10 September 2009

A Test Of The Australian and Indonesian Relationship...

The latest development in the Balibo Five case is sure to be a tester of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. The latest development is that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have decided to launch a war crimes investigation into the events surrounding the deaths of five journalists in the East Timorese township of Balibo. To be fair the enquiry must also include the execution of Roger East as well who was ultimately captured and executed on the foreshore of Dili.

It goes without saying that when the investigation became public knowledge that the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond positively. The Indonesians have considered this case a closed one pretty much from the time it happened. The response went along the lines of case closed and we will not be cooperating in any investigation.

Nevertheless, the AFP were between a rock and a hard place considering the findings of the 2007 NSW Coronial Inquest into the deaths which in essence concluded that there was a case to answer, at least for Yunus Yosfiah, and referred the matter to the AFP for investigation.

For Indonesia, and for many in Australia as well, the idea of letting bygones be bygones and focusing on developing a mutually beneficial relationship going forward is more important. Bygones can never truly be bygones until there is at least a sense that justice has prevailed. The Balibo Five and Roger East have not had any justice and neither have their families. In the end justice might in fact reveal that the Balibo Five were the unfortunate victims of an incident where they were caught in the crossfire between Indonesian and Fretilin troops. If that is the case, then so be it. However, if it turns out that the Balibo Five were the victims of an execution that was aimed at preventing them from getting the story of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor out to the world, then justice would entail that the perpetrators of the execution who remain alive must be brought to trial.

For me, there is no reason why a mature bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia cannot survive this investigation. The idea that the era of Soeharto has passed, which would seem pretty obvious now the man is dead, and that Indonesia is a different place to what it was in 1975, albeit true, does not hold water when it comes to justice. What happened in East Timor and the Balibo Five needs to be known, just because Soeharto is dead and Indonesia is a different place does not mean that the truth of these events should be swept under the carpet. The tribunals in Cambodia are testament to the need for justice to be given a chance.

In many ways there are arguments beyond just the Balibo Five that what occurred in East Timor, the now independent Timor Leste, were crimes of such a magnitude that an international tribunal is warranted. There are arguments to be made for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, Even though the genocide of the East Timorese might be debatable and may not be on the scale of the holocaust of the Jews during the second world war, a genocide is a genocide on whatever scale.

The allegations must be pursued until the truth is determined.

I will undoubtedly write on this subject again as it contains all the issues that are important to me both personally and professionally; Australia, Indonesia, and the pursuit of justice.


ben said...

I myself as probably many other Indonesians don't have a problem with getting to the bottom this. We too want to know what happened.

Finding the fact, however, would be really hard. And long.

And in the meantime, the news may, directly or indirectly, demonize the Indonesian army as a whole (who most of them in active duty right now probably were still in the academy or just graduated when this happened.)

Things have changed, and as my friend put it: "you won't be too happy if people think you are bad just because of what your father did.
Especially after you try hard to be better than your father!"

So that's my reservation.

Sensitivity would go a long way in this case, I think.

The truth will come out. Sooner or later.

Rob Baiton said...


Good points one and all.

Although, I am not sure that Australians judge all Indonesians on the sins of the father (in this case the father of development), but the idea that bygones must be bygones is also problematic when separating the sins of the father from the maturity of the child.

The idea of sensitivity is an interesting one considering the level of sensitivity that was shown to the Balibo Five and Roger East.

Perhaps the truth is already out and our collective problem is facing that truth.

anong said...

What role did the opening of the Australian cabinet papers of the time reveal about this matter? Any?

Rob Baiton said...


Do you have a link?

anong said...


the articles are from the smh. I thought them very newsworthy at the time (of the coroner inquiry)

Rob Baiton said...


The news articles I read at the time.

I will see what I can track down with respect to any 'classified' documents that might have been released.

If I find out anything, I will be sure to post :D

anong said...

I wish you luck. I would think a team of journalists might be doing the same thing now that the interest in the movie has peaked/is peaking

ben said...


allow me to clarify the 'sensitivity' part.
I didn't mean sensitivity towards the perpetrators. But towards the younger generation of the Indonesian army, who have nothing to do with the crime.

We are trying to heal wounds of the past. Not to create new ones.

I don't think Indonesian people think those who did this crime need protection against prosecution.
What for?
Fair is fair. If there is proof that they had done the crime, then they must do the time.

The 'bygones be bygones' is not a solution. It's sweeping stuff under the carpet.

Indonesia should deal with it so we can be done with the past and move on.
There's a lot still to be done.

Rob Baiton said...


Probably :D

But it won't hurt to look for myself.


Mate, no need to clarify. I got that part, well the part about the younger generation.

In explanation, I think the younger generation of the armed forces is not being tarred with the same brush (for want of a better expression).

To the contrary, I think there is an opportunity for the younger generations of both countries to step forward and say, enough is enough, the truth must prevail.

We must heal these wounds if we are to move forward as mature neighbours with a common regional future.

While we are clarifying, I am not suggesting that the Indonesian people are trying to cover up and hide from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite, I think many Indonesians would believe that the truth is an important pre-cursor to moving forward.

However, when the spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs says in an unequivocal manner, "case closed, we will not cooperate", then there is not much hope going forward.

H. Nizam said...

I agree that any illegations of crime should be investigated, but in this case there is some big questions: why must it wait for 34 years? why not when Soeharto was still in power, or not long after he was toppled in 1998. It would be a lot much easier if the investigation is carried out when all the military top brass and officers are still around. I hope that there is nothing more to it.

Rob Baiton said...


It has not been a case that has been idle for 34 years. There have been ongoing investigations into the matter, private and public.

Soeharto? Yes, I think that the old man would have been keen to have the investigation go forward when he was in power.

Sometimes people die before justice can be achieved. Pol Pot is dead, but that did not stop the international tribunal being convened in Cambodia.

I hope there is something to it. I also hope that Indonesia and Australia are mature enough to deal with the issue and resolve it once and for all.

I am not sure what you mean by "I hope that there is nothing more to it", are you suggesting that because it happened 34 years ago we should forget about it?

If you are, then my question would be, "How much time should be allowed as a statute of limitations in cases such as these?"

For example, the Munir case. Is it time that everybody just quit the pursuit of justice because 5 years have elapsed since the crime was committed?

Or Trisakti, it has been more than 10 years now. Should the plug be pulled on the pursuit of justice in that case?

The holocaust of the Second World War? The genocide of the Armenians in 1915?

Where does one draw the line in the sand on this one?

H. Nizam said...

As I have said, I agree with the investigation, but I am very curious. Your government & police have 34 years to find out the truth. And since 1998 Indonesia is a free country where you can get information easily, not like the Khmer Rouge or the Nazi. For example one of the men was a minister in 1998. If he really was an alledged murderer, why must they wait until 2007 to suspect him? And why must your police only start investigation 2 years later?

Rob Baiton said...


Way back in late November 1975 just prior to his capture and subsequent execution by Indonesian armed forces, Roger East, filed a story that claimed that the Balibo Five had surrendered to Indonesian forces and were then murdered.

So, this is hardly new news. The reasons Indonesians did not investigate and then prosecute the perpetrators, if any prosecutions were warranted based on the evidence, is not rocket science.

Why Australia has not pursued it earlier is also not one for the rocket scientists.

However, this does not mean that the alleged crime did not occur and it does not mean that Yunus Yosfiah was not the person that gave the order (after allegedly getting the green light from Benny Moerdani) or participated in the murder of the five.

Yunus Yosfiah was suspected way before 2007, at least by those in the know. The word had been out for some time. The NSW Coronial Inquest confirmed a lot of matters that had been suspected.

The idea that this investigation could have occurred under a Soeharto regime is an interesting one, particularly so when you point out that Indonesia has been free since 1998.

But, I would argue that information is not freely available and moves in the DPR on bills like the Freedom of Information and State Secrecy in fact will make information harder to obtain, especially where it is sensitive like the murder of five foreign journalists during an invasion and subsequent integration of a Portuguese colony that was never recognized by the UN.

Some things might be different but some things remain the same. Indonesia is very much a country that would prefer bygones to be bygones. In this respect Indonesia is not all that different from most other countries in the world.

It is also interesting that you say this is a different situation from the Khmer and Nazis. I would agree that every situation in its own way is unique.

But, let me pose this little teaser for you. Jews had to wear a Star of David on their clothes to identify them as Jews. Now, family members of communists and their descendants irrespective of whether they were communists themselves had their KTPs marked to identify them as former communists or related to a former communist. Indonesians of Chinese ancestry had their identity documents marked to identify them as such and also required additional and specific citizenship documents.

Not so different!

But, ultimately I do not see the current investigation as an attempt to undermine SBY or Indonesia. To suggest that the investigation is nothing more than some foreign meddling in Indonesia's internal affairs is somewhat bizarre to me. That is just me though.