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Tuesday, 7 June 1994
Page: 1376

Senator McGAURAN —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I draw the minister's attention to a newspaper report by Peter Coster on page 31 of the Sunday Herald Sun concerning the circumstances in which Australian television journalists were executed in East Timor at the time of the Indonesian invasion in 1975. In view of the impact such articles have on the community's perception of Indonesia and Australia's dealings with that country, can the minister confirm whether the journalists died in the horrific circumstances as described in the article, and later followed up by Channel 9's Sunday program? I quote from the article:

I recognised his name after he was found with the others hanging upside down with their genitals stuffed in their mouths.

Or is this brutal account described in the Sunday Herald Sun no more than a fabrication?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I do not think we will ever know the precise circumstances in which those journalists died and the order in which various events happened, horrific as they all were, and I am not sure that any helpful purpose is served by trying now, after this lapse of time, to get some further and better handle on what did occur. Successive governments in the immediate aftermath of 1975 did, of course, try very hard to establish the detailed circumstances of those executions and detailed protests, notwithstanding some suggestions that have been made to the contrary, were of course made at the time to the Indonesian government by the Australian government, expressing our very grave concern at what had happened.

  I think it is important, while not forgetting some of the awful things that have happened, nonetheless to look to the future and, in particular, to understand the larger significance of our relationship with Indonesia. That does not mean sweeping under the carpet our concerns about the continuing human rights situation in East Timor, and I made clear in an earlier answer that neither I nor the Australian government have any disposition to do just that. But it is worth appreciating also this relationship with this country to our north, the fourth biggest in the world, with a population of nearly 190 million; a country of immense significance to our future both in security and strategic terms and in economic terms. This is a country with which it is very important that we have a balanced, sensible and full relationship.

  With that in mind, we are taking a very important initiative with a major Australian promotion in Indonesia. Australia Today-Indonesia `94, which will be commencing in just a few days time, next week, will serve the purpose, as the promotions in Korea and Japan before have done over the last two years, of bringing to the Indonesian public a much greater appreciation of the sophistication and diversity of Australia and what we can bring to that relationship at a number of different levels.

  It is very much a two-way interactive process and it is an important part of the ongoing business of establishing not only better government to government and business to business but also person to person relationships with the people of that country. So, I repeat: while none of us will ever forget, or will ever want to forget, individual, horrifying things that have occurred along the way in the course of our relationship with that country, nonetheless, it is important to put these things in perspective, to keep them in perspective, and to realise that the best chance of making progress in our relationship, for our mutual benefit, is by adopting an approach which does not react in a reflex way to reports of this kind but, rather, puts them in the context I have described.

Senator McGAURAN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question in the light of the minister's admission as to his lack of detailed knowledge about the goings-on in East Timor at any time between its invasion in 1975 and the Dili massacre in 1991. Yet the Australian public are continually subject to rumours, innuendo and dramatic reports arising out of East Timor. Such is the secrecy that the Australian people do not know the truth or otherwise. Could the minister undertake as a priority to re-establish the Australian consulate in East Timor, which would provide first-hand information about the developments in East Timor? Furthermore, does the minister agree that this would be an important step towards bringing some much needed accuracy to reporting on events in that country?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I did not say that we did not know what was going on in East Timor between 1975 and 1991. I said we do not know precisely what happened in Balibo on that particular day in 1975 when a major military invasion was occurring and a group of Australian journalists, unhappily, got caught up in the path of it. The subsequent investigation of those events has not given us—and never will, I believe, give us—a full account of precisely what happened.

  But it is the case that Australia has had a very substantial presence by way of diplomatic visits and other forms of reporting by other visitors to East Timor over the whole of that period, and we have a very close knowledge of what has been going on there. It is also the case that, I think, to just about every objective observer, the situations in East Timor were very significantly improving in the period which led up to, and just preceded, the massacre in 1991. It is part of the great tragedy of that massacre that it set things back so dramatically from the course they were on. Whether or not the establishment of a consulate would help us there is another question, and one that we are continuing to pursue with the Indonesian government. (Time expired)