There may be a good chance that the outcome of the NSW coronial inquiry into the killing of Brian Peters at Balibo in 1975 will offer a measure of closure for the relatives of the victims. It is, however, unlikely to bring justice. In contrast to several confusing earlier inquiries, what the coronial inquiry has done is to expose the role of Australian governments in this sorry affair, as well as the course of events in Balibo on that fatal day. The Whitlam government, and presumably the Fraser government, not only concealed that fact that they were advised of the newsmen’s summary execution within 24 hours of the event; they went on to conceal Indonesia’s responsibility for what was an atrocity – in the case of Prime Minister Whitlam, even blaming the newsmen for having gone to the border – suggesting a relationship that was more about honour amongst thieves than good neighbourliness. The inquiry also highlights the misuse of intelligence, in this case in order to conceal the fact that we were reading the low level code messages of our neighbour. The intelligence obtained by Defence Signals Directorate, where many years ago I myself was an analyst, is often referred to as ‘‘sensitive source material” and is very valuable. We used to describe it as ”straight from the horse’s mouth”, in contrast to the more dubious material acquired from other clandestine sources. What distressed the DSD analysts in the Balibo case was the fact that the murder of fellow Australian residents (actually two were British and another a New Zealander) was concealed in such a way as to question the integrity of their role in an agency of this nature.
There was no good reason for such a move. Indonesian communication officers knew that their low level coded traffic was being intercepted and read, and accordingly would have concluded back in 1975 that the Australian government knew the fate of the newsmen.  Indeed, the TNI halted its invasion operation for a short time, the Suharto government anticipating that it would get a blast from Australia. There was no blast – the only criticisms from the Whitlam government were of the journalists for having foolishly ventured into a dangerous area.  Astonished, but delighted at the weak response, the TNI resumed its invasion which culminated in the assault on Dili on 7 December, where another Australian journalist, Roger East, was summarily executed to an equally diffident response from Canberra. And in the next five years as many as 180,000 East Timorese were to perish. As we saw in 1999, this deference to the Suharto regime did nothing to help the relationship. In fact it raised expectations of the kind of accommodation of humanitarian abuses unacceptable to most Australians. With the progress of democratic reform in Indonesia, we now know that most Indonesians themselves find such behaviour unacceptable.  

Peter Fray

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