Chris Barrett, Singapore – East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta has called on the Australian government to finally release secret documents relating to the Indonesian invasion and occupation of the south-east-Asian nation as he led tributes to Balibo Five widow Shirley Shackleton.
Shackleton died on the weekend at the age of 91 after a long illness, having campaigned for decades for justice for the Australian-based journalists slain by Indonesian special forces in 1975 and for self-determination for East Timor.
Her husband, Channel 7 reporter Greg Shackleton, was murdered in Balibo along with Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie and Anthony Stewart as they sought to film the invasion for Australian television. Australian journalist Roger East was also executed in Dili six weeks later.
"Shirley spent the rest of her life campaigning for Timor-Leste's freedom and for the truth about the circumstances of the murder of the five journalists," Ramos-Horta said.
The killings have been the subject of multiple Australian investigations including a NSW coronial inquest which found in 2007 that Yunus Yosfiah, an Indonesian special forces captain who became a government minister, ordered and took part in the slaughter, carrying it out to conceal the presence of the Indonesian military in the assault on the border town.
Intelligence reports showed Australian officials knew about the Indonesian operation in advance but the bulk of Australian government archival documents in connection with Balibo, the invasion of East Timor and resulting 24-year occupation have been kept out of public view on national security grounds.
With more than 20 years passing since East Timor's independence was restored, Ramos-Horta believes it is time the full tranche of files was released.
"It is long overdue," the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Monday. "Australia should release fully all information, [all] documents related to the period 1974 to 1999."
The push to declassify intelligence records about Balibo has been led by University of NSW Professor Clinton Fernandes, a former Australian army intelligence officer on the East Timor desk.
In 2011, he successfully won access to 43 Australian government documents in connection with Balibo but has been blocked in his bid to reveal further material, including files that could uncover the level of Australian knowledge about Indonesian war crimes in East Timor and a famine between 1977 and 1979 that claimed up to 180,000 lives.
"The majority of information pertaining to Balibo, held by the Australian government as part of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, has not been released," Fernandes said on Monday.
"The Indonesian military briefed the Australian embassy before the attack on Balibo, saying that it would be a covert operation where the Indonesian forces would not be wearing Indonesian uniforms or carrying Indonesian flags, and it would be a cover, a deniable accusation. Our embassy knew that. What we don't know ... is if the embassy knew if the journalists were in Balibo. They certainly knew they were in Timor."
He said documents that had been declassified showed that the Australian government knew what had happened at Balibo immediately afterwards, having intercepted unencrypted Indonesian military radio messages, and the absence of international condemnation of the atrocity gave Indonesia a "green light" to act with impunity in East Timor.
While the sensitivity around Canberra's relationship with Indonesia means the full Australian intelligence picture may remain hidden, Shirley Shackleton was able to ensure her husband and his colleagues were never to be forgotten in Balibo and beyond.
She was the driving force behind the Victorian government-backed purchase in 2003 of the house in the town on which the journalists had painted an Australian flag, hoping it would protect them. It was rebuilt as a community learning centre including a memorial to the five men killed.
She also wrote a book, Circle of Silence: A Personal Testimony Before, During and After Balibo, that won a Walkley award in 2010.
"It was Shirley who really was behind [the acquisition of the house in Balibo] from the very start, and wanting to make sure there was a permanent and ongoing remembrance of what happened," said Steve Bracks, who Victoria premier at the time.
"She was a tireless campaigner for truth and justice. That's all she wanted and she had to come up against the Australian government and the Indonesian government who knew what happened and refused to reveal it."
Ramos-Horta said Shackleton's "soul rests with us in Mt Ramelau", the highest mountain in East Timor, upon which a statue of the Virgin Mary sits and where the deeply Catholic Timorese believe the spirits of their deceased lie.