The pain that won’t go away Duncan Graham
Far, far away, Indonesia continues to get a bad press. Not just because of corruption, smoking toddlers and women having to wear long skirts in Aceh, but because of a tragedy in 1975.
At an outdoor memorial service in New Zealand for Gary Cunningham, the young Kiwi cameraman who was shot in East Timor 35 years ago, an Indonesian citizen privately offering apologies and sympathy approached his aunt, Pat McGregor (pictured above.) Indonesian Embassy diplomats and NZ government representatives were not present.
“There’s no need to apologise,” Mrs McGregor said as spokesperson for the Cunningham family. “It was not the fault of the Indonesian people. I was bitter at first, but I’ve got over that. However I’d still like those two involved brought to justice.”
(She was referring to former Special Forces officers Yunus Yosfiah and Christoforus da Silva who are alleged to have ordered the killings.)
On 16 October 1975 Indonesian troops invading East Timor (now Timor Leste) shot Cunningham and four other foreign journalists in the village of Balibo despite a sign on their house wall saying the reporters were from Australia. Although two were British, two were from Australia and one from NZ, all were working for Australian TV channels.
The men became known as the Balibo Five and failure to find those responsible for their deaths has been a running sore in Indonesian- Australian and NZ relationships ever since.
Balibo, an Australian feature film about the incident released last year has been banned in Indonesia, despite protests by Indonesian journalists. It was going to be shown at the Jakarta International Film Festival last December.
The film, based on books about the event and an Australian coronial inquest, claimed the men were deliberately killed because their reports would have revealed news of the secret invasion into what was still a Portuguese colony.
The Indonesian government has long claimed the matter is closed, arguing that screening the film would open conflict between Indonesia and Australia. However there was a surprise development last December when retired colonel Gatot Purwanto confessed that the men had been ‘executed’.
The Australian government has started a war crimes commission investigation into the killings – the fifth inquiry into the tragedy
Gary Cunningham, who was born in Wellington in 1947, moved to commercial TV in Australia after working for the NZ Broadcasting Corporation.
Late last month (May) about 50 people gathered in the rain on a hillside above Wellington to remember Gary and his colleagues, speak of the tragedy, condemn the Australian and NZ governments for not confronting Indonesia, and unveil a memorial bench covered with a Timorese ikat (traditional woven cloth).
Tim Pankhurst, secretary of the Media Freedom Committee, and chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association said it was important to remember that journalists faced danger when reporting wars, and needed support and protection.
So far this year 13 journalists have been killed on the job, the latest an Italian reporter in Bangkok. Last year 71 died.
Mr Pankhurst said fear of offending Indonesia had been behind past governments failing to pursue the issue. He called on the NZ government “to show similar courage and commitment” to Australia in chasing the facts.
Media professionals and human rights activists have continued to press Indonesia to prosecute those responsible for the shootings. Indonesia has continued to claim that the men were accidentally shot during a firefight between the Indonesian military and Fretilin militia.
Fretilin was the socialist resistance group, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.
The journalists’ bodies were burned and some remains buried in Jakarta, though there are doubts that the ashes are those of the men. The men’s relatives were not allowed to fly to Indonesia for the funeral and could only attend a memorial service in Melbourne. Cunningham family members were not able to visit Timor Leste till 2003.
Mrs McGregor said support for the memorial had come from the Media Freedom Committee and the Indonesia Human Rights’ Committee (IHRC) a NZ organisation that has long been campaigning for justice for the Balibo Five.
Gary’s brother Greig Cunningham said many people were unaware that journalists put their lives at risk so viewers could get the news in the comfort of their homes.
East Timor had been a Portuguese colony for more than 200 years. When Portugal began to relinquish control in 1975 many nations, including Australia and the US, feared Communists might take control of an independent nation. After seizing control Indonesia made the little country its 27th province.
For the next 24 years fighting between Indonesian troops and East Timorese guerrillas took the lives of an estimated 100,000, Timorese and Indonesians, through warfare, starvation and disease.
In a 1999 referendum the people voted four to one to become an independent nation. Since then NZ troops have been part of the international peacekeeping force in Timor Leste.
Mrs McGregor said the news of her nephew’s death came on her silver wedding anniversary. At first the family was told Gary had died in crossfire, but later heard rumors that the journalists had been killed in cold blood.
“It was a great shock to us all,” she said. “Gary had worked in Vietnam during the war and knew the risks. He wouldn’t have done anything foolish. The government wouldn’t tell us what had happened.
“It’s important to honor him, even after all these years. We all feel just a little bit better now. Gary gave his life in the pursuit of truth.”