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Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate the important issue of the deaths of those called the Balibo Five in East Timor in 1975.
In 2002, East Timor celebrated its official independence as Timor-Leste. This followed two and a half years of United Nations administration and a 24-year illegal occupation by Indonesia, in which, according to a recent report, up to 180,000 people died. Today, I want to concentrate on just five of those deaths: the deaths on 16 October 1975 of five journalists, now known as the Balibo Five. They were a New Zealander, two Australians and the two Britons, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie.
When Britons die abroad we anticipate our Government doing all they can to help the relatives. We expect the Government to seek as much information as possible and to share it with the relatives. Sadly, in this case, the opposite happened. From 1975 until 1995, there was almost complete inaction. The Government were involved in a disgraceful cover-up. Thirty years on, information is still being withheld from the relatives of Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and from the relatives of the other three journalists. Hence, this debate concerns the release of documents relating to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.
With the help of many former and present Members of both Houses, the relatives have sought to prise open the store of documents about events surrounding the deaths of the Balibo Five. Success to date has been limited. This debate is designed to persuade the Government to make more information available, especially in time for the inquest of Brian Peters, due to take place this year in Sydney.
What do we know? Following a civil war from July to September 1975, East Timor was in the control of a left-wing movement, Fretilin. Thousands had died and there remained instability and unrest. Into this situation flew Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie. They were working for the late Kerry Packer's Channel Nine network and arrived in the East Timorese border town of Balibo on 13 October 1975. There they met the other three journalists who were working for the rival Channel Seven network. Three days later all five were dead. How and why they died is what the relatives want to know.
As we get closer to answering these questions it is increasingly clear that the reluctance of our Government to find out moreor to reveal moreabout the deaths is because to do so would reveal even more than we now know about Britain's sorry role in Indonesia's war on East Timor. We are finding out more about that sorry role because, under intense pressure, both our Government and the Australian Government have released various documents. A selection of the released British official documentscompiled by my constituent Hugh Dowsonnow appears on the website of the national security archive of George Washington university.
From those and other documents we now know, for example, that the Australian Government were told in advance by Indonesia that it intended to invade East
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Timor. A briefing to the Australian Government on 13 October 1975 finally gave them the invasion date of 15 October and the invasion route, which went through Balibo. It took 25 years before even that information was officially shared with the relatives of the Balibo Five.
While we do not yet know the precise nature of our own Government's understanding of what was about to happen, we know that they knew enough to anticipate an attack. In effect, the British and the Australians gave a green light to Indonesia. Indeed, it was later to be said by our ambassador to Indonesia that the Balibo Five
When the British selection was published last November, it prompted The Times to run a story with the headline "Government lied to cover up war crimes in 1975 invasion of island". The Asia editor, Richard Lloyd Parry, began his article in equally stark terms:
"The British government knowingly lied about Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, including the killing of British journalists in 1975, according to newly released diplomatic documents."
I should, however, point out that most of the documents were not newly released. Most were made available in 2002 and just the analysis was new, but that does not alter the starkness of the point made. The article continued:
"In a startling insight into foreign complicity in Indonesia's invasion of the former Portuguese colony, the documents show that Britain used its position as chair of the United Nations Security Council to 'keep the heat out of the Timor business' in the UN."
Despite frequently telling the relatives of the dead men that the full facts of their deaths were unknown, British documents released in recent years indicate a rather different story. The documents show that our ambassador to Indonesia at the time, John Fordnow Sir Johnsought to persuade the Australians not to press the Indonesian Government for information about the deaths. He wrote:
"We have suggested to the Australians that, since we, in fact, know what happened to the newsmen it is pointless to go on demanding information from the Indonesians which they cannot, or are unwilling to provide."
This is in stark contrast to what relatives and parliamentarians have been told over the years. This was shown, for example, in the answer to a parliamentary question of 7 March 1994, which stated:
"We pressed the Indonesians for information at the time."[Official Report, 7 March 1994; Vol. 239, c. 20W.]
The documents also show that while the full invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians did not begin until 7 December 1975, incursions involving Indonesian troops did begin, as the Australian Government were warned, in October. In a confidential memo dated 15 March 1976 to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the ambassador describes how attempts were made to destabilise the Fretilin movement by providing support, training and resources to the anti-Fretilin forces. The memo continues:
"Increasingly, Indonesian troops were used clandestinely to stiffen the Timorese guerrillas or replace them under the anti-Fretilin banner. In one of these actions on 1516 October five journalists from Australia (two of them British by birth) were killed at Balibo near the border when reporting on the fighting from the Fretilin side."
Thus, while the full-scale invasion was to come later, Indonesian troops were in action in East Timor at the time of the deaths.
I would argue, therefore, that the answer to a parliamentary question on 14 March 1994, which claimed that
"The deaths occurred over seven weeks before the Indonesian invasion"[Official Report, 14 March 1994; Vol. 239, c. 473W.]
may be technically accurate, but it certainly evades giving a true reflection of what actually happened. This is especially so when we now know that the action, which was codenamed Operasi Flamboyant, involved a mixed force of 3,600 KopassandaIndonesian commandosand anti-Fretilin Timorese. We also know that the second report on the deaths, published on 16 February 1999 by Australia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tom Sherman, said that the attack on Balibo came at the start of a general offensive by Indonesian military forces to annex East Timor.
Given this cavalier approach to the truth both at the time and since, it is no surprise to read that when the Indonesian invasion resumed and the capital, Dili, was seized in December 1975, our ambassador to Indonesia sent a Christmas eve message to the FCO, saying:
"Once the Indonesian forces had established themselves in Dili they went on a rampage of looting and killing . . . . if asked to comment on any stories of atrocities I suggest we say that we have no information".
So, the situation is clear. There was a cover-up of the invasion and of the atrocities that took place during it, including the deaths of the Balibo Five. As Richard Lloyd Parry's piece in The Times put it:
"In the Cold War atmosphere of 1975, after the US defeat in Vietnam, Indonesia's status as a pro-Western, anti-communist leader was far more important to Britain than justice for tiny and obscure East Timor".
But the relatives want justice and to know what happened. They have been given various accounts of what might have happened, including that the five journalists were killed in crossfire during the civil war or, more recently, that they were accidentally killed during the invasion, or precursor to an invasion, by Indonesia. Indeed, although Indonesia's Government have yet to admit that their troops were involved, Indonesia's special forces have admitted that they killed the newsmen. We even know the names of some of those involved in the attack, including Yunus Yosfiah and Dading Kalbuadi.
However, many believe that this was no accidental killing, but murder to prevent evidence of Indonesia's covert war on East Timor from being broadcast to the outside world. We, and the relatives, still do not know which is the correct version. More needs to be done to help them find out and to find out whether more could have been done to warn the Balibo Five of what was about to happen. However, to be fair, more recently more has been done. In 1998, for example, the then new Indonesian President was asked by our Government to look again at the deaths of the Balibo Five. He agreed to do so, but others more powerful than him blocked that investigation.
Since then, many British and other official documents have been released. Bodies other than our Government have sought to make progress. The UN itself tried to
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carry out an investigation. The Indonesians refused to co-operate. What that investigation revealed is in the UN police files, a point to which I shall return in a moment. Most recently, East Timor's reception, truth and reconciliation commission has, among many thousands of other issues, considered the deaths of the Balibo Five. Its final report is expected to be made public later this year and may shed further light.
However, this debate was intended to see whether our Government could do more. The Minister and his officials will, by now, have studied in detail the analysis on the national security archive website of documents released by his Department. Will he either now, or in writing in the near future, respond to that analysis? Will he acknowledge that for most of the past 30 years relatives of the deceased, hon. Members representing the interests of the relatives, and both Houses of Parliament have been misled? In a face-to-face meeting with the Minister's immediate predecessor, relatives of British citizens Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters asked for help in ensuring that the evidence collected by the UN police is not contaminated. The letter of June 2005 from the Minister for Trade to those relatives failed to allay their concerns about this urgent matter. Will the Minister now undertake to address those concerns?
Given the forthcoming inquest in Australia into the death of Brian Peters, will the Minister guarantee to provide full co-operation to the coroner? In particular, will he agree to release the documents referred to in my letter to the Secretary of State of 15 November 2005? Once the final report of the reception, truth and reconciliation commission has been published, will the Minister establish high-level discussions with the Indonesian, Australian, New Zealand and East Timorese Governments? The purpose of such discussions would be to identify and put in place the further action needed to provide comprehensive information about the deaths of the Balibo Five and to bring to justice any persons identified as potential wrongdoers.
I acknowledge that back in 1975 the UK Government were extremely anxious to keep what was happening in East Timor out of the news. The memo of 15 March 1976 from our ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office states
"that East Timor was an area in which Britain was no longer directly involved and that Britain's interests indicated a low profile".
"Dr Kissinger did likewise. This policy has so far paid off handsomely. The lack of involvement has largely kept Timor out of the British and US headlines and away from becoming a major public issue".
Our Government, along with others, sought to hush up what was happening in East Timor and even to give political support to Indonesia. In the UN General Assembly vote of 12 December 1975, which
Britain abstained. We did what had been recommended, which was to
Many suggest that the reason for that approach was because Indonesia was a major international arms buyer, but, whatever the reason, our Government have
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some responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people. They certainly have a responsibility to come clean on all that they know about the deaths of the Balibo Five and to help the relatives find answers and obtain justice.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : I welcome the opportunity to discuss the points raised in today's debate. The death of the five journalists in Balibo in East Timor on 16 October 1975, and the suggestion, made subsequently, that they were deliberately killed, has naturally led to great distress for their relatives. I would like at the outset to address the suggestion that there has been any cover-up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or that it knows, or has withheld, any information that would shed further light on how the journalists died.
A telegram from the Foreign Office to our embassy in Jakarta dated 16 October 1975 reports that Indonesia intended soon to intervene covertly in strength in support of anti-Fretilin elements in East Timor's civil war. A second telegram from our embassy in Jakarta on 24 October records that Indonesia's stepped-up clandestine operations in East Timor appeared to be succeeding. It is clear from these telegrams that the Foreign Office was aware only of covert interventions by Indonesia prior to Indonesia's invasion on 7 December 1975.
Papers released early in 2002, and available at the national archive since September 2002, show that our embassy in Jakarta reported the deaths of the five journalists on 24 October 1975. The telegram from our embassy in Jakarta recorded that five journalists from Australia had been killed in an anti-Fretilin attack on Balibo and said that the Australian embassy had confirmed to us that two of those killed, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters, were "British born". The telegram recorded what the Foreign Office knew of their deaths. That included the fact that they had been with Fretilin forces when the house in which they were sheltering was hit and set on fire, that press pictures of the house had been published, and that we understood that they had been
It was believed then and in the immediately following years that the journalists had been killed in crossfire between opposing groups fighting in East Timor. None of our records shows that the Foreign Office was aware at the time of the presence in Balibo of the journalists, nor is there any record that it was aware that they were in East Timora country in which we had no resident representationat all. Consular assistance was given by the Foreign Office at the time to the family members of the two British journalists.
Following a subsequent period of seven years during which no further action was taken or requested, the consular files were destroyed in accordance with our usual procedures. However, in 1994, a television documentary about East Timor, "Death of a Nation", reawakened interest in the deaths. The documentary reported claims that the journalists had been tortured and killed by Indonesian soldiers. Brian Peters' sister then contacted the Foreign Office and, in April 1995, in order to reassure her of the Foreign Office's
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transparency about this case, she was given a collection of unclassified documents detailing what we knew about her brother's death. In July 1996, it was agreed that she should be invited to the Foreign Office to read some further highly classified documents that she had asked for.
In May 2002, the Foreign Office agreed to the early release from its 1975 and 1976 files of all the documents relating to the events at Balibo on 16 October 1975. These have been available at the national archive since 17 October 2002. I am aware of the publication of a book recording an apparent admission by Indonesian special forces that they killed the five newsmen. That report suggests that they were not murdered, but were casualties of an attack on Balibo. I am also aware that there is an analysis of Foreign Office documents on the national security archive. I believe that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that analysis and consider that the documents should be accepted at face value.
I do not accept that the relatives of the deceased have been misled, and certainly not deliberately. It is worth pointing out that it was exceptionally agreed to release many documents early to the family members and to the national archive precisely to make it clear that we have nothing to hide. It does seem that the reply to the parliamentary question in 1994 should have made it clear that the representations to the Indonesian authorities were made by the Australians on our behalf. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had remained in close contact with the Australians, who were seeking information from the Indonesians about the five newsmen on behalf of themselves and the UK. All five newsmen were residents of Australia, working for two Australian networks. With hindsight, it might have been better if the Foreign Office had pursued its own inquiries, but in 1975 it was judged reasonable, and it made sense, to allow the Australians to make those representations on their own and our behalf.
In June 2005, the Foreign Office wrote to the family members in the United Kingdom. The letter included the information that we obtained about the future security of information collected by the UN police in East Timor prior to 2001, and then held by the serious crimes unit in East Timor. Our inquiries and our letter made it clear that the information would remain confidential and that only the prosecutor-general in East Timor, and prosecutors handling a legal case, are expected to have full access.
We also made clear to the UN in East Timor and to the Government of East Timor the importance that we attach to the security and confidentiality of that information. If the families are still concerned about that, I shall be happy to ensure that those points are restated to those responsible in East Timor, and to seek an assurance that the security and confidentiality of the documents will be assured.
I understand that the New South Wales coroner has set aside three weeks in July for an inquest into the death of Brian Peters. We have not been asked to provide any assistance, but we will be happy to consider any request to do so. I believe, however, that the limited light that FCO documents can shed on events is contained in documents already released to the national archive.
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The report of the commission for reception, truth and reconciliation has not yet been made public, although copies have been given to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and to Parliament in East Timor. When we have seen the report, we will of course consider carefully what it says. Indonesia continues to maintain that the journalists were killed in crossfire during an attack on Balibo. In light of that, we consider it unlikely that high-level discussions along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will achieve anything.
The reports of two Australian investigationsthe Sherman reports in 1996 and 1999provided comprehensive information on what was then known about the events at Balibo in 1975. The second report concluded that the journalists were killed by an attacking force of Indonesian troops and anti-Fretilin East Timorese, but under the control of Indonesian officers, and in circumstances of continuing fighting between attackers and defenders, or at least before the attackers had secured their objective.
In his conclusion to the second report, Mr. Sherman says that he has
I very much hope that the coroner's inquest in New South Wales will be able to reach a clear conclusion about what happened on 16 October 1975, and bring some certainty for the grieving family members.
Finally, I understand that a thorough search has been made for all the documents requested by the hon. Gentleman in his letter of 15 November 2005 to the Secretary of State, and that the hon. Gentleman will receive copies of them very soon.
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