40 Years On

Tomorrow marks 40 years since five Australian based media professionals were murdered in Balibo, in the western part of what was then Portuguese Timor. Their passing and their legacy will be honoured here in Australia and Timor-Leste.

Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart will be remembered in ceremonies to occur at the Australian War Memorial, Port Phillip Bay and in Balibo, Timor-Leste. The Media and Arts Entertainment Alliance will be announcing special scholarships for Timorese journalists in their honour. 

These men cared about what was happening to the Timorese people in October of 1975 and their compassion, camaraderie and confidence led them to stay in Balibo with Indonesian forces approaching, determined to get the story out.

A few days ago Senator Nik Xenophon delivered a speech in the Australian Senate to honour the memory of these men. It is only a few pages long and worth reading. He recalls the statement of Manuel da Silva, a Timorese, who came to give evidence at the NSW Coronial Inquest into the murders of the Balibo Five. Da Silva said "The reason why I came to be a witness was that I believe that the journalists are martyrs for East Timor and I believe they are East Timorese as well."

The way the story of the Balibo Five connects with Timor-Leste and Australia, particularly thinking of people of good will and Governments, leads me to reflect on the highs and lows of the broader relationship between our two countries and peoples.

There is a pattern of both turning in and turning away.

Shirley Shackleton

Shirley Shackleton

Out of the darkness of October 1975 grew many enduring and beautiful relationships with Timor-Leste and the Timorese people.

Shirley Shackleton, wife of the late Greg Shackleton, has been a great friend to the people of Timor-Leste. In 2013 she was awarded the order of Timor-Leste for her "outstanding contribution to peace and humanity in the country". Now 83 years of age, as determined as ever and yet still with her cheeky sense of humour intact, she travels to Timor-Leste to stay engaged with her many friends, telling the truth and seeking justice. 

Musician Paul Stewart, the younger brother of Tony Stewart has been involved for years encouraging and collaborating with local Timorese musicians and more recently assisting and advocating for the Alma Nuns who look after disabled kids in Timor.

John Milkins

John Milkins

John Milkins, son of Gary Cunningham, has been involved in the Balibo House Trust for many years which seeks to  "honour the memories of the Balibo Five by working with the Balibo Community to enrich their lives."

These are just a few examples of  many friends and relatives of the Balibo Five who became deeply engaged with the Timorese struggle and people.

Successive Australian Governments on the other hand have often been in the business of turning away.

Xenaphon notes that after the events of the 16th of October 1975 "there was no adverse reaction from Australia, Britain or New Zealand. This was the real 'green light'. The lack of international condemnation at the killing of five foreign journalists meant that the Indonesian military could treat the East Timorese as they wished. And that is what they did."

Australia was one of the few countries that recognised Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor after the 1975 invasion. The United Nations never did. The 'de facto' recognition of Indonesia as sovereign over East Timor in January 1978 was to facilitate Australian attempts to nail down the maritime border and secure oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

On the 17 of August 1975 Australia's Ambassador to Indonesia had advised the Australian Government by confidential telegram that "Closing the present gap in the agreed sea border could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or an independent Portuguese Timor."

For forty years oil and gas has shaped the Australian Government's dealing with its near neighbour and in this is "the turning away."

Now forty years later as Timor-Leste seeks to settle maritime boundaries there is still a turning away.

But thinking about tomorrow and the compassion, camaraderie and confidence of those five, and thinking of all the kindness and friendship that has blossomed from the darkness of that day I am looking to the positive legacy.

This is a legacy that will be felt by families in the communities around Balibo when we are all long gone and the 100 year anniversary rolls around.

So may the good will that characterises so many of the personal relationships between individual Australians and Timorese begin to characterise our relationship as two states.

Then we will see Maritime borders  settled according to international law and an ongoing  bilateral relationship marked by the quiet dignity of Timorese culture.

Then the Timor Sea which separates us will no longer divide us.