The Death of the Balibo Five … a Footprint Films extra including clips from the film Balibo and interviews with the film director, Robert Connolly, and cast. More at: www.balibo.com
By Duncan Graham
Greig Cunningham wants to know how and why his brother Gary died. The New Zealand news cameraman was killed in 1975 by Indonesian Special Forces in what was then East Timor – now Timor-Leste.
In his four-decade fact hunt, the retired Australian accountant’s latest stopover has been the brothers’ birthplace, New Zealand.
In the capital Wellington he asked Foreign Minister Murray McCully to pressure the Australian government for release of secret legal documents about his older sibling’s death.
After the meeting, Cunningham said McCully had agreed to contact the Australian government for the papers “but suspects they will refuse”.
However, the minister agreed to open the files about Gary held by the New Zealand government once public servants can access the archives. These have been inaccessible since a major earthquake hit Wellington in mid-November. Several office blocks have been closed until security can be assured.
Cunningham’s quest has also taken him to Timor-Leste several times, but he has never visited Indonesia because he says he fears for his safety. He has heard that others have been threatened for asking questions about one of the ugliest incidents still affecting relations between Australia and its northern neighbour.
Cunningham says he wants to meet the former soldiers allegedly involved to hear their side of the story. Two are still alive.
“This is not about money,” he said. “I find that idea repulsive. Nor is it about vengeance. The Cunninghams don’t do that.
“Settling this issue would let Indonesian-Australian relationships improve. There has been no justice. What happened was wrong. That needs to be acknowledged so we can draw a line.”
Gary, 27, was a New Zealander shooting film for an Australian TV network. He was on assignment with four other newsmen, two Britons and two Australians in Balibo, a tiny town on the border with Indonesia.
The corpses were cremated. Some witnesses alleged the bodies were dressed in military fatigues and photographed with weapons in an attempt to portray the crews as not genuine journalists.
The Indonesian government claimed the media men were killed in crossfire during a clash with Timorese guerrillas. This explanation is still officially accepted by Australia, though not by the victims’ families.
Books have been written and a play and film, Balibo, produced about the Balibo Five, a term that’s become Australian shorthand for public concerns about relations with Indonesia
Shortly before the men were shot, Indonesian troops had entered the former Portuguese colony to suppress the independence movement. The Western media described this as an invasion but Indonesia said it was “defence action” to protect its borders.
Six weeks later another Australian journalist Roger East, 53, was investigating the deaths of his colleagues when arrested by Indonesian soldiers. He was executed in the capital, Dili, along with many Timorese and his body thrown in the sea.
Constant agitation for justice by the men’s families eventually forced a coronial court inquest in Australia. This concluded that “the Balibo Five … were shot and or stabbed deliberately and not in the heat of battle” and that this had been done to prevent reporting on the Indonesian military’s movements.
As this meant a war crime, the Australian Federal Police got involved. Two years ago their investigation was abandoned, allegedly because of insufficient evidence. Cunningham has so far been refused access to the AFP’s “independent legal advice” which apparently supports this decision.
“I’ve got no quarrel with individual officers, but what the Australian government has done to us is just appalling,” he said. “There’s been political interference to appease Indonesia – it’s just a cover up.”
Because his brother was a Kiwi, Cunningham sought release of all historical records through the NZ government. In 2007, former Foreign Minister Dr Michael Cullen told him New Zealand would “carefully consider” the coroner’s findings and regularly raise the issue with the Indonesian government.
The families and former employers of the dead journalists have established the Balibo House Trust to “honor the memories of the Balibo Five by working with the Balibo Community to enrich their lives.”
It has set up a kindergarten, learning center and tourist enterprise to “foster awareness of the significance of Balibo to relationships between Australia, Timor-Leste and Indonesia”.
Gary has been recognised by the Timor-Leste government with an award collected by his brother last year.
“The Timorese see the newsmen as heroes,” said Cunningham. “They think of them as family. Why haven’t their own governments given recognition?”
Cunningham acknowledged the issue had remained alive because journalists were victims.
“Red Cross workers might have been forgotten by now,” he added dryly.
Last year, a War Correspondents’ Memorial, which included the names of the Balibo Five, was opened in Canberra by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who said “democracy depends on a free and courageous press”.
The killings are barely known in Indonesia, where the award-winning 2009 Australian feature film Balibo is banned. However, bootleg DVD copies have apparently sold well in Jakarta, with young buyers keen to know more about the recent history of their nation.
Before East Timor gained independence in 1999, former Indonesian Foreign Minister, the late Ali Alatas, called it the “pebble in the shoe” in his nation’s relationship with Australia.
Cunningham, 65, said that will remain the situation till the truth about the Balibo Five killings is known.
“People talk about revelations damaging the national interest, but this happened 41 years ago. More recently the Australian government was caught out bugging the phone of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; what could be more damaging than that?
“I’m still passionate about finding out the truth. Even when I’ve gone this matter will not go away until resolved. Gary’s son, John Milkins, will keep this going. So will Gary’s grandson.
“This is an opportunity for Indonesia to acknowledge the facts and get a better relationship with Australia. It needs to be settled.”
Duncan Graham is a contributor to Strategic Review.