Review of Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra

Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra,by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald

Reviewed by Simon Philpott

© all rights reserved

The deaths of five Australian-based newsmen at Balibo in October 1975 marks, for many Australians, the beginning of their discontent with Australian foreign policy towards Indonesia and with respect to East Timor in particular. Nagging doubts that, at best, Australian diplomacy of the time was equivocal, and at worst, that there was active connivance between the Australian and Indonesian governments in the lead up to the invasion of East Timor, have not been allayed despite the release of many official documents over the last couple of years. Key figures, including Gough Whitlam and former ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott, have defended not only their roles, but their analysis of Southeast Asian politics of that period. Both have defenders and detractors in the media.

The profundity of Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, is found in the minutiae. The detailed attention to chronology, personnel, agencies, events, and the technical capacities of Australian intelligence stitch together the broader events about which much was known prior to the book’s publication. The book’s goals are quite narrow. It has little to say about the role of ethics in foreign policy or even about Australia Indonesia relations more generally. Given the history of Indonesian military sponsored violence in Irian Jaya (now Papua) throughout the 1960s and 1970s and the recently stated intention of activists to achieve independence by 2010, the lack of analysis of events there is mildly puzzling. If Australian intelligence gathering was as sophisticated as Ball and McDonald argue, can it be assumed that Australian government, intelligence and foreign policy elites knew what was going on in Irian Jaya? If they did, then assisting Indonesia in its ambitions to occupy East Timor seems even more reprehensible.

The tragedy of Australian connivance with the Indonesian invasion lies not only in the loss of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of East Timorese lives, but the failure in Australian diplomacy to overcome the difficulties it has encountered in postcolonial Southeast Asia. References to the dispute between Australia and Indonesia over Dutch New Guinea, a foreign policy humiliation for Australia, and military scuffles between Australian and Indonesian forces during the Konfrontasi campaign of Sukarno’s last days (52), reminds readers of other diplomatic challenges in the recent past (there is no mention of Vietnam in this context). The insistence on seeing complex issues in black and white is a hallmark of Australian diplomacy that Whitlam’s ‘integration or war’ analysis continues.

Ball and McDonald argue that Australian senior diplomatic staff in Jakarta were informed of the proposed invasion of East Timor three days before it took place. But this information was not delivered unexpectedly, rather, it resulted from the Indonesian belief that Gough Whitlam’s preference that East Timor should be integrated into Indonesia, something he clearly hoped would be the case, took precedence over his view that it should occur as a result of the wishes of the East Timorese themselves. On this account, the Australian government, mainly because of the approaches of Whitlam and Woolcott in particular, painted itself into a corner by not canvassing alternatives for East Timor. The option of ‘firmly opposing the use of force by the Indonesians, but involving Australia with Indonesia as active patrons of Timor’s self-determination process and accepting the possibility of independence as an outcome, was never seriously considered by Whitlam’s government’ (24). Once the Australian government had been included in the ‘loop’ without immediately stating its opposition to the proposed invasion, its options were circumscribed. As Ball and McDonald argue: ‘the steady flow of information created a form of blackmail: an objection at any point raised the threat of previous compliance being revealed’ (67).

The deaths of the Balibo five as they have come to be known, were tragic, horrible, and, according to the authors, probably preventable. They conclude that the intelligence elite in Australia knew that Indonesian forces planned to murder the journalists up to twelve hours beforehand, but that senior Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) bureaucrats withheld the information (117-118). For the intelligence elite to have alerted politicians that the five journalists faced imminent death, which inevitably would have put in train attempts to save them, was to expose the extent to which Indonesian communications had been monitored and, more importantly, successfully decoded, by Australian intelligence (118). Even after revealing their deaths to Bill Morrison (Minister of Defence) some ten hours after the fact, Sir Arthur Tange, secretary of the Defence department, insisted that the government not alert the next of kin (120).

Many of the chiefs in the last days of their careers at the Australian DSD when East Timor became a major intelligence and diplomatic concern, trained during the Second World War. It was then that they learned the ‘tough minded approach…when cities, convoys, warships and army divisions were sacrificed to protect their code-breaking achievements…’ (148). The DSD was part of a yet broader intelligence community in which access to and control of information (in an intelligence agency, information, rather than knowledge, is power) defined lines of conflict and cooperation. Ball and McDonald reveal differences in values between older and younger intelligence operatives, and a near mutiny at the Joint Intelligence Organisation (an agency that provided the Department of Defence and the service chiefs with intelligence drawn from a variety of civilian and military sources) over the handling of the events at Balibo (149).

One cannot help but be struck by the naivete of the journalists. Of them, only one, Cunningham, had any experience of combat. As Ball and McDonald suggest, perhaps they thought that their nationalities bought them immunity from danger (43). Shackleton also seems to have become more intimately involved in Fretilin affairs than one might expect of a journalist (40-42) albeit with honourable motives. But references to and images of them sitting around in Balibo drinking beer and wine whilst waiting for the inevitable Indonesian invasion are chilling. The Suharto regime orchestrated the extra- judicial murder of in excess of 500,000 Indonesians in its climb to power and north east of the island of Timor, Irian Jaya’s indigenous peoples were being subjected to ongoing intimidation and violence. Were they unaware of the ruthlessness of the regime? Did they believe that their fair skins and quest for a career advancing journalistic scoop would protect them from harm?

Over the years since the invasion of East Timor, key figures have died, individual memories of events have diverged, and important documents have disappeared. The book provides a disturbing account of foreign policy duplicity, callous intelligence decisions and the instinctive maintenance of a governmental culture of obfuscation. With the publication of this book, ordinary Australians, East Timorese and Indonesians now know as much about the events at Balibo in October 1975 as is possible while influential Australian figures associated with the events of 1975 continue to defend the indefensible and argue against full public disclosure of official records.
Simon Philpott is Coordinator of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania. He has a Ph D in Political Science and International Relations from the ANU and is the author of the recently released,Rethinking Indonesia: Postcolonial Theory, Authoritarianism and Identity (Macmillan).

Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald was published by Allen & Unwin in 2000.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]