Toward the end of 1975 Australia was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. Citing as justification the alleged all-round incompetence of the Gough Whitlam led Labor Government, the opposition Liberal – National Party alliance used its slender Senate majority to block the supply bills, in essence denying the democratically elected government the funds with which to govern.
Crises of another complexion were occurring throughout Asia at the same time, no more so than in East Timor, then in the process of being abandoned by its colonial masters the Portugese. The East Timorese overwhelmingly favoured the idea of setting off down the road to independence. Significantly fewer people wished to see their nation integrated with Indonesia – one of the other options touted.
But the leaning of the majority of the population held no sway with Indonesia’s covetous President Suharto. Armed forces entered Balibo, close to the East Timor border with West Timor, early one morning in mid-October, slaughtering in cold blood five unarmed Australian newsmen who had stayed on in the town to film the invasion as it happened.
This shocking news made headlines in Australia, its gravity ensuring that it would. And yet the unresolved, ongoing constitutional crisis soon ‘reabsorbed’ it, virtually acting as a providential if unintentional smokescreen for the perpetrators of what was a blatant war crime. This ‘censoring’ of the news was merely the shape of things to come where the imminent full scale occupation of East Timor was concerned and not merely in Australia.
One of the newsmen killed in Balibo was the Seven Network’s Greg Shackleton. His wife Shirley’s memoir / testimony The Circle of Silence details her resolute attempts over the course of more than three decades to get to the truth of what happened in Balibo and to shed light on the cover-up that ensued, a cover-up that stemmed from and encompassed the highest echelons of government and security.
She illustrates how successive Australian administrations kowtowed to the wishes of friend Suharto – be if for mutual greed, political expediency in the name of the country’s purported strategic best interests, or a lingering residue of fear of the Asian hordes to the north – and of the tragedy that this stance entailed for Australia, Indonesia and, most of all, the Timorese. The blood spilt in Balibo and, less than two months later, Dili ushered in genocide and ethnic cleansing on an appalling scale. Over the next quarter century a rapacious occupying army frequently ran riot in the cities and countryside.
On the last page of her book Mrs Shackleton refers to a 2009 interview with an ABC-TV news reporter. Was it not time to move on, he asks her. The answer this widow turned activist gives is as one would expect. ‘Murder is murder no matter how much time elapses,’ she replies. The extraordinary thing is that she became – and remains – a voice not merely for her murdered innocent but for all the unarmed innocents who perished in the tiny, so long ignored nation.