In cold blood: behind NZ deaths in TimorSunday Star Times | Sunday, 11 February 2007
An inquest in Sydney is throwing new light on the death of Kiwi television cameraman Gary Cunningham during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor 31 years ago. Anthony Hubbard reports.
The New Zealand government didn't want to make a fuss about the death of Gary Cunningham. It privately supported the Indonesian invasion of Timor, and Cunningham's death was a PR problem.
Cunningham, a New Zealander, died along with four other Australia-based journalists when Indonesian troops swept through the Timorese border town of Balibo in October 1975. Evidence last week at an inquest in Glebe, Sydney, supported what had been long suspected - that Indonesian soldiers murdered the five in cold blood.
A new book by Maire Leadbeater on New Zealand and East Timor shows that officials and the then Labour prime minister, Bill Rowling, did not want to rock the boat over Cunningham.
There would be no "necessity for New Zealand to become involved in the dispute" over his death, officials told Rowling in June 1976. The government's inaction over Cunningham caused little public challenge, Leadbeater writes in Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand's Complicity in the Invasion and Occupation of Timor-Leste.
Australia was by then coming under pressure from the Australian Journalists Association, and ministry officials prepared a briefing for Rowling on Cunningham.
They told him: "There would seem to be no clear-cut case against Indonesia for any specific violation of international law." There was no real need for New Zealand to take action.
To do so "would harm our own relations with Indonesia". The ministry said Cunningham was an Australian resident, employed by an Australian organisation and a member of the Australian Journalists Association. Although he was a New Zealand citizen, his close family lived in Australia. It was shocking that a government should do so little to investigate the death of one of its citizens just to appease a foreign power, Leadbeater told the Sunday Star-Times. Leadbeater, a long-time campaigner on East Timor, is the sister of Green MP Keith Locke, who will help launch her book in parliament on Wednesday. Former Labour Foreign Minister Phil Goff will also speak.
The Australian inquest - held to investigate the death of Brian Peters, an English-born Channel Nine cameraman living in New South Wales - last week heard evidence that Indonesian soldiers killed the journalists.
Official reports said the men were killed in crossfire between the Indonesians and East Timorese militia. But a Timorese witness, known only as Glebe 2, told the inquest that he saw Indonesian special forces officer Yunus Yosfiah shoot Peters as he tried to surrender.
The shots fired by Captain Yunus from his AK-47 at three metres' range were followed by a fusillade from other troops, killing three other journalists, he told the Glebe Coroner's Court.
Peters raised his hands with empty palms outward, said a report in the Sydney Morning Herald. "I believe that he was asking for mercy," the witness said.
Yunus, who was Indonesia's information minister for a year from 1998, told the newspaper the allegations were nonsense. Neither he nor other Indonesian officials or soldiers will give evidence at the inquest.
The accusation against Yunus is not new. It has been made in previous books and by UN investigators, but Indonesia has done nothing to bring him to justice.
The Australian inquest is the first independent judicial inquiry into the Balibo killings that has power to compel witnesses. But it is powerless to force the alleged Indonesian killers to testify.
Australia became aware of the killings within hours, says Leadbeater. "There is no doubt that Australia worked assiduously to help Indonesia cover up the murders." Australian Signals Intelligence transcripts included radio messages such as: "Among the dead are four (sic) white men. What are we going to do with the bodies?"
The Australian government said as little as possible publicly and "also helped to perpetuate the lie that the deaths were mysterious and the culprits unknown", Leadbeater writes.
"When Australian diplomats confided their concerns to their New Zealand colleagues, they did not speak about the journalists' families or express fears for East Timorese. They were worried about the impact on the bilateral relationship of the cumulative effects of `these irritants'."
Australia was warned about the invasion, but no attempt was made to warn the journalists, who were known to be in the area to be attacked.
"It may never be known whether the Australian officials and ministers deliberately sacrificed the lives of the journalists, or whether key people were simply distracted and did not put two and two together," Leadbeater says.
However, the Sydney inquest may help clear up the mystery - unless Australian government secrecy stymies it. Australia's electronic spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, is claiming immunity on national security grounds from revealing what it learned about the killings from intercepted Indonesian communications.
The counsel assisting the coroner in Sydney, Mark Tedeschi QC, referred to the intercepted messages and said a possible Indonesian motive for eliminating the five journalists was to prevent a public outcry in Australia that would have undermined the then Australian government's tacit approval of the invasion.
Australia, the United States and New Zealand had told Indonesia they would play down the invasion of the former Portuguese colony.
Foreign Affairs officer Merwyn Norrish told visiting Indonesian officials in Wellington on December 8, 1975, that New Zealand "had a private and a public position with respect to Timor".
In correspondence made public in 2002, Norrish said: "Publicly we had sought to emphasise the need for an act of self determination, wherever that might lead, while privately we acknowledged that the most logical solution would be one that led to (Indonesian) integration (of East Timor) through self-determination."
The policy of tacit support for the Indonesian occupation continued for many years under National and Labour governments.
A National government downplayed the death of another New Zealand citizen in East Timor in November 1991. Kamal Bamadhaj, of mixed Pakeha and Malaysian parentage, was shot dead in Dili after a massacre by Indonesian soldiers of protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery.
The New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta said the aim should be to get the balance right between demonstrating very serious concern about Kamal's death and avoiding an excessive reaction that might cause "unnecessary damage to an important bilateral relationship".
In spite of a strongly worded formal request for an explanation, Leadbeater says, "initial firmness melted quickly".
Leadbeater, whose book uses government documents issued under freedom of information laws in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the US, says New Zealand's record on East Timor was deplorable. But the documents also showed that the government was sensitive to public protest.
In March 1995, for example, the government postponed a military training visit to New Zealand of five Indonesian army officers after a poster campaign in Wellington asked: "Why is the NZ air force training the Indonesian military to kill the people of East Timor?"
A New Zealand diplomat's letter to an Indonesian admiral, later released, explained: "The reason for the postponement is due to increasing interest among the New Zealand public over recent matters in East Timor." It also blamed "a small but sophisticated and well co-ordinated lobby, sympathetic to the claims of East Timorese exiles, who seek any opportunity to generate anti-Indonesian feeling".
On September 10, 1999, US President Bill Clinton effectively reversed the Western position by insisting Indonesia allow an international force into East Timor to halt massacres by Indonesian and Timorese militias. On the same day, New Zealand suspended its long-standing defence ties with Indonesia.
In August, 78% of Timorese voters had rejected an Indonesian proposal for Timorese autonomy within Indonesia. The country became independent in 2002.
• If I was a horse I'd win any race, says prize colt's owner
• Comment & review: The man who's bugging Bill
• In black and white
• School for scandal - a New Zealand perspective
• Death by numbers
• The Truth is out there
• House prices force zones rethink
• Comment & review: Fitting the Bill
• Comment: How about one more now, Bill?
• Underclass left out and left behind
• Who's the boss?
• The man with two hearts
• This is the way to write books, by George