Cover-up: a film's travesty of omissions

20 August 2009

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger recalls his undercover reporting from East Timor and reveals that a major new movie, Balibo, perpetuates the cover-up of the role played western governments in the genocial invasion of East Timor by Indonesia and the Australian government's part in the murder of its own journalists.

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, voting 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, telling 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 Southeast Asia’s “greatest prize” with its “hoard of natural resources”. Philip Liechty, the senior 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 spelt out in a series of leaked cables sent by the 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 spy base, Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) near Darwin, which supplies US and British intelligence, the warning was suppressed so that it would not expose western governments’ part in the conspiracy to invade and the official lie that the journalists had been killed in “crossfire”. The secretary of the Australian Defence Department, Arthur Tange, a notorious cold warrior, demanded that the government 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 almost entirely 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 sixteen 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 and their anger and frustration at being denied information and 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, which artistically airbrushed the truth of that atrocious war from popular history. Not surprisingly, it has 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. There is a photograph of one of them bowing.

I asked Balibo’s director, Robert Connolly, why he had cut the original Williamson 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.”

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library