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Indonesia’s heavy-handed censorship backfires

In Indonesian political culture, there was a view that inconvenient or challenging truths should be suppressed in order to retain harmony. This view had largely disappeared from Indonesian political life in the 1950s, but was re-invented by former President Suharto in order to remove challenges to his personalised authoritarian rule between the mid-1960s and the end of the 1990s.

One consequent of this was that Indonesia has refused to accept culpability for the deaths of almost 200,000 people in East Timor between 1975 and 1999. So too Indonesia has steadfastly denied responsibility for the deaths of five Australian based journalists at Balibo in October 1975, maintaining the fiction that they were killed in a cross-fire.

Now, a former Indonesian special forces officer has confirmed what we have known from a range of sources for decades, that the ‘Balibo Five’, as they have become known, were murdered by Indonesian troops to cover up the first moments of Indonesia’s invasion of that tiny territory.

This stark admission by a former Indonesian army officer, who was at the scene of the crime, that the Balibo Five were murdered by Indonesian troops because they were reporting on an illegal invasion follows the banning and then illegal screening of the Australian movie ‘Balibo’ in Jakarta last week.

‘Balibo’ is a dramatised account of the murder of the Balibo Five, and the search for the truth of their murder by another Australian journalist, Roger East, who was himself murdered by Indonesian troops at Dili’s wharf almost two months later.

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club intended to screen the movie last week, but was stopped by Indonesia’s censorship board, at the behest of the Indonesian military. An army spokesman has since said that the movie should not be screened because it would damage Indonesia’s international standing and harm Australia-Indonesia relations.

The army spokesman also said that the search for truth over the murder of the Balibo Five should be based on a ‘consensus’ on those events. This idea of ‘consensus’ also harks back to the Suharto era, in which a confluence of views, usually dominated by the most powerful source – the army – displaced verifiable truth.

Despite the army’s attempt to have ‘Balibo’ banned, an Indonesian sub-titled version was privately screened last Thursday night, and has since been screened to audiences of hundreds in Jakarta, including Indonesian journalists, pro-democracy and human rights activists and others . DVDs of the movie will hit Jakarta’s streets soon.

As Indonesia democratises, elements of its former authoritarian rule continue to resurface. As the progenitor for Indonesia’s descent into authoritarian militaristic rule the army has, unsurprisingly, been the slowest and most reluctant institution to reform. Yet the tide of openness that necessarily accompanies democratisation has continued to rise. That a retired Indonesian army officer has finally confirmed what we already knew is surprising only because he has broken ranks on the issue.

Indonesia’s has a profoundly troubled past, one of the smaller parts of which was the murder of the Balibo Five which has become, for outsiders at least, emblematic of the much greater horror visited upon the people of East Timor. There is also the murder of perhaps a half a million or more suspected communists and sympathisers in the mid-1960s, the gross human rights abuses and repression employed in West Papua, Aceh and upon trade unionists, activists and even many ordinary Indonesian citizens who lived under the Suharto regime.

The old political method of suppressing inconvenient truths continues to hold sway in Jakarta, but it is under real challenge. It may be expecting too much to hope for accountability for those responsible for the murder of the Balibo Five, much less the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who have been murdered, tortured or imprisoned in Indonesia.

But it is encouraging that a film that was intended to open a door to the gross human rights violations in East Timor, through the device of focusing on the deaths of six newsmen, has had the type of impact that was hoped for it. And it is encouraging that the heavy-handed attempt to censor the film has had the opposite effect of burying the truth, but rather helping reveal it.

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