THE HAUNTING RETURN OF THE BALIBO FIVE
© Duncan Graham 2006
It’s a pity radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was cleared of wrongdoing by Indonesia’s Supreme Court during Australia’s Silly Season.
This is the normally slow-news period just before Christmas and into the New Year. Politicians, PR hustlers, ambitious academics and other column poachers and airtime thieves are at the beach taking a break from feeding the media with their pontificating and posturing.
The press and TV heavies are also hitting the surf and sand, so minor events often get a run beyond their normal value.
So it has been with the toothy whitebeard skilled in needling his neighbors, even recommending that Prime Minister John Howard take the Haj.
Now that would be news. But in the absence of the Protestant Howard heading for Mecca swathed in white - or any other solid stories - reporters have been asking and getting the predictable responses from victims of the Bali bombs. These are the outrages that Ba’asyir allegedly engineered as spiritual head of the militant group Jemaah Islamiah.
Innocent according to the new legal decision, but guilty in the court of public opinion Down Under. Understandably the badly wounded jurors tend to be deaf to the opinions of more learned commentators. These people, including Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, remain unsurprised at the court’s decision because the circumstantial evidence used for the conviction was tissue thin.
All this was said before and at length when Ba’asyir was released in June after serving part of a 30-month sentence. But that hasn’t stopped the anger and accusations being recycled when there’s been little else to report apart from sport and bushfires.
Then another Christmas goodie with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer again warning holiday-hunting Aussies to steer clear of the archipelago because they might get bombed.
The State Intelligence Agency BIN reckons no problem, leaving us to think the Aussie spooks know more than the locals – or Australia has another agenda in maintaining travel alerts and talking about unspecified and uncheckable ‘credible threats’.
So here at the end of 2006 we have our long-suffering patient Ms AusIndo Relations sick yet again, with her condition likely to worsen in the next two months.
That’s because a coronial inquest is scheduled early next year to examine the deaths of the Balibo Five.
Many outside the Antipodes will be bemused by this shorthand term that refers to the deaths of five Australian newsmen covering Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of what was then Portuguese Timor.
The unarmed TV crews were allegedly shot dead by the Indonesian military at the border village of Balibo. Their bodies were then burned.
This is an issue that the Australian media has never abandoned. Nor have some of the victims’ families – particularly Shirley Shackleton widow of reporter Greg.
After more than 30 years and numerous inquiries you might expect no new evidence could be forthcoming. Wrong. Information has now become public that didn’t make it into the media during earlier closed-door investigations.
It’s claimed that two Australian officials knew of intercepted radio messages transmitted by the Indonesian Army during the fighting. These allegedly ordered the journalists to be killed.
Till now it has been argued that the men died in crossfire as TNI troops and Fretilin fighters confronted each other – in other words a tragic accident. Few in the Australian media believe this version.
Some of the TNI commanders involved are still alive and likely to be named at the inquest. Not the sort of coverage that will refresh Ms AIR.
In November Australia and Indonesia signed the so-called Lombok Treaty that’s supposed to make sure we all stay mates. Ms AIR’s wounds started to heal – but as many observers have pointed out soothing sounds among politicians doesn’t mean the hearts and minds of the electorate will follow the same song sheet.
Why should Australian taxpayers continue to help Indonesia when some of its military elite allegedly ordered the murder of our young men (all were in their 20s) who were just trying to do their job as neutral observers? (Indonesia ranks number two in Australian aid, behind Papua New Guinea).
And why should voters accept the Australian government’s present intentions when past administrations allegedly knew the killings were willful but put appeasement ahead of confrontation with its overcrowded neighbor?
There’ll be calls for the assassins to be prosecuted if the inquiry finds against them, but of course nothing will happen. If the masterminds behind the September 2004 Garuda airline slaying of local human rights activist Munir are untouchable, there’s no chance the executioners of foreigners three decades ago will ever see the inside of a courtroom.
For Indonesia this is a closed volume. For Australia the page is heavily book marked and the edges dog-eared.
We don’t expect the polygamous Ms AIR to expire – she’s being lavished with lots of top-level care from her two lovers. Unfortunately she doesn’t have too many friends elsewhere to wish her well, and they’re the ones that matter.
So here’s a New Year’s resolution we can all undertake: Let’s make 2007 the year we tone down the slander and make the effort to try and understand each other. In brief – behave like good democratic neighbors, explore a bit of reconciliation and take a breath of fresh air.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 January 2007)