Richard Lloyd Parry / The Times – 2005-11-30 08:43:53
LONDON (November 30, 2005) — 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.
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 discussions in the UN.
The documents have been obtained after a long-running campaign by relatives and supporters of Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, two British journalists who were working for Australian television. In October 1975, along with three colleagues from Australia and New Zealand, they were killed while filming a clandestine attack on East Timorese soldiers in the town of Balibo by Indonesian soldiers and East Timorese opposed to independence.
Witness reports suggest that they were murdered in order to prevent evidence of Indonesia’s covert war on East Timor from being broadcast to the outside world. Their bodies were immediately burnt and nothing more than a few charred bones has been recovered. Public opinion in Australia was outraged by the deaths of the men.
But Sir John Ford, Britain’s Ambassador in Jakarta, asked the Australian Embassy to refrain from pressing the Indonesians for details of their deaths. “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,” Sir John wrote. “Since no protests will produce the journalists’ bodies I think we should ourselves avoid representations about them.”
His cable, dated eight days after the deaths of the so-called Balibo Five, ends by suggesting that the journalists were responsible for their own deaths. “They were in the war zone of their own choice,” he wrote.
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.
The documents show that Britain’s main priority was to prevent the issue from outraging British public opinion. “Timor was high on (US National Security Adviser) Henry Kissinger’s list of places where the US do not want to comment or get involved,” Sir John wrote in October 1975 before the invasion.
“I am sure we should continue to follow the American example.” On Christmas Eve 1975, in a cable copied to 10 Downing Street, Sir John said: “Once the Indonesians had established themselves in Dili (the East Timorese capital) 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.”
Sir John told The Times last night that he could not remember writing the cable. He suggested, however, that the source who had told the diplomats about the atrocities may not have been regarded as reliable.
At New Year, Sir John counselled his Indonesian counterparts to brace themselves for stories of atrocities. “Sooner or later news of (the atrocities) was bound to leak . . . I thought it was important that the Indonesians should prepare for this eventuality.”
Britain’s complicity in the Indonesian invasion went beyond merely suppressing information. The documents record the warm thanks officials received from Indonesia for ensuring that the statement of condemnation in the UN was relatively mild.
In February 1976, Murray Simons, head of the South-East Asia Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, wrote that “the Indonesians were evidently much gratified at the way in which the British delegation took account of their interests, and considered that the language was one they could quite well live with”.
So successfully was the Indonesian invasion buried as a source of international scandal that Britain’s own UN mission expressed misgivings — the fear was that by colluding in the illegal annexation of a former colony, Britain would leave its own possessions vulnerable to similar attack, particularly the Falklands.
“In the real world it is probably both inevitable and understandable that Timor should be incorporated into Indonesia,” Andrew Stuart, of the British Embassy, wrote in February 1976. “The Timorese as a whole will not lose by this.” By 1999, when they finally gained their freedom, about 200,000 of them had been killed.
“I’m assuming you’re really going to keep your mouth shut on this subject?”
— National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to his staff in October 1975 in response to reports that Indonesia had attacked East Timor
“They were in the war zone of their own choice.”
— Sir John Ford, on the journalists killed filing the clandestine Indonesian invasion
“We had successfully managed to keep the heat out of the Timor business in New York.”
— Sir John Ford on Britain’s role in the debate on Indonesia in the UN Security Council
“The Indonesians … went on a rampage of looting and killing … I suggest we say that we have no information.”
— Sir John Ford on the invasion of East Timor
“A primitive territory.”
— Murray Simons, head of the Foreign Office’s South-east Asia Department, on East Timor
“Britain’s interests indicated a low profile … This policy has paid off handsomely. The lack of involvement has largely kept Timor out of the British and US headlines”.
— FCO report on East Timor
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.