Balibo 5 and SIEV X

Two separate tragic events have their anniversaries around this time. Whilst unconnected, they have some things in common. They both serve as a reminder of the importance of openness in Government and ensuring that we always acknowledge that all human life should be valued.

16th October 2004 marks 29 years since the killing of five Australian television journalists by Indonesian special forces.

Balibo is a village in East Timor and the Indonesian forces were invading that country. It took a long time, a lot of persistence, a lot of work and a lot of heartache for sufficient information to come out, but it is now clear that the five journalists were deliberately killed. Indonesia occupied East Timor, with the acquiescence, and then open support of successive Australian Governments – an occupation which caused the death of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese.

Not only did the Australian Government have advance warning of the Indonesian invasion, it is clear there was an ongoing cover-up on the part of the Australian Government about what really happened. The myth that the journalists were just accidentally killed in crossfire was allowed to stand for ages, despite the fact that some must have known it was blatantly untrue. Regardless of how naïve the journalists may have been, for Australia to turn a blind eye to the danger they were in and to their killing is a chilling reminder that our Govt (and probably any Govt) will not automatically put the interests of its own citizens, or the defence of life, first.

According to a book by Des Ball and Hamish MacDonald – “Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra”, intelligence in Australia knew that Indonesian forces planned to murder the journalists up to twelve hours beforehand, but senior Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) bureaucrats withheld the information. To have alerted politicians that the journalists were at risk, which could have put in train attempts to save them, would have revealed that the Indonesians were being monitored and, more importantly, had been successfully decoded. No doubt there is more that has not been, and perhaps never will be, revealed.

The house where the Australian journalists were staying (it seems likely they were captured there, but taken elsewhere to be killed) is now a community house and memorial. See

19th October 2004 is the 3rd anniversary of the sinking of the SIEV X, a refugee boat sailing from Indonesia to Australia carrying over 400 people seeking protection from persecution. 353 people drowned, including 146 children. The boat was grossly overloaded (almost certainly deliberately), even more so than the usual refugee vessel.

There was clearly significant involvement of some Indonesian police in organising and enabling the voyage to occur. For reasons that are not yet fully explained, despite Australian officials having significant details about the voyage, no information got through to the military who were regularly patrolling and surveying the area the boat sailed into, or to Aust Search & Rescue, that people were at major risk, or that the boat may have floundered, until many days after the event. Thanks to Senate inquiries and some enormous persistence and hard work by a few dedicated Australians, a lot of information has come to light about this.

The Australian Govt has reluctantly (and very slowly) released some information, but still refuses to release a lot of other material. A main reason given for not doing this is that it allegedly would compromise intelligence and police operations, or because it would be detrimental to relationships between Australia and Indonesia.

I had never thought of the similarities before today when I was reminded about the Balibo anniversary, but it all sounds a bit familiar. I don’t know all of what Australian officials knew, or when or who knew it. But I do know, from sitting on the Senate Committees, that there was (and remains) a policy and a mindset where the lives of asylum seekers are secondary to other considerations. That knowledge, combined with the fact that there is relevant material being kept out of the public arena, makes me very uncomfortable indeed. For more details on the specifics of SIEV X, see

There is also much that is different about these two events and whilst they both involve Indonesia directly, I do not mean to slur that country. There is much to criticise about the past human rights record of Indonesia (and still in the present in places like West Papua in particular), but there must also be encouragement for their attempts to move towards greater democracy and accountability in their systems of governance.

We also have to recognise just how very difficult a job that is, how big a problem poverty and poor infrastructure is in Indonesia and how much it will benefit both our nations if we work together to address that. In Australia, where we have basically had a peaceful and prosperous democracy for over 100 years, it is easy to forget how very hard and slow that can be to achieve, particularly in areas which have not had a lot of experience of peace, prosperity or democracy.

The main common thread in these 2 events is not that the atrocities involved Australia in some way. It is that our Govt clearly knows a lot more than it is telling but refuses to reveal the truth, and that people who were directly complicit in causing the deaths of innocent people have got away with it. The danger with cover ups of events like this (even if supposedly for some ‘greater good’) is that if the people who do these sorts of things know that others have got away with it so easily, then they are far more likely to happen again. And it could be us, or our friends or family that it happens to, and we won’t even be able to be sure that our own Govt will do much to help us.

I praise the people who work so hard, usually in the face of a lot of intimidation, to tackle these sorts of cover-ups. And spare a thought for those who died and even more for their loved ones.

The loss which families have suffered has been made far worse by the knowledge that heads of Government believe their loved ones’ lives are not important enough to ensure that the truth is known about who killed them.

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