by David Fettling,
David Fettling’s research focus is Australian relations with south-east Asia
Contact: TBA
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Decades after their murder by Indonesian soldiers, the fate of the Balibo Five often is held up, implicitly or explicitly, as an encapsulation of supposed lessons of recent Australian foreign policy toward Indonesia. If this were true, Balibo’s continued prominence in Australian memory would be justified. Dwelling on the massacre, however, usually blurs rather than clarifies the real lessons of history.

Yes, the invasion of East Timor by Suharto’s ‘New Order’ government was wrong. And, yes, the Australian Government’s collaboration was a mistake. But we need to zoom out: what was the broader context that led five Australians in East Timor to be shot by Indonesian forces? The answer is not merely a simple condemnation of Whitlam’s go-ahead for the annexation, but a condemnation of decades of Western foreign policy.

After 1945, anti-colonial revolutions shook Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. Nationalist movements attempted to put poverty and political powerlessness behind them and take control of their own destinies. The West could have aided this effort; instead it chose to actively disrupt it. The West defined its interests as preserving the pre-war colonial economic structure, of raw materials exiting the underdeveloped world for Europe. And, as the Cold War went global, the West demanded the new nations choose to either stand with them or against them. They attempted to harass and sabotage the new nations into following Western interests, which encouraged the trend towards both autocracy and radicalism. In retarding economic prosperity, blunting people’s freedoms and often fuelling violence, Western policy caused far more problems than it solved.

In Indonesia the exhilaration of merdeka – freedom – in 1949 was followed by years of hapless government and growing polarization, both of which were exacerbated by western meddling. The chaos strengthened both the military and the communists; eventually a military government toppled the existing order. Long before Timor, this was calamitous for millions of Indonesians. Long before Timor, it was apparent that Suharto’s presence in Jakarta was a band-aid solution to the perennial Australian fear that a continually poor, backward and frustrated Indonesia might export chaos and instability. Long before Timor, Australia’s support for Suharto’s so-called ‘New Order’ raised serious issues – namely the long-term drawbacks and the unintended consequences of backing regimes unconcerned with the life and liberty of their own people. All this was apparent before the New Order, conscious of the Cold War ‘great game’ in the developing world and consequently paranoid about East Timor as ‘another Cuba’, invaded it. Ten years before Timor, when the New Order came to power, mass killings resulted in half a million or more Indonesian deaths. The Menzies Government and its diplomats, impeccable Cold Warriors who had long encouraged the rest of the West in its policy of destabilization in Indonesia, quietly voiced approval.

Short-term oriented ‘realist’ Western foreign policy created the underlying conditions that not only contributed to the New Order but also, by fomenting resentment of the West amongst ordinary Indonesians, made it more likely that some of them would view Westerners and Australians with hostility, and consequently make incidents like Balibo more likely. Realist foreign policy is self-defeating: this is the lesson Australia should have learnt.

The problem with Balibo is that it doesn’t show this broader narrative particularly effectively. In fact, it often prompts populist sentiments that are the complete antithesis of what we should have absorbed from recent history. Jill Jolliffe might evoke Balibo to argue for a more ethical foreign policy, but for most Australians Balibo simply serves as an encapsulation of Australian fears of and prejudice against Asia.

The Balibo snapshot is a deeply problematic one. For starters, focusing on six Australian deaths amidst an invasion and occupation that killed perhaps 100,000 Timorese, by a regime whose rise was accompanied by the deaths of perhaps one million Indonesians, implicitly encourages the belief that white deaths are more important than non-white deaths. This mirrors the very sentiment that has bedeviled Western-Asian engagement and which contributed to the Timor disaster in the first place, the sense that our lives are more important than theirs, that our fate matters and theirs does not. Some would claim the six Australian deaths are meant to symbolise the fate of East Timor. But this leads to a bigger problem still. Balibo focuses attention solely on the East Timor invasion, a tragedy, but a subset of a far larger one: the Indonesian military’s usurpation of the Indonesian revolution, and its brutal rule over ordinary Indonesians. Consequently, it turns the ostensible moral of the story into a simple one of appeasement. In this way Balibo too often becomes a Trojan Horse for anti-Indonesia prejudice. The East Timorese are cast as the new ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, and Indonesians as sinister villains. Remembering the Balibo victims allows us to forget the Indonesian victims of the last six decades. But we need to remember them. They were victims of instability and repression which Australian policy helped bring about, and which already has and will continue to cause long-term policy headaches for us, of which the Balibo massacre itself was one symptom.

There is a long-forgotten incident from history that Australia would be far better to memorialize. In 1946, near Bogor, in the middle of the Indonesian Revolution against Dutch colonial rule, three Australians were murdered by an Indonesian militia professing allegiance to the national army. The killings provoked populist outrage in the press. But the Australian sent to investigate, Richard Kirby, took a very different attitude. Kirby travelled through Java, he saw the poverty, he saw the brutality of Dutch rule, and he saw that these things combined were embittering and radicalising Indonesians. The more their aspirations were repressed, the more they looked for solutions in violence: violence against Chinese, Papuans, Westerners, but above all against other Indonesians. Kirby saw that Australian security was tied up in whether Indonesians’ aspirations for a better life could be met. He concluded that the only way to secure Australian interests in Indonesia was to help Indonesians secure theirs, to align Australia’s ‘interests’ with those of the Indonesian people. Australian and Indonesian objectives were the same: to entrench peace and prosperity and so forestall chaos and violence.

Instead of poisoning Indonesian-Australian relations, as Balibo has, the murders motivated Kirby to instigate ties with the new Indonesian regime. He became the first white man to travel outside the Dutch zone, to the revolutionary capital at Jogjakarta. There he met Indonesia’s nationalist heroes, and talked to them about both their desire for independence and the need for future friendship with Australia.

A year later, under Ben Chifley Australia began to back the Indonesian revolutionaries. Why they pursued such a policy was explained later by John Burton, Secretary of External Affairs from 1947, who stated that Australian policy reflected:

a confidence that if all people regardless of race or development were given a fair go, if basic rights were recognised, if national aspirations were not frustrated, if living standards were promoted, the end result would be to the benefit of everyone, including ourselves… [Our] own national interests would be best served by following policies based on justice.

Australian policy, following Kirby’s lead, attempted to help dredge the root causes of instability and violence in Indonesia, by supporting the aspirations of its people.

The Bogor Three, not the Balibo Five, truly encapsulates the lessons from 60 years of Indonesia policy.

Citation: David Fettling, Balibo: Time to Move On. Australian Policy and History. October 2010.


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