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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Getting Acquainted With Balibo

Around the time of the release of the film Balibo I read Gerard Henderson’s review of that film, Hindsight Has Not Cleared The Vision Of An Atrocity. At the time I felt Henderson’s review was a useful corrective to the more romantic viewpoints on the deaths of the six journalists executed by the Indonesions in Balibo and Dili.

Recently I saw Balibo for myself and did a bit of reading about events associated with the invasion. I now see Henderson’s article rather differently.

Henderson’s article is a morass of willing distortions, misrepresentations and obfuscations. It amounts to an abuse of his position as a public intellectual. At every turn Henderson aims to deflect criticism from Indonesia and Australia and heap it on the journalists and Fretilin.

My question to Henderson: ‘Why ?’

Henderson’s Corrective

Henderson views Balibo as a fictional account of events serving a Marxist or generalized romantic Leftist view of the invasion and subsequent killing of the journalists, which has the effect of undermining confidence in Australian Government and politicians. He sees it as historically inaccurate and selective in its presentation.

Never Too Busy For A Culture War

Henderson says that the public broadcasters ABC and SBS are willingly complicit in the distribution of the Marxist Romantic Fiction which is Balibo and that their culpability in the undermining of Australia’s political institutions is enlarged by the fact that they are taxpayer funded.

It’s an irony that much of the alienation evident in the public debate in Australia is funded by taxpayers and finds expression on the public broadcasters ABC and SBS, within universities and on stage and screen. The latest example of this genre is Robert Connolly’s film Balibo…

The particular facts of historical omission or emphasis that Henderson cites are:

  • Portugal is not criticised for abandoning East Timor, its then colony, to the fate of invasion i.e. Australia and Indonesia alone are held to blame for the invasion and its aftermath
  • Whitlam is excoriated for complicity and “no alternative view is heard”, presumably that Whitlam acted with a mature grasp of geo-political reality, or his policy, though with regrettable consequences, was in Australia’s best interests, or that he could have done nothing else except comply with the Indonesion desire to invade.
  • Fretilin contributed to the invasion, or its severity, by willingly allowing itself to be portrayed as Communist because it wanted to be known in that way.
    and by uniltarally declaring independence. These points are, superficially at least, supported by quotes from Jose Ramos-Horta himself.
  • Fretilin itself committed atrocities during the civil war. This is admitted by Ramos-Horta.
  • Fretilin was pro-communist
  • The journalists themselves bear responsibility for their deaths by choosing to go to Balibo and by painting a Fretilin flag on the interior of their living quarters in Balibo. If they didn’t go they wouldn’t have got killed.
  • Greg Shackleton, the dominant personality amongst the reporters, possibly exhibited suicidal tendencies as manifested by his determination to go to Balibo, so he may have semi-consciously wanted to get killed anyway.

Henderson concurs that “There is no doubt that six Australian journalists were brutally killed”, but concludes on the basis of the above, that Balibo does not tell a truth, i.e. it is fiction.

At First Sight

Yep, seems mostly fair, I thought on first reading that.

Portugal shouldn’t be let off the hook, the journalists willingly put themselves in danger and a Fretilin flag on their wall would have enraged the Indonesians. Yes, there was a cover-up, but let’s not get dewy eyed about the Balibo Five.

That’s one of the thinks I like about Henderson. His ability to critique and research does have a way of pricking the balloon of the Left sometimes.

Let’s Get This Out
So the other week, the wife and I are down at the Video Shop. She picks up Balibo. ‘Let’s get this out’, she says. ‘Sure. Why not’.

What’s It Like ?

Balibo is a beautiful film. Its shot in an understated way and the dialogue is very natural. The story unfolds, it is not forced down your throat, and when the invasion comes, the restrained depictions of the Indonesian atrocities actually makes them more moving, more powerful. The performances are believable, LaPaglia is very good as Roger East, and the reporters behave like reporters. The overall depiction is as believable and natural as watching your next door neighbour pull out of his driveway and go to work in the morning. Practically suburban in its non-intrusive documentary feel.

Only the Jose Ramos-Horta character has a slightly unreal feeling. It was only he that I experienced as being ‘acted’ but the relationships between him and the other Timorese characters are well done, again very natural and restrained; no hero worship, or Yes, your noble highness, Sir. Just a very natural respect without obsequiousness.


Henderson is wrong at the most fundamental level of his criticism. Contra Henderson, Balibo does not blame only Australia and Indonesia and specifically Balibo does apportion blame to Portugal.

In a scene about two-thirds of the way through the movie a Fretilin soldier asks Shackleton ‘Why doesn’t Portugal help us ?’ . That question is then repeated by the Shackleton character in the film as he files Shackleton’s last report, the actual text of which is included verbatim in the script.

Why, they ask are the Australians not helping us?
When the Japanese invaded they did help us?
Why, they ask are the Portuguese not helping us, we’re still a Portuguese colony
Who, they ask will pay for the terrible damage to our homes

Green Lights

In addition the film specifically names the USA as green-lighting the invasion (as Australia did) and supplying the Indonesians with weapons (including helicopters) and Britain for supplying the money with which Indonesia bought the helicopters.

The film could have said, but did not, that Suharto’s decision to invade East Timor was only made once Whitlam had assured him that Australia would offer no objection:

Whitlam discussed the future of East Timor with Suharto on two occasions: 5th to 8th September 1974 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and 4th April 1975 in Townsville, Australia. Suharto requested an authoritative statement on Timor from Whitlam. Later, Major-General Ali Murtopo, the head of Indonesia’s covert special operations project for East Timor, told the Australian Ambassador to Portugal, “until Mr Whitlam’s visit to Djakarta, they had been undecided about Timor. However the Prime Minister’s support for the idea of incorporation into Indonesia had helped them to crystallise their own thinking.”

Who’s Responsible ?

In Balibo, the specific bearers of responsibility for the invasion are Indonesia, Australia, Portugal and the USA with Britain suppliers of weapons-money. More broadly, graphics at the start of Balibo say, to paraphrase, ‘Indonesia invaded East Timor and the world looked the other way’.

So, responsibility is sheeted to Indonesia, Australia, the USA and Portugal. This line-up accords with historical fact. Henderson’s specific criticisms that Portugal is let off the hook and that only Indonesia and Australia are blamed is baseless. He could not have paying proper attention to what he was watching.

Additional parties that Henderson claims share blame for events in Balibo and East Timor generally are, respectively, the journalists themseves and Fretilin.

Their Own Stupid Fault

Watching Balibo I felt of the journos, no doubt as many people do: “Fools. What did they expect ?” Running into a war zone carries with it the obvious risk of death. I watched them make the foolish decisions so common to young men and watched them reap the consequences.

So I agree with Henderson that the jounalists (including East) must bear some responsibility for what happened to them by putting themselves in the line of fire.

Its Not Just Some Deaths, Its A Cover-Up

But its not the fact that the journalists died or were in fact murdered, or contributed to their own deaths by foolishness that that makes the story of the Balibo Five so potent.

The Balibo Five story is that that Australian Governments covered up the murders of its own citizens, and assisted the Indonesians to do so. That is the dirty secret of Balibo and that secret is what the Australian government and associated diplomats lied about for so many years.

The fact of this cover-up is no longer seriously contested, not even by Henderson.

If Australian Governments will lie to their citizens, then any alienation so caused is deserved and self-inflicted.

Traducing Shackleton

Henderson is quite capable of grasping the salient difference between the bare fact that some journalists died, (even that they were brutally killed in Henderson’s words), and the amoral actions of the cover-up. He chooses instead to obfuscate that difference and impugn the journalists themselves by insinuating that Greg Shackleton had a semi-conscious death-wish and, as the dominant personality, caused the other journalists to put their lives in danger and be killed.

Henderson sources his insinuation from Tony Maniaty’s book, Shooting Balibo. Here is what Maniaty says about Shackleton and the other jounalists:

”My thoughts run up alleys with labels ranging from bravery and the quest for truth to mild suicidal tendencies and blatant stupidity, but in none can I really find an answer, or even the beginnings of one. These guys weren’t dumb, they were bright and savvy young Australians with exciting careers and lives ahead of them.”

So with equal validity Henderson could have said ‘Maniaty thinks Shackleton is brave’. Instead he chooses to say ‘Maniaty speculates that Shackleton had suicidal tendencies’.

But Henderson would prefer to derogate Shackleton and his team and deflect criticism of the Indonesians. No wonder Shirley Shackleton wrote an article entited ‘Killing Greg Shackleton Again And Again And Again’

Of course, Roger East was not in Balibo, but Dili. He was bound with wire and shot like a dog on the Dili wharf along with 150 Timorese. Was he too suicidal or under the spell of Shackleton’s dominant personality? Henderson does not say.

Protecting Indonesia’s Reputation

Stomach-turningly, Henderson is more solicitious of the reputation of their murderers, the Indonesians, than the Australian journalists

He says ‘Balibo is likely to tarnish Indonesia’s reputation in Australia’.
Well yes.

The Indonesians murdered six journalists and about 150,000 Timorese children, babies, women, men and grandmothers. Not shown in the film are the daily atrocities of the Indonesians over the next 25 years including mass deportantations and systematic rape from day one and, when required, hacking people to death with machetes:

Matt Frei,
“Face to Face with Timor Terror”
BBC Online, 4 September 1999
[…] While I was running towards the UN compound a pro-independence supporter was being hunted down like an animal. The young man fell after being hit on the head with a machete. Then six black T-shirts descended on him. A colleague hiding in a shack just opposite the gates to the UN compound filmed the whole thing. It took only 30 seconds to hack the man to pieces. The attack was so ferocious that bits of him were literally flying off. The sound reminded me of a butchers’ shop n– the thud of cleaved meat, I’ll never forget it. […]

The Indonesian reputation richly deserves to be tarnished.
Same as that of Stalin.

What, exactly, is Henderson’s objection to that ?

No Alternative View is Heard

Henderson, caustic at what he perceives as lack of balance in relation to Whitlam and even to the bloodthirsty invading Indonesians, cannot find one good word to find about the Balibo Five. In Henderson’s view, the journos invited death and were Fretilin barrackers, which could only have angered the Indonesians even more. No alternative view is heard.

Henderson could have said that the Balibo Five initially motivated by the professional opportunity to scoop a great story became personally moved by the obvious injustices of the abandonment of the Timorese and the bravery of Fretilin and the general population. Or he could have said that Roger East had a genuine humanitarian concern for the people of East Timor, all of which which is true, unlike Henderson’s traducive insinuation that Shackleton had a semi-conscious death wish.

But Henderson has nothing positive to say about the innocent. Henderson instead seeks to magnify the faults of all except Indonesia and Australia, the primary criminal and a major accomplice. As to why, one must speculate

Henderson’s Possible Motivation

Henderson’s overall objective in discussing Balibo and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor is to deflect blame from Indonesia and Australia and heap it on Fretilin and Fretilin.

In this, and by going as far as saying that ‘Balibo does not proclaim a truth’, Henderson gives approval to the decades long cover-up of the murder of the journalists. It is important to Henderson for some reason that Balibo be seen as fiction even though Balibo is true in all its significant truth claims.

Henderson agrees with Whitlam’s view that it was best for Australia that East Timor be incorporated into Indonesia. It is possible that Henderson feels some shame at advocating a course of (in)action that led to such horror. He may be not inclined to want to look too closely at the consequences of what he advocates. Such shame may incline Henderson to assist the prolongation of the cover up and to argue Indonesia’s horrific slaughter was understandable, legitimate, not preventable or provoked by Fretilin.

Henderson may also view Indonesia’s invasion as a regrettable realpolitik necessary for Australia’s overall security and feel that considerations of truth or justice are ultimately expendable given geo-political realities pertinent to Australia. Like Michelle Grattan in Emotion Makes It Hard To Focus On Harsh Realities he may believe of the pursuit of justice for the Balibo Five

Our national interest won’t be particularly served by going down a path that could put our two countries at odds.

…and needless to say, forcing Indonesia to own up to its sickening record of slaughter, rape and destruction in East Timor would be even more…delicate.

There is also Henderson’s reflexive anti-Leftism to consider. Henderson would like to pigeon-hole the 1975 Fretilin as pro-Communist as this makes them baddies. If Fretilin are Communist and the Balibo Five are Fretilin barrackers then this also makes the journalists baddies who even more deserved their fate.

This probably constitutes a reason why Henderson, similarly to Richard Woolcott, the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia during the 1975 invasion, emphasises the Fretilin flag on the wall of the Journalists’ living quarters in the Chinese House in Balibo. Woolcott additionaly emphasises that the Fretilin Flag is a Communist flag. If the journos are Communist-friendly this makes them easier to dislike, disrespect and disregard.

Flying The Flag(s)

The importance of the Fretlin Flag to Woolcott and additionally to Henderson, is that it creates a counterpoint to the well-known fact that the Balibo Five painted a likeness of the Australian flag on the exterior of their living quarters in the belief that this would afford them some kind of protection from the Indonesians, who would recognise it as a sign of neutrality. For Woolacott and Henderson, the Fretilin Flag in the journalists’ living quarters removes the journalists neutrality and makes them legitimate or at least understandable targets of war.

It is obvious, however, that the Fretilin Flag was irrelevant to the fate of the Balibo Five.

Quite simply the Indonesian soldiers had been ordered in advance to locate and kill the journalists.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported in Spying Game Keeps Its Peace, June 6, 2006

George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe, staffers of the Australian Hope Royal Commission On The Intelligence services [in 1977], said they were shown an intercept at [Defence Signals Directorate facility] Shoal Bay in March 1977, saying: “As directed/in accordance with your orders, we have located and shot the Australian journalists. What do we do with the bodies and personal effects?”

That intercept was from an Indonesian field commander at Balibo to Major-General Benny Murdani, overall commander of the East Timor invasion.

Ratifying the above, Dorelle Pinch, Deputy NSW Coroner said at her summation of her 2007 Inquiry into the death of camerman Brian Peters at Balibo,

“strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the head of Indonesian Special Forces, Major General Benny Moerdani, to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yunus….I am satisfied on the totality of the evidence that Colonel Dading Kalbuadi was aware that the journalists were in Balibo prior to the attack on 16 October and that he …[gave]…orders to kill them, to destroy their bodies and to engage in an orchestrated cover-up of the circumstances of their deaths.”

The journalists were targeted for execution by the Indonesian military irrespective of what flags may or may not be drawn on their walls. Henderson knows this but pretends otherwise. Once again one asks of Henderson ‘Why ?’

A Communist Flag ?

In a similar vein to Henderson, Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott is most assiduous to point out that the Fretilin flag on the interior of the Chinese house was a “Communist flag”, his point being that not only does shelter under the Fretilin flag remove neutrality from the journalists but the Communist ideology enrages the Indonesian military, so making the journalists doubly or triply foolish, double or triply responsible for their own deaths and the Indonesians’ killing of the journalists legitimized or at least understandable.

Mr Woolcott in The Australian as late as August 2009 was still saying:

“they always show that flag. They never show the other side of the door, which had a Fretilin (communist) flag on it. [The Indonesians] would have regarded (the reporters) as combatants because of their close association with Fretilin”.

Unfortunately for Woolcott the Fretilin flag of 1975 is bereft of Communist insignia and the Fretilin of 1975 was not a Communist organisation. The Fretlin flag can be viewed here and an explanation of its colours and symbols follows:

The black represents the [experience of] four centuries of colonial oppression, the yellow [appearing in the shape of an arrowhead on the 1975 Flag sewn for the UDI] recalls the struggle for independence, and the red reflects the blood shed by the East Timorese people. The white star symbolizes hope for the future.

Fretilin Pro-Communist?

Henderson is keen to say that there is plenty of blame of go around and that Fretilin bear some responsibility for the invasion or its severity because they were pro-Communist and willingly allowed themselves to be portrayed as Communist.

Henderson is again wide of the mark with this criticism. Neither Fretilin’s civil war opponents, the UDT, nor Whitlam, nor the United States State Department nor President Suharto Of Indonesia himself thought that Fretilin was Communist or pro-Communist. Which means that no-one did, except the targets of Indonesian and US propaganda.

Joao Carrascalao, co-founder of UDT and principal of the August 1975 coup which precipitated civil war

“In Fretilin some leaders were communist, but Fretilin was not a communist party. In UDT some leaders were socialist, but UDT was not a socialist party. It was a social democrat party.”

Gough Whitlam in Parliament on 30th September 1975:

“I suppose there may be pro-communist elements in Fretilin. I do not believe, on the basis of the information available to me, that Fretilin is totally or predominantly communist.”

US State Department, “Indonesia and Portuguese Timor,” 1975

‘Fretilin is a vaguely leftist party’

US State Department Background Notes On Timor-Leste, August 2010

The Indonesians claimed that FRETILIN was communist in nature, while the party’s leadership described itself as social democratic

President Suharto Of Indonesia, Conversation between Ford, Suharto, and Kissinger, July 5, 1975

“those who want independence are Communist-influenced…Fretilin are almost Communist“.

Roger East, Final Commonique From Dili, December 1975

Fretilin’s army is basically anti-colonial, strongly Catholic-tinted and, not surprisingly, has many vehement anti-Communists in its midst….However, Fretilin’s initial planning is a blending of socialistic and cooperative policies…Membership of Fretilin by Australian standards would include thinkers from the centre to the extreme left – the latter in a fringe grouping in the Central Committee.

Henderson must be aware that not even Fretilin’s civil war enemies thought Fretilin was Communist in 1975, yet he intentionally allows the impression of Fretilin as a Communist organisation to develop in his reader’s minds.

Henderson’s pigeon-holing of Fretilin as pro-Communist is another obfuscation which has the intended effect of crystallizing Fretilin as baddies and legitimizing Indonesian actions against them.

Fretilin’s Internal Political Debate

[Note: This section and the next is heavily dependent on Ben Kiernan, Professor of History, Professor of International and Area Studies and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, War, Genocide, and Resistance in East Timor, 1975–99: Comparative Reflections on Cambodia”]

Fretilin, throughout the years of Indonesion invasion, had a continuing and very sharp internal debate over its political direction over a rainbow of leftist models and indeed whether or not is should be Leftist at all. Leaders from the North-Central region of East Timor, closest to Dili and Indonesia’s power base consistently advocated a non-ideological compromise and accommodation with Indonesia. This was rejected by Fretilin leaders from other regions who saw compromise with Indonesia as a betrayal of the cause of Independence.

Fretilin stood for independence, not Communism. Ideology beyond independence was very much a second-order issue for Fretilin and in fact the Indonesians feared the pro-independence agenda irrespective of the underlying ideology, though Suharto did fear that the Communist influence within Fretilin could provide additional steel to their resolve.

What Kind Of Leftism ?

As to the range of opinions canvassed within Fretilin, Alarico Fernandes, the Fretilin Minister For Information And National Security, originally advocated the social democratic models of Austria and Scandanavia (says Kiernan relying on Gusmao; Horta says Fernandes was a Communist in 1975) became a supporter of Marxism in mid-1976 and then took up a non-ideological position of compromise with Indonesia in 1978. Xanana Gusmao, leader from 1979 was a consistent advocate of European Social Democratic models, though even he in the midst of the worst years of Indonesia’s invasion was ‘dazzled by the [Marxist] vision of human redemption’ (see Kiernan)

While there was indeed a strong Maoist influence in Fretilin after the invasion this was primarily engaged in regard to models of self-reliant guerilla warfare. The overall social, educational and political objectives of Fretilin were not Maoist-directed though Fretilin did also adopt a policy of Land Reform from Maoism.

Xanana Gusmao did not even read Mao’s writings until late 1976 and even then only to understand what some other leaders advocated. Marxism was acclaimed by Fretilin at one stage of the occupation as the most appropriate economic model for East Timor but was never instituted formally as the organisational principle of the Fretilin movement.

Hey! Sit Down! This Is Important!

The review of Fretilin’s severe ideological divisions is engagingly and academically detailed by Ben Kiernan in the work cited above. Kiernan via Gusmao sums up the Fretilin ideological mood at the height of their supposed commitment to Marxism and Maoism.

The discussion which led to the acclamation of Marxism occurred within the Supreme Council of Resistance of the CC Political Committee meeting held at Laline from May 8 to 20, 1977. Gusmao recounts the “sharp debate”, meaning strong for and against positions “center[ing] on a proposal to declare Fretilin a Marxist movement.”.

The President, Xavier do Amaral, favoured compromise with Indonesia and did not even attend. Nicolau Lobato, a Liberation Theology Catholic was as much motivated by Catholicism as Marxism. He berated the Committee for failing to Thank God (i.e say grace) during mealtimes and did not attend the Marxist acclamation debate because he was somewhat repelled by that current focus on politics rather than the sacrifices and deprivations of East Timorese civilians. He feigned sickness to avoid attendance, but donated his coffee plantations to ‘the state’. At this.

Hermengildo Alves complained “Any day now, the state will get my wife’s gold earrings too,”while the “inveterate bohemian,” dos Anjos, told “endless anti-revolutionary jokes, which did not amuse the Department of Political and Ideological Orientation.”

…while many of the political commissars lacked the motivation to finalise a resolution on the matter:

Finance Minster Sera Key “debated issues, making an effort to demonstrate his abilities as a political theorist. In fact he was the only one who livened up the meeting, until all the political commissars were told to sit around the same table and get organized.

The overall ideological picture of Fretilin during their most ideological phase is that a rainbow of leftist opinion, with a majority Marxist viewpoint but with some, including major leaders, ardently disinterested in political ideology at all.

Fretilin were foremost a nationalist and independence front. Their specific ideology was a work in progess to be thrashed out on the floor of many subsequent Fretilin National Conferences and always secondary to the goal of independence

The majority Fretilin opinion did indeed acclaim Marxism and Maoist guerilla warfare strategy during Fretin’s time of extremis during the horrific Indonesian invasion when Fretilin existed, as Mao’s Communists did, as a popular clandestine guerilla army (Keirnan p. 213) .

Further on Maoism some few Fretilin commanders did indeed adopt the practice of internal leadership purges accompanied by interrogations with beatings. Kiernan documents the execution of a Fretilin accommodationist leader, Sergeant Aquiles Soares and three associates, two of whom were Apodeti and one Fretilin, in November 1976 by other Fretilin leaders.

When Gusmao became aware of the practice of extracting confessions by beatings he expressed his disgust and used his personal authority to cause it to cease (Kiernan p. 218) . As noted previously Fretilin’s ideology returned to a conventional Social Democratic model when Gusmao assumed leadership in 1979.

However, Henderson’s characterisation of Fretilin as pro-Communist and therefore inviting invasion in 1975 turns on what Fretilin’s ideology was in 1975. And as we have seen, in 1975 not even Fretilin’s enemies considered Fretilin to be a Communist organisation.

Henderson’s charaterisation and implications are thus invalid.

Jose Ramos-Horta on the extent of Communist Influence on Fretilin in 1975 says:

“When people say that Fretilin was communist in 1974-75 it is not true. It was a political front.

He goes on to say:

Alarico Fernandes was a communist. [Sebastiao] Montalvao was communist and there were some others whose names I forget. Nicolau Lobato was not a communist. You could call Nicolau Lobato a secular Christian Marxist, like the theology of Latin American priests. Nicolau Lobato was someone who believed in Marxism but was 100% Catholic. Xavier Amaral, you might try to call him communist or a social democrat, but I don’t think so, he is a little conservative.”

Six Out Of Fifty-Two. That’s Practically Everyone.

Fretilin had fifty-two Central Committee members in 1975 (Kiernan p.219). Here Horta reports perhaps six or so with Marxist in 1975, of which one, Amaral, only loosely fit the desription and two of whom were Liberation Theology Catholics.

Objectively, Fretilin in 1975 could hardly be classified as a Communist organisation

So what of Henderson’s assertion that Ramos-Horta willingly allowing itself to be portrayed as pro-Communist and that Ramos-Horta has admitted that this was a terrible mistake ?

Henderson cites a Four Corners Program of June 15 1998., entited Timor: The Final Solution

Here is what Ramos Horta actually said:

Sure, there were some elements who had come from Portugal — Marxist orientation, but there were no more than five elements, very vocal, made sounding speeches with Marxist slogans and so on. That is what was exploited by Indonesian to portray Fretilin as Communist, but that was an enormous exaggeration. But I acknowledge that was a tremendous mistake on our part.

Contra Henderson, Ramos Horta did not say that Fretilin willingly allowed itself to be portrayed as pro-Communist. What he said was that Indonesia portrayed Fretilin as Communist based on the speeches of a numerically small number of Marxist leaders who happened to be very vocal.

The mistake, as I understand Ramos Horta, is that Fretilin did not foresee how effectively the speeches of the fringe Communist wing in the leadership group would be misused as propoganda against Fretilin. Henderson is, I believe deliberately, misinterpereting Horta’s words to shore up his ‘Fretilin Pro-Communist’ line in order to legitimize Indonesia’s actions against Fretilin or at least mute criticism of Indonesia.

Fretilin Ideology Irrelevant To Invasion Of East Timor

In fact the exact nature of Fretilin’s political ideology was irrelevant to Indonesia’s decision to invade.

Indonesia feared any and all East Timorese political expression irrespective of ideology, even beyond that of the call for Indepedence. As Kiernan documents, Suharto issued a sinister comminique on January 31, 1976 (less than three months after the invasion) that all Timorese political parties had now “dissolved themselves.” and on February 3 simply banned them all, including the pro-integrationist Apodeti and the supposedly anti-Communist UDT.

Why would Indonesia ban an anti-Communist political party if its major motivation for invasion was fear of indigenous East Timorese Communism ?

Indonesia feared the stimulus that an independent East Timor would provide to separatist movements throughout the archipeligo. For this reason East Timorese independence had to be crushed and East Timorese political organisations, irrespective of ideology, had to be seen throughout the archilpeligo to exist only at the whim of Djakarta. Fretilin’s exact political ideology, per se, was not a factor in the decision to invade. It was the Fretilin objective of independence that galvanized the Indonesian political and military elites toward invasion, not Fretilin’s inchoate Leftism.

However, Indonesian leaders feared that Communist countries such as China, Russia or Vietnam might attempt to gain influence in an Independent East Timor and perhaps create a naval base or station troops there. So, while Fretilin’s supposed Communism was largely a propaganda invention, the threat of Communist influence exploiting East Timorese independence within the archipeligo was in my view the greatest contributing factor to the decison to integrate East Timor by invasion.

Kate Masters summarizes the major motivations usually proferred for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor: Fretilin’s supposed Communism, to discourage seperatist movements, that East Timor was unviable economically and would drain Indonesian resources as an aid dependency and that Indonesia could not tolerate the offence-to-pride of an independent nation within its archipeligo.

Of these, the first three are expressed by Suharto himself in the infamous conversation he had with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger the day before the invasion. A further motivation, the removal of a colonial anomoly and the return of Indonesia’s rightful soil was believed by certain influential persons in the Indonesian elite including the Deputy Speaker and some in Bakin, the Indonesian intelligence service and constituted a permanent undercurrent to Indonesian thinking on East Timor.

In the end, Indonesia wanted the same thing in East Timor that Australia wanted: stable borders. According to CAVR, The Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation

“a Bakin/OPSUS (Special Operations) group took a look at the position in late 1972 or 1973 and came out strongly against the idea of supporting independence of East Timor..which could ‘add a new dimension to Indonesia’s security problems'”.

…and this strategic dimension shaped by a generalized concern about the possibility of one or other of the major Communist nations exporting Communism to an independent East Timor came to represent the major Indonesian rationale for invasion.

Did Fretilin Provoke Invasion By Declaring Independence?

Henderson further seeks to legitimize the Indonesion invasion by drawing reference to Horta’s characterisation of Fretilin’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) as an error, which he supports by a reference in Maniaty’s book ‘Shooting Balibo’.

By quoting Horta as stating that the unliateral declaration of independence was an error Henderson further encourages his readers to consider Fretilin a hasty or provocative organisation that enraged the paranoid Indonesians into invasion.

I have not yet been able to Google Ramos Horta’s ‘error’ quote. The nearest I can find is Horta saying that the Unilateral Declaration Of Independence of November 28 1975 was an act of desperation which supporting text in the article claims Ramos felt ‘played into the hands of the Indonesians who wanted to invade’ ‘U.S. Averted Gaze When Indonesia Took East Timor’ by Michael Richardson, International Herald Tribune, May 20, 2002

Says Jose Ramos Horta:

“The unilateral declaration of independence was an act of desperation, essentially forced upon the leadership of Fretilin in the face of abandonment by everybody,”

If this is the same context that informs the Maniaty reference then Henderson is duplicitous in the extreme to use Horta’s words to imply Fretilin provocation of Indonesia.

Henderson well knows that the Indonesians had already invaded East Timor before the UDI was made and had spent the previous months in intensive military operations in East Timor laying the foundation for that invasion which they had already cleared with Australia and were soon to clear with the United States.

Indonesia Invaded Before Fretlin Declared Independence

Indonesia had full intentions to invade East Timor regardless of any UDI and in fact were already doing so well before the UDI was made. The UDI merely allowed the Indonesians propaganda fodder to portary Fretlin as provocateurs, which Henderson now repeats as blithely as any Indonesian agent.

The immediate precursor to the UDI was the occupation of the East Timorese town of Atabae on November 26 by the Indonesians after two weeks of intensive air and sea bombardment. Predating the UDI, the UDI did not provoke this, or quite obviously, any other attack, naturally including the attack on Balibo of October 16 in which the Balibo Five were located, executed and burnt to a crisp as succintly described in the Indonesian memo back to their HQ.

But the longer context to the UDI was, as Horta states, the abandonment of Fretilin by the international community, the latest galling instalment of which was the farcical Rome talks of 1-2 November 1975 betwen Indonesia and Portugal in which Portugal adopted a studied silence in regard to significant Indonesian military incursions into East Timor.

At this point Fretilin knew it was truly and completely alone. The UDI was a desperate effort to induce United Nations interest in East Timor and prevent the bloodbath that would inevitably follow Indonesian invasion.

Again Henderson dissembles on the facts so as to magnify the faults of others besides Indonesia and Australia and so legitimize or deflect criticism of the invasion and its consequences.

Fretilin Monsters

Henderson’s final point in his attempt to legitimize the Indonesian invasion or at least deflect criticism of it is to draw moral equivalence between Fretilin and Indonesia by pointing out Fretilin atrocities, again quoting Horta this time on ‘senseless killings’ perpetrated by Fretilin.

For once Henderson supplies a correct context and interperetation when quoting Ramos Horta, Ramos Horta did say that Fretilin needs to answer for its own atrocities, for example the execution of 150 Apodeti/UDT prisoners on December 8th or 9th 1975 (Kiernan p. 207), but Henderson’s assertion of equivalence between the Indonesians and Fretilin is knowingly spurious.

The Indonesian military had carte blanche to kill as many men, women and children, soldiers, civilians and jornalists as they wished, even to murder pro-Integrationist Timorese. (Kiernan p. 207). Fretilin pursued no such similar policy of carte blanche slaughter.

Henderson knows this and should make the difference clear instead of deliberately obfuscating it.

Fretilin themselves admit to senseless killings on the part of a couple of commanders. Horta does not say Fretilin are blameless and instead admits Fretilin’s guilt. Horta’s openness about such incriminating details is in fact a model that ought to be followed by both Australia and Indonesia.

What Henderson omits is the fact that the killings were revenge for UDT atrocities, admittedly of a smaller magnitude, that accompanied their coup of August 11 1975. It was the UDT that fired the first shots in the Civil War, not Fretilin, and it was Indonesia that encouraged the UDT to do so, which they did by fraudulently telling the UDT that Fretilin were Communists, as Henderson continues to do today.

Henderson bypasses the facts above to misrepresent Fretilin as Communist revolutionary killers full stop and Indonesia as invaders due to instability caused by Fretilin. In Henderson’s words:

Tony Maniaty quotes Ramos-Horta as describing East Timor’s civil war and Fretilin’s unilateral declaration of independence as errors [of Fretilin (author’s interpolation – Under The Milky Way)]

If Australia had been as open and truthful as Jose Ramos Horta about our own culpability in the deaths of the Balibo Five and Roger East and the Indonesian invasion, then no film such as Balibo would be necessary, no lies would have been perpetrated by Australian governments on its own population and the very alienation about which Henderson wails and ascribes to the fault of leftists and the ABC would not have ever arisen.

Henderson’s Shoebox

Henderson is over-eager to portray the division between Fretilin and the UDT as being between pro- and anti-communist parties. His objective is to misrepresent the East Timorese Civil War of mid-late 1975 into an easily recognisable game of goodies and baddies, with the baddies being the supposedly pro-Communist Fretilin.

The Real UDT/Fretilin Relationship

The division between Fretilin and the UDT was not on communist/anti-communist lines, it was on the degree of relationship that a post-colonial East Timor should have with Portugal. Fretilin wanted full independence within a short timeframe while the UDT advocated an autonomous Federation with Portugal.
(see Francisco Da Costa Guterres, Ph D. thesis, Griffirth University, ‘Elites And Prospects Of Democracy In East Timor’)

The parties were indeed highly distrustful but not initially enemies. In early 1975 the UDT moved to a position very close to that of Fretilin in regard to independence and in March 1975 the two Parties issued a joint communique calling for independence for East Timor.

Indonesia, for its part, feared East Timorese independence would provide stimulus to other independence movements across its provinces (Guterres p.122), so from 1974 implemented ‘Operation Komodo’ which was designed to foment distrust between Fretilin and UDT with the purpose of engineering a Civil War which could be later used to justify invasion. (Guterres p.123)

Australian journalists Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson detail a CIA cable of 17th September 1975 describing the continuation of the strategy of Operation Komodo

“Jakarta is now sending guerrilla units into the Portuguese half of the island in order to provoke incidents that would provide the Indonesians with an excuse to invade.”

A review of the facts of the philospohical orientation of Fretilin and the UDT in 1975 shows that Henderson, who cannot be unaware of these facts, has deliberately obfuscated the nature of the two parties differences. Fretilin was not a pro-Communist (which Henderson uses to mean ‘Communist’) organisation in 1975 and the UDT was only incipiently anti-Communist. Its actual platform as recorded in the UDT manifesto was defined in the context of relations with Portugal, not against that of Marxism.

Henderson crams Fretilin and the UDT into a Cold war shoebox in order to present Fretilin as the bad guys to his Australian newspaper readership and so legitimize or deflect crticism of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

It is curious that Henderson does allow his support for the integration of East Timor into Indonesia to stand in reference only to facts.

In Summary

Henderson’s precis of Balibo, ‘Balibo does not tell a truth’ and the means by which he reaches this conclusion is shocking and offensive in the breadth of its anti-factuality.

Henderson says, ‘only Australia and Indonesia are blamed for the invasion’, but Balibo ascribes responsibility for the invasion to Indonesia, Australia, the USA and Portugal, with the general international community also indicted for turning its back on East Timor.

Henderson says Fretilin must share blame for the invasion but his efforts to impart this blame rely on craftily disingenous misrepresentations of Jose Ramos Horta’s comments on Fretilins actions and omissions.

Henderson knowingly misrepresents many facts about Fretilin, especially its ideology, in order to slur Fretilin as Communists which even its greatest enemies did not believe of it.

Henderson makes traducive insinuations about Greg Shackleton’s mental health in order to convey that Shackleton had a death wish and so was at least partially responsible for the deatrhs of the Balibo Five. Tony Maniaty, from whom Henderson sources his insinuation did not ever believe Shackleton had suicidal tendencies and it is clear from Maniaty’s book that this is so.

In short, Henderson is a hopeless dissembler on the topic of East Timor and Balibo.

One can only ask him ‘Why ?’

Balibo Is Correct About Balibo

Balibo correctly apportions blame in regard to the Balibo Five, Roger East and the 1975 invasion.

Furthermore, the documentary record shows Australian governments lied and colluded with Indonesia to fabricate a story about the deaths of the jounalists (this was not covered in the film) and was complicit in the invasion. Hence any resulting alienation in the general public is a result of Australian government actions factually taken and is deserved by those governments, Labor and Liberal from Whitlam onwards.

Contra Henderson, any alientation so felt is by no means the fault of Robert Connolly, any Marxist, or the ABC.

Henderson is a meticulous researcher and is highly conversant with the literature on East Timor. It is frankly unbelievable that the manifold distortions and omissions he makes in his article are mistakes. I conclude that Henderson is willingly engaging in deceit of the Australian people to minimize Australian Government complicity in the Indonesion Invasion Of East Timor (and consequently the ghastly and vicious events that followed for the next twenty-five years) and the cover-up of the murder of the Balibo Five and Roger East.

He will have to tell us his reasons for doing so, but I suspect it is shame at supporting such a horrific invasion plus his reflexive anti-leftist impulses which cause him a priori to distrust and reject Fretilin and anyone who has a good word to say about them.


Should Australians feel alienated from their Government because of the horrors of East Timor and their willing lies in regard to the deaths of the Balibo Five and Roger East ? Ask one who is so alienated, Shirley Shackleton, wife of Greg Shackleton:

Roger fell from the wharf and his body floated in the sea. Someone moved him that night and placed flowers and lit candles all around his body ­ this brave unknown human being did more for Roger East with that courageous act than any Australian official has ever done for him.

To be fair to Whitlam, Australian Intelligence did warn Shackleton et. al. not to go to Balibo and that they could not be protected by the Australian government once there. But Shirley Shackleton is also correct. Once located, executed and burnt to a crisp her husband has then been lied about, betrayed and even ridiculed by Australian officials ever since, an inglorious tradition now continued by Henderson.

No wonder some feel disgust. No wonder Australian Governments behave as if there was something to be ashamed about. There is.

Henderson’s determination to blame the ABC for the resulting alientation shows he is not reading Balibo the event, or Balibo the movie with any objectivity whatsoever.


One thing that puzzled me about Henderson’s summation of Balibo was his perjerotive use of the word ‘clever’. Henderson says:

Balibo runs a clever argument. But it does not proclaim a truth.

Henderson uses ‘clever’ in the sense that Kevin Rudd used it of John Howard to mean ‘sly, cunning, disingenuous, good at using words to create a false impression, manipulative, able to garner support by duplicitous speech’.

In its dialogue and cinematography Balibo presents as a very simple film. Much of the dialogue is ordinary: Let’s go here and do such and such; How are you going; See you next Wednesday. The transitions between scenes are almost predictable in their simplicity and the actual vision is reminiscent of a home movie.

So if Balibo is clever then it is not that it tries to snow the audience under with a blizzard of dates and times or by misrepresenting a highly interconnected argument; neither does it try to distract or dazzle its audience with special effects. But neither did Howard. Howard merely enunciated truisms to his audience, feeding them a view of reality which reinforced a chocolate-box view of the world that his audience would like to be true. In this way he comforted Australia and sent their critical faculties to sleep. No analysis, no commentary. And when necessary he just told bare-faced lies.

Clever ?

It is actually Henderson’s argument which is clever in the Howardian sense.

Henderson’s article is short, easy to digest and is as simple as a game of cops and robbers. Repeat after me: Australia good, Lefties bad. In order to cram the facts about Balibo and East Timor into his Cold War shoebox Henderson needs to misreport the content of Balibo (the supposed Blind eye to Portugal’s supposed), misrepresent the 1975 Fretilin as Communist (hence bad guys), simplify and misrepresent the 1975 UDT as anti-Communists always and implacably opposed to Fretilin (hence good guys), disgracefully misrepresent Horta at every turn and make wholly offensive insinuations about Greg Shackleton’s mental health.

Henderson’s ‘clever’ is a projection of his own disingenuousness onto Robert Connolly and the other principals of Balibo.

And the bare-faced lie ?

Balibo does not contain a truth.

Balibo tells the truth.
…much against Henderson’s preferences.