The death on Wednesday of Crikey contributor HT Lee robs us of a
spirited and independent voice – but his loss will be felt even more
keenly in Australia’s Timorese community, for whom he was a friend and
unyielding defender. HT, who was 56, survived the notorious 1999 TNI
siege of the UN compound in Dili, but succumbed in Melbourne’s
Austin hospital after complications from a heart bypass operation that
was to have given him new life.
A humble and generous man, HT fought energetically
(despite poor health) for the causes he believed in: as a photojournalist; when he worked
for the union movement; and as an activist (from helping the people of Timor and
Aceh, to proper handling of asbestos). He believed in the free and open
exchange of information, and invariably sided against vested interests
and injustice. Most recently, he alerted Crikey subscribers to the
continuing attempts by the federal government to screw down a tough –
and in his firm view unconscionable – deal to exploit East Timor’s
potentialy vast resource riches.
But HT was no humourless ideologue. His reporting on domestic politics
was quirky and irreverent in the best Crikey tradition, lampooning the
likes of Bomber Beazley and Labor’s headless Roosters, and his bete
noir “Lord” Alexander Downer. I met HT while covering last January’s
clamorous Labor Party national conference in Sydney, new leader Mark
Latham’s first big set piece. While other hacks were busy
networking and socialising, HT offered to fill in my patchy
understanding of NSW ALP politics. A long-time member of Labor’s
notorious Enmore branch, he had plenty of stories to tell. We both
watched with fascination the turbulent rise and fall of Latham over the
next 12 months.
Fellow activist Dr Vacy Vlazna remembers meeting HT early 1999 at a
pro-Timor meeting, where she urged him to go to East Timor: “Without
hesitation, unlike many with good intentions and no guts, he bowled
into Timor at the most dangerous time – the referendum – where he was
seen around Dili with his camera slung around his neck and his heart
and commitment on his sleeve.”
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As the TNI-backed militia’s activities grew more ferocious, most
reporters covering events in Dili were evacuated. HT was one of
the handful of journalists, along with his friend, SBS reporter John
Martinkus, who remained in the besieged UN compound. He filed there for
a range of organisations, from ABC radio to Workers Online, and had
photos published on the front page of the SMH and Age.
Their decision to risk their lives and remain with the Timorese almost
certainly saved refugees inside the compound from marauding militia and
Finally forced back to Australia, he called for a UN-sanctioned
international peacekeeping force to restore order – a process that was
finally set in train, but not before Dili was virtually razed.
Read Hugo’s full tribute on the site here.