and Australia/NZ) may be smeared. As to the venerable Gough, it is about time he was taken off his pedestal. East Timor was Australia’s buffer in Indonesia’s hitlerian anshluss, and their people must be commended for their longsuffering on our behalf. If East Timor had oil like Kuwait, maybe the international response would have been different?

  6. Tom says:

    An interesting, moving and anger-inducing piece of writing. Can’t ask for much more than that really.

  7. Machiavelli says:

    The dark days of the Suharto regime, signed off by our governments and bankrolled out of our pockets through the IMF. The systematic murder, torture and sterilisation of East Timorese was beyond horrific, and it passed by without so much as a blink from the West. Good work on the article, I hope someone staples it to Whitlam’s forehead

  8. Tina Pratt says:

    So well written. I watched balibo Sunday night. It was so difficult. My whole body felt the same level of emotion and tension (and tears) reading this article.

    I am still just left with a feeling of fultility. If it happened again tomorrow….would what followed be any different?? Sadly, I don’t believe so.

  9. I just watched in ABC last Sunday as well. I wonder if the Whitlam and Fraser governments knew that the Timor Shelf Gas deposits existed and that it would be so valuable today they might’ve decided to act differently.

  10. Fiona says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. What a wonderfully written, moving, passionate yet restrained piece of writing. I first became vaguely familiar with the story of the Balibo Five back in high school (we had a somewhat progressive teacher despite her age) but it wasn’t until I first saw the film a couple of years ago that it really hit home for me. When I saw it again the other night on the ABC I sobbed.

    We consider ourselves to live in a democratic nation that thrives on the motto of a “fair go”. Bullshit. A politician dies and he gets a state funeral. These five were swept under the grass mat.

    NB: the term “Uncle Mal” simultaneously made me laugh and shudder. He’s just the image of a creepy old family friend whose knee you used to sit on when you were a toddler because it was the expected thing, even though he smelled like tobacco, box wine and Brut aftershave. But I digress…

  11. Tom says:

    Nice piece, one of the many tragic stories to come out of that part of the world during that time.

    Recommended reading – Auschwitz: a doctors eyewitness account by Dr Miklos Nyiszli a reflection on people’s resignation in the face of death and the psychology of knowing you will die.

  12. Jimmetry says:

    While it’s a very interesting read, and the fate of the journalists is quite disgusting, I find the expectation that the government should have been “pursuing justice on their behalf” and warning Indonesia that “any attack on Timor would prompt a military response” is rather absurd. It’s not as though Indonesia will turn around and say “Oh. Actually guys, you’re right. We’re being a bit silly. Sorry. We’ll stop.” It only sharpens the razor wire between our border and theirs. Indonesia would make a powerful enemy, and while living in fear and turning a blind eye isn’t ideal, you can’t tame aggression by being just as aggressive. Remember that World War I started because of the assassination of one person, but in retrospect, “justice” probably wasn’t worth so many more deaths.

    The UN should have been notified, and arms sales stopped, maybe sanctions implemented, but the situation had very little to do with us, other than proximity. For the governments to instead take the out of sight, out of mind approach is unsurprising, since any attention brought by the media would create ever-escalating public expectations to the point that the military would have to get involved so as not to show apathy and weakness. And then, suddenly, Australia is perceived as an aggressor by our neighbours, and we face the same retaliatory anger the USA has come to receive for trying to spread their American dream.

    Remember, the journalists weren’t murdered because they were Australian, they were murdered because they were journalists. The idea that the lives of our journalists is more important than those from any other country is almost as bogus as the plight of Australian cows being more sacred than that of other cows in the live cattle trade. It’s horrible, but the world changes slowly, and we’ve got a lot of fucked up history to learn from.

  13. Yogamanas says:

    Thankyou… It is not possible for me in this moment to fathom the distaste, the sense of terrible injustice such action/lack of action brings. Harrowing for those journos, there families, and for those (with the capacity to feel) who subtly extend themselves into these words from your post ‘someone’s very existence’.

    Thankyou again, I am now a little more awake.

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