Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Review: Balibo, Jill Jolliffe (2009)

In 1973 Gough Whitlam repealed the White Australia laws introduced 72 years earlier, opening up a new era of engagement with the world and with non-Anglo citizens and residents of Australia. But there was a darker side to this switch from fear to accommodation. Appeasement of undemocratic and proto-democratic neighbours such as Indonesia has resulted in an enduring legacy of shame and illegal acts.

The book chronicles one aspect of the criminal incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia that started on 16 October 1975. On that day, five journalists -- two Australians, two British and one New Zealander -- were killed by invading Indonesian military forces eager to hide their involvement in what had been, up to that point, a civil fracas. The big guns had come out.

Jolliffe was there at the time. Over 30 years later she, and the families of the Balibo Five, are still seeking justice. While Joliffe was smart enough to get out of Dili before the invasion, the five pressed on, in an heroic effort to get a good story. Their TV coverage of the Indonesian forces swarming over the border from West Timor, supported by gunships offshore, would have been a major embarrassment to the Indonesian government. This book is a testament to the courage of the young journalists from Channel Nine and Channel Seven.

It is also the record of a very long journey for Jolliffe, who points with greatest ardour at Yusuf Yosfiah and Christoforo da Silva, named in 2007 by the Glebe Coroner's Court as the main protagonists in the case of the dead journos. Supporters are hoping that the deputy coroner's findings, having been handed to the federal police, will result in a war crimes tribunal.

There are many other guilty men. Jolliffe estimates that 10,000 East Timorese were tortured as a result of the Indonesian take-over. Over 180,000 died. She is also scathing about successive Australian governments' handling of the case. Due to the eagerness of senior bureaucrats and ministers not to rock the boat where Indonesia is concerned, the decades have passed for bereft families in a kind of dead silence.

While Timor veterans of the Indonesian armed forces have flourished in the reformasi era, the families of the Five, and that of Roger East, killed while trying to cover the story of the death of the Five, have suffered quietly. Some have committed suicide and others have died of age or sickness. None are satisfied with official conduct of the case.

Jolliffe's book goes some way toward appeasing the ghosts of the dead. It also sets the record straight on the 1975 invasion. After taking Balibo and killing the journalists, the Indonesians paused, waiting for official Australian reaction to the news. There was none. As a result of the Whitlam government's silence on the issue, the soldiers pressed on to an easy victory.

But the deaths mounted over the following decades. And after Timor, Aceh. And after Aceh, Irian Jaya.

The thugs are in the palace, they are wearing suits and ties. When will the lies end? When will the rapes and murders and torturings be redressed by open justice?

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