302 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 28 October 1975, 5.25 p.m.

O.JA2727 CONFIDENTIAL PRIORITY

Portuguese Timor—Australian Journalists

After considerable pressure I was able to see General Yoga, Head of BAKIN, late this morning 28 October. Rodgers accompanied me. I was with him for a little over an hour. He was evasive and the meeting was pretty unhelpful as you will see.

  1. In response to Yoga's rhetorical question 'What brings you here', I emphasised that the Australian Government had a pressing need for authoritative confirmation of the deaths of the journalists, for information about methods of identification and for assistance in retrieving any remains and personal effects. I passed on to Yoga the contents of your cable O.CH2830381 drawing his attention to the fact that the families of two of the journalists would like the bodies returned to Australia if possible.
  2. Yoga's initial response was to read out to me the recent statement by UDT/Apodeti and Kota leaders which Johnson was given in Kupang on 24 October (O.JA2652).2 He implied that the Indonesians had no information additional to this. I said that this was quite unsatisfactory.
  3. I reiterated our pressing need for authoritative information and mentioned to Yoga that Col. Sunarso (Foreign Intelligence Liaison in BAKIN) had spoken to Taylor on 26 October. Yoga stressed that the situation was not as easy as it might seem. He emphasised the communication difficulties in the Balibo area and said that contact between the Indonesians and UDT/Apodeti/Kota was not easy. There was also fighting in the Balibo area. Yoga asked 'how can we get an authoritative report'? He said that while it could be presumed that there were passports/papers which might be retrievable, there could be real problems with personal effects. In all likelihood these would probably have been stolen. One had to remember that many of the local population were 'half savages'.
  4. I said that we needed to be frank with each other. He knew that I knew Indonesia had close and regular contact with UDT and Apodeti. We did not want to emphasise this publicly but we did want Indonesia to use these contacts so that the Australian Government could say what it must be able to say publicly without further delay.
  5. I added that it seemed to be in Indonesia's interest that the matter be cleared up as quickly as possible. The loss of the journalists had coincided with media reports in Australia of direct Indonesian involvement in the fighting in East Timor. Sections of the media in Australia might interpret the situation to Indonesia's disadvantage. Yoga contested that it was in Indonesia's interest to do so. Balibo was not in Indonesian territory. He also drew attention to the Minister's reply on 22 October to a question from Senator Poyser3 in which the Minister had referred to the dangers of travelling to Portuguese Timor.
  6. When pressed further Yoga said that he felt the reporters were positively dead as the house in which they were located had come under a mortar barrage and had been a Fretilin command post. He also said that Indonesia would do what it could to help. This was the only promise he could make. I replied that we were assuming that the men had been killed and that our main concern now was to establish the facts, to obtain positive identification and to carry out the wishes of the next-of-kin as regards disposal of the remains and the return of any personal effects.
  7. Subsequently I raised the question of a possible visit by Johnson to Atambua or even to Balibo to try to clear the matter up. Yoga agreed that a visit to Atambua might yet be of use. However Balibo would be more difficult as Johnson would need the protection of Indonesian troops near the border and UDT/Apodeti/Kota forces in Portuguese Timor. At this stage Yoga did say that the best solution would be for the remains to be taken to Atambua if this could be arranged. (This was the most positive indication from Yoga that the Indonesians might put pressure on UDT to assist in bringing the remains to Atambua.)
  8. Yoga was evasive about the question of the notebooks and the two passports which we have been told are in Indonesian possession (O.JA2659).4 He said that he was 'not sure' whether the passports were in Jakarta. He said he would need to check with HANKAM. I said we had been told they were here. He repeated he would have to check. I said that one of the extracts from the notebooks which had been passed to us by Col. Sunarso suggested that the five journalists had stayed in Balibo after Fretilin had withdrawn. This was certainly foolish but also it might be seen to be inconsistent with the suggestion that the journalists had been killed during a battle at Balibo between Fretilin and the forces of UDT/Apodeti and Kota. Yoga would not be drawn on this.
  9. On the question of possible press speculation in Australia about how the journalists might have been killed, in view of what appeared to be relatively minor damage to the house as indicated in a photograph of the house published by the Indonesian press, Yoga replied that those who doubted this should stand inside a similar style of house when mortars came through the roof. He volunteered that if there was speculation that the journalists had been captured and killed then this speculation was quite wrong. It was based only on Fretilin propaganda. The Indonesian Government and Army were not on trial. It was trying to help us establish the facts through its good offices with UDT and this was not simple.

Comment

  1. As you know Dan, Taylor, Johnson and I have now made numerous approaches to the Indonesians at different levels, without much success. It is clear that the Indonesians on the one hand are very sensitive to accusations in Australia of Indonesian involvement in the killings and about their undoubted influence over and support for UDT and Apodeti.
  2. Also they are not disposed to be helpful because of what they believe to be a widespread degree of support for Fretilin in the Australian media.
  3. In addition, the Javanese have like the Chinese that mixture of sensitivity, pride, arrogance and inwards lookingness which can lead to a retreat into their shells and to avoid facing or to ignore the attitude of another country if it suits them to do so. I suspect they may have reached this point in relation to the journalist issue and that the truth of this incident may never be established. They also place a lesser value on human life than we do and may believe, wrongly, that the issue will die down. We are continuing to try to disabuse them of this.
  4. I am at a loss to know what to suggest in addition to keeping the pressure on Indonesians here (which could become counter productive) for the information we want and, possibly, asking Johnson or Rodgers to go to Balibo itself via the Indonesian border. This however raises its own difficulties, e.g. the possibility of the Fretilin counterattack on Balibo, the fact that UDT might not agree to help, that Indonesian agreement and assistance would be required, and, presumably, the formal need to obtain Portuguese approval.5

[NAA: Al0463, 801113111/5, i]