The 1998 arrest of the late Chilean dictator General Pinochet in London, on a Spanish arrest warrant, continues to reverberate: although Pinochet was ultimately released on medical grounds, his case changed the rules for the pursuit of crimes against humanity.

Hence the rapid departure from Australia on Tuesday of the governor of Jakarta, General Sutiyoso, following a request that he give evidence at the “Balibo Five”
inquest in Sydney.

Sutiyoso claims outrage and indignation, but it is hard not to see fear of arrest playing a part: although there’s no evidence that the inquest regards him as a suspect, he was not taking any chances.

In his absence, the inquest is expected to recommend the prosecution of two other former Indonesian officers for war crimes over the murder of the five Australian-based journalists in 1975, which will pose another diplomatic headache for the Australian government.

But the attention to what went on at Balibo, although welcome in its own terms, risks distracting attention from the major war crime, which was the Indonesian invasion itself.

The invasion and annexation of East Timor was one of the most egregious breaches of international law in the last half-century. The only rivals I can think of are Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and perhaps the American-led invasion of Iraq. (Readers are invited to submit additional suggestions.)

Yet the architect and perpetrator of the invasion, General Suharto, still lives openly in retirement in Jakarta – a man with possibly more blood on his hands than anyone else alive.

The desire for peaceful relations with Indonesia is entirely praiseworthy, and that country’s movement towards democracy should be recognised and encouraged. But Australia, as a friend, should make it clear to Indonesia that recognition of the crimes of the past cannot be evaded forever.

And perhaps when the inquest into the crimes at Balibo is over, we can begin an inquiry into the cover-up – into why it has taken more than 30 years for even this much of the truth to be acknowledged.