Friday, October 30, 2009

Hal G. P. Colebatch, Balibo, and moral equivalence in the fog of war

Over at The Australian, we're very disappointed with the 'stirring the possum' quality of Hal G. P. Colebatch's offering The Saigon media slaughter.

We'd have to rate it a bare five brushtails out of ten, and nowhere near the genial inner suburban stirring of Nick Possum in the City Hub, who also has his own page here, which is decidedly more upmarket than the City Hub page itself, here, which in its infinite wisdom, once ran a story by John Pilger about the recent feature film about Balibo, here (the Pilgering about an alleged cover-up and travesty of omissions, not the film itself).

Golly, you can stray along way from the main game when you're bored on the full to overflowing intertubes, but back to Colebatch, who is also rabbiting on about Balibo, but doesn't quite know what to say.

He'd like to get agitated about the film - do a Pilger from the right - because all the ominous signs are there that it's part of a left wing conspiracy, but about the best he can do is brood about the killing of journalists in Vietnam.

It is a graphic demonstration of the political skew in Australian culture that the killing of a group of journalists, probably but not quite certainly, by anti-communist Indonesian troops at Balibo in Timor in 1975 has been the subject of ongoing agitation, including two books, a recent film and countless articles, ever since as well as demands for reparation and the punishment of the guilty.

East Timor President Ramos Horta has recently awarded Balibo director Robert Connolly and producer John Maynard the Presidential Medal of Merit for the film.

Well yes, but isn't it strange that Colebatch doesn't mention the results of the most recent coronial inquiry, which is available here, and which concluded, amongst other things:


Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibo Five”, died at Balibo in Timor- Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo. There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.

No, Colebatch has other fish to fry, and sees justice as an aspect of politics, in the best tradition of show trials:

Meanwhile, the killing of a group of Australian journalists by communist Viet Cong in the Cholon district of Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive has been almost completely forgotten.

In contrast to Balibo, there has been a complete absence of any indignation by the Australian Left over the Cholon massacre. No chance of a movie there.

This is despite the fact that, unlike Balibo, the circumstances of the Cholon killings are known in detail.

Well I guess the coronial inquiry might be called vague and indecisive - you can see that no doubt by reading the conclusion above - but I'm not quite sure what Colebatch is proposing. Does he want a coronial inquiry, does he want a movie, is he part of a campaign to discover justice about the Cholon killings, or does he just want to grind an axe in relation to Balibo because somehow the fuss is perceived as leftist agitation?

Who knows, because the column gets curiouser and curiouser:

In the Australian section of the London Spectator of September 26, Eric Ellis fulminated over the Timor killings: "It would be correct and just, if the word were so, for Jakarta to offer up the military officers who murdered the defenceless Balibo Five, the biggest single-incident killing of media personnel in any war anywhere, killed simply because they were journalists in the right place at the wrong time. But Balibo agitators will be disappointed if they expect Indonesia to offer up the killers."

The voluminous writings on the Balibo killings have a hole at their centre: the lack of witnesses and of facts. We do not know if the journalists at Balibo were murdered - that is, killed deliberately by people who knew they were non-combatants - at all. Fighting was going on between the then communist-aligned Fretilin and Indonesian or pro-Indonesian Timorese forces. It is not even certain which side killed them, let alone what individuals.

Well all I can do is recommend you read the coroner's findings, established after a little more research than that done by Colebatch, and come to your own conclusion. Fair and balanced, and you decide.

I was at Balibo in early 1973, in the last days of Portugese rule, writing a script for a travel film. The area was thickly grown with semi-jungle vegetation and bush, in many places more than man-high, often right up to what primitive roads there were.

Uh huh. Man on the spot, unlike the Coroner. Only missed the murders by a couple of years.

On much of the terrain nothing would have been easier, during fighting, than for someone moving in this dense bush to be mistaken as an enemy target or to walk into a burst of gunfire.

John Whitehall, writing in the October Quadrant, has repeated an earlier statement that at least two of the journalists, who he saw shortly before, had then actually been wearing military uniforms, the equivalent of painting a target on oneself.

Let's revert to the Coroner's findings about the Indonesian cover up, which mentions the matter of uniforms in relation to an Indonesian cover-up:

The cover-up entailed the following components:

a. completely destroying the journalists’ bodies to eradicate all signs that they had been shot with AK – 47 assault rifles, which were used by Indonesian but not UDT or Apodeti forces;
b. portraying the journalists as communist combatants who were supporting Fretilin;
c. to add verisimilitude to that portrayal, dressing the bodies in Portuguese army uniforms and photographing them with (defunct) weapons;
d. orchestrating official statements from the leaders of the anti-Fretilin factions as to their responsibility for the deaths in the course of combat;
e. utilising false media reports in the Indonesian press;
f. prevaricating about providing details of the deaths to the Australian Government;
g. deliberately misleading investigators sent by the Australian government in the first six months following the deaths; and
h. continuing to deny any Indonesian involvement in their deaths at the time and even up to the present time some thirty years after the event.

But Colebatch was there in 1973, and so has profound insights into the killings that took place that 16th of October 1975.

On the matter of the uniforms the Coroner was even more definitive:

There is little doubt that the disinformation disseminated by the Indonesian military was designed to depict the Balibo Five as “combatants” who were actively assisting Fretilin both beforehand and at the time of their deaths. In that context I want to emphasis my findings of the following facts:

1. Although some of the Fretilin soldiers were under the impression that one or more of the journalists were using a radio, the journalists did not have any radio communication equipment. They conveyed no radio message at all after leaving Dili. It would appear that be witnesses mistook sound equipment for radio equipment. Gerald Stone, in his evidence, remarked that portable sound equipment was fitted with a microphone of the purpose of eliminating background noise. I consider it was probably the aspect of the microphone in conjunction with the size of the portable sound recorder that caused the misperception. It seems likely that spies for the Indonesian military forces also erroneously reported back that the journalists were using radio equipment. There could be no evidence that the journalists were communicating messages to Fretilin because it did not happen. As the evidence discloses, Fretilin had its own radio communications out of Balibo.
2. There is no doubt that Mr Shackleton personally carried a message to the Fretilin commander in Maliana to send more troops to Balibo. He said so himself in a televised report. I note, however, that the report had not been aired prior to 16 October. In any event, unwise though it may have been, it happened prior to the 16th and did not affect his status as a civilian on that day.
3. On 16 October the journalists were not armed. They were dressed in civilian clothes.
4. On 16 October the journalists were some considerable distance away from the location of the shooting by the Fretilin soldiers at the fort.
5. At the time of their capture, the last of the Fretilin soldiers were on their way out of Balibo.
6. The journalists were not incidental casualties in the fighting: they were captured then deliberately killed despite protesting their status.

But Colebatch has other fish to fry:

On the other hand it seems plain that the killing of the Australian journalists in Cholon by communist forces was the killing of obviously unarmed non-combatants.

Well plain in comparison to Balibo only if you can't read the plain English of the recent Coroner's report. But here's the curious thing. After reciting the story of the killings of journalists in Cholon, Colebatch announces:

Apparently the officer in charge, Minh Pung, who had actually fired the pistol shots into the journalists and had pursued Palmos when he fled, had been taken by the chase into an open street where he had been blown to bits by fire from a US helicopter.

Palmos concluded of Minh Pung: "It was without any thought of innocence that he shot my friends, and would have shot me. And it was with plain murder in his mind that he chased me down the road to kill me.

"He knew even then that we were not armed. Our Jeep was not followed by any other attacking vehicles. We were white, we were Westerners, and we had to be blown away with the smallest risk and the greatest number of heroic points accrued."

So we already know the point of any inquiry into that set of killings - the murderer's dead - and the best that might be accomplished are attempted murder charges which would be hard to make stick. So what indeed is Colebatch's point here?

Is it to establish a moral equivalence? Whereby the terrorist activities of Hamas excuse the war crimes of Israel, or vice versa? Or the terrorism and war crimes of the Taliban excuse the war crimes of the United States, or other forces in Afghanistan? Or perhaps he might even like to explain how a woman who got raped while in employment for an American sub-contractor in Iraq shouldn't be allowed to sue because she signed a contract waiving her rights in the event of a criminal assault?

What degree of guilt is needed? Well it seems we're not talking about degrees:

The point is not to establish degrees of guilt here: the Viet Cong, as communist authorities in Vietnam said later, may have thought the journalists in Cholon were enemy agents, even though the killer's derisive cry of "Bao chi!" and the fact that both the men and the Jeep were obviously unarmed tell against this.

Well actually surely the point of murder is to establish degrees of guilt, and it seems perfectly appropriate that the Cholon killer got blown away by chopper fire, though it might therefore be a tad hard to drag his corpse into a revivified murder trial. Much as it might help balance the unseemly fuss about Balibo.

Meantime, because the leftists are agitated, it seems Colebatch doesn't mind that the killers involved in Balibo still walk free, perhaps because there were no killers and no murders, no matter what an expensive coronial inquiry might find.

Strange really. I thought one of the more enfeebled notions of a just war is that civilians should not be killed needlessly, nor journalists to shut them up. They shouldn't have been there, but they also shouldn't have been killed. Ah well, never mind, accidents will happen:

Both massacres might be ascribed to the heat of battle and the fog of war. There is probably little to be gained by picking over either of them further.

Hmm, okay, I guess that there's no point in picking over massacres (let's not talk of actual 'murder'), let's wash our hands and let's walk away.

Why Pontius Pilate or the Whitlam government couldn't handle that kind of real politic better, and remind me when I embark on my next round of serial killing to explain that it was probably all due to the heat of suburban exhaustion and the fog of Sydney's car exhaust fumes. And that there's nothing to be gained by picking over the bones of the victims.

In fact it's probably just as well we got over the bizarre notion that there should be no statute of limitation in relation to murder charges. I'm thinking that after fifteen years, we should just drop everything, and let the killer(s) get away with it. What's to be gained by picking over a sordid past? After all lots of other crimes have limitations and where's the harm in a little murder or a slaughter or a massacre between chums?

The point is now not what happened in Cholon or Balibo then: the point is the completely different sets of reactions to the two massacres in Australia: one ceaselessly dwelt upon (and at a time when Indonesian goodwill is important in the anti-terrorist campaign), the other virtually ignored.

Actually the point of justice is justice, not politics, and the notion that you can compare Cholon and Balibo, and then argue for nothing to be done about Balibo is the kind of moral equivalence which makes the notion of justice meaningless - or just another way to indulge in real politics (because we need Indonesian good will) of the weasel kind indulged in by the Whitlam government at the time.

Shit happens, so no need to bother with even the kind of show trial justice beloved of corrupt regimes, of a totalitarian or communist kind.

Was it just an irony of timing that last night there was a screening of a documentary devoted to the British hunting down the Gestapo murderers of the fifty airmen who took part in 'the great escape', and then hanging them? Talk of the fog of war, or people following orders didn't cut much mustard with the British when it came to the casual, brutal shooting prisoners for the 'crime' of attempting to escape.

If Colebatch had worried about the massacres of the east Timorese - none of which cause much concern or activism in Australia today, and which even some of the Timorese want to put behind them - he might at least have had a decent moral equivalence outing. But by taking apples and shoving them up against oranges, and making a few half-baked assertions he's in no position to prove in relation to the Balibo matter, he ends up conflating politics and justice.

Of course nothing will happen about the Balibo murders. Real politics, and dithering and bureaucratic 'difficulties', and the 'fog of peace' and the 'heat of the Indonesian solution, commercial realities, anti-terrorist campaigns and I've been to Bali too' will see to that.

But is there ever a problem when attention is paid to murder, without half-hearted equivocations, and queasy explanations of how it might all have been an accident involving uniforms and man high grass in the jungle? Or is somehow a leftist conspiracy?

As a sidebar, ain't it a funny old world, to see the likes of Colebatch defending the activities and stance of the Whitlam government.

What next? A campaign for a gas pipeline across Australia, using Arab money? Come on down Rex Connor, your knight in shining armor awaits to salute you as a visionary ...

(Below: a couple of oldies from Nicholson, cartoonist at The Australian. More Nicholson here).

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