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Published: ABC Unleashed

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For twenty five years the invasion of East Timor and the murder of five Australian journalists at Balibo by members of the Indonesian armed forces defined the relationship between the two countries.

It is still significant. In November 2007 the NSW Deputy Coroner, Dorelle Pinch found that, “The Balibo Five…were shot and or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle.” The murders were carried out by Indonesian special force soldiers.

The findings were referred to the AFP for investigation as war crimes. Nothing happened under AFP Commissioner Keelty. It couldn’t. Keelty was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had developed a relationship with the Indonesian police and military to thwart people smuggling. It worked because both either ran or received protection money from the people smugglers. He feared that investigating the military over the Balibo deaths would hazard the finely balanced refugee disruption operation in which the AFP was a player with the Indonesian military and police.

Keelty retired in May 2009 and August his successor Tony Negus announced that the AFP would begin its investigation into the deaths. In September the Indonesian government said that the case should remain closed. In October refugee boats started to arrive in Australian waters and in November the Indonesian government banned the feature film Balibo which portrays the deaths and the events surrounding them. The film was however screened in Jakarta by the Independent Journalists’ Alliance on 3 December.

The arrival of the refugee boats could be co-incidental because events in the source countries of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka saw conditions favouring the exit of persecuted individuals and families. Nonetheless the Indonesian military does have the capacity to turn on and off the flow of boats.

The Australian government is well aware of this and has sought to minimise this eventuality with increases in aid to police and military institutions. However when events eventually dictated a different approach the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, sought a government to government agreement through the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The catalyst was a boat of Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing detention from Indonesian holding prisons. How they managed to get out of detention and find a boat to take 260 people to Australia remains a mystery.

Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread and so it was with Rudd. In mid October Rudd thought he had a deal with the Indonesian President after a hasty and one suspects some-what desperate phone call. Domestically the Opposition were braying at his heals and he ran even though he held an opinion poll lead of some substance over them.

Rudd was able to get the President to have the boat turned back by the Indonesian Navy. He followed this up with an agreement for Indonesia to accept asylum seekers bound for Australia. The agreement lasted less than a month when Rudd concluded a special deal with another group of Tamils on board an Australian vessel the Oceanic Viking.

Local Indonesian officials and the military demonstrated the limitations of the Presidents direct authority away from the city state of Jakarta. They refused to accept the refugees under the terms of the newly concluded agreement.

As the AFP can attest the military and police control politics and the many and varied rackets outside of the capital. The military has the primary domestic role of holding the archipelago together. It gives them considerable power. The President and other national politicians exercise power through influence and that power takes time to translate into action which sometimes is effective and sometimes is not. In this instance it was not.

Rudd should have known better. He should have been properly advised, perhaps he was and yet again didn’t listen. What possessed him to believe that the Indonesian military would be keen to save his domestic political hide? Yudhoyono’s lapse of judgement was just that and it cannot have been long before he was made aware of it from the quarters which matter.

What if anything did Rudd offer to make his deal stick? Cancellation of the order of US built F35 fighter bombers? Vast amounts of money into the pockets of Indonesian generals?

So successful was Rudd that the object of his representations, the boat with 260 Tamil asylum seekers, remains in limbo in the Indonesian port of Merak with the asylum seekers still on board.

Balibo is the skeleton in the closet of attempts to have workable diplomatic relationship with Indonesia.
The military will use all means available to them to influence, direct and control Indonesian domestic politics on the issue. They will attempt, probably successfully, to thwart Australian investigations.

They appear to have briefed former Kopassus (Special Forces) officer, Gatot Purwanto, to spin a variation of ‘they were caught in crossfire’ to protect the hide of Yunus Yosfiah the officer who ordered and carried out the murders.

Purwanto claims that firing came from behind the journalists forcing Indonesian armed forces opened fire. This claim has been dismissed. There were no Fretilin forces in the area where the shots were alleged to have originated.

Purwanto admitted the bodies were burnt in order to hide evidence of the killing of foreigners. Faced with an awful accident of war the Indonesian authorities might have admitted such a mistake and handed the bodies over. But they could not as the nature of the injuries would have made known that the journalists were deliberately killed. The military hit squad had to get rid of the bodies.

Purwanto is a stalking horse for the military and in particular his old boss in East Timor at the time Yosfiah, who rose, as is the want with the Indonesian military, to the rank of General. Purwanto served for a time as a senior intelligence officer in East Timor, identifying, hunting down and interrogating Fretilin suspects. Many of these interrogations were accompanied by torture.

The AFP must investigate the murders, but in addition to worrying about the knock on effect on the refugee disruption program it has concerns that co-operation on terrorism will be affected. It need not, co-operation has been tainted by contact, at various levels, between the military, police and the JI, the main radical Islamic group in Indonesia. Unfortunately the AFP has never been fully included in the loop.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who for a period was director of the Indonesia Section in DFAT.