Tempo - Mon, 7 Dec 2009
The Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) story and that of Col. (ret.) Gatot Purwanto, 62, are intertwined. This former Special Forces (Kopassus) officer can be said to have witnessed all of the bloody incidents that happened in Indonesia’s former 27th province. In fact, Gatot has been involved in East Timor since the beginning of his military career. Tragically, it was also there that his vocation ended.
Just before Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, Gatot would go in and out of this former Portuguese colony, disguised as a trader. His good looks, neat appearance and sociable manner made it easy for him to move around. “I was known as Aseng over there,” he said laughingly, recalling how people often mistook him for an ethnic Chinese.
Inside Timor, his job was to contact local opposition politicians and gather intelligence. He was the only Indonesian officer who was able to penetrate the Fretilin hideout in the jungle, and speak directly to their rebel chief, Xanana Gusmao.
However, the November 12, 1991 Santa Cruz incident ended his bright career. As the assistant commander for intelligence in East Timor, he was responsible for failing to anticipate the demonstration that became violent. The Indonesian military (TNI) was accused of shooting at the people, killing more than 100. Gatot was discharged from the military.
One bloody incident he remembers well is the attack at Balibo. Gatot, who was then a first lieutenant, witnessed how five Australian journalists from Channel 7 and Channel 9 – Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, was captured and shot.
The five journalists were in the midst of covering the joint attack by the UDT and Apodeti groups – two rival groups of the Fretilin at the time – into Balibo on October 1975, supported by the Indonesian army. “It seems to have been my fate to be involved in bloody incidents in East Timor,” lamented Gatot.
Last week, following the screening of the film Balibo, produced by Robert Connolly, at the Utan Kayu Theater in East Jakarta, Gatot described his version of the incident depicted in the controversial film to Tempo reporters Arif Zulkifli, Wahyu Dyatmika, Sunudyantoro, Yophiandi and Agus Supriyanto.
You were in Balibo when the five Australian journalists were shot. What happened?
The battle was not over at the time. The fighting had eased, but shots could still be heard. At the edge of Balibo town, near the church on the hill, there were buildings. We shot in that direction because we heard shots coming from there. When we approached the building gs, we saw the five people journalists inside. They were captured and they were still alive.
So what did the troops do?
I was still on lower ground, near Pak Yunus (ret. Maj.Gen Yunus Yosfiah, who at the time was the team commander with the rank of captain). We received a report that foreigners had been being caught. Pak Yunus ordered me to report them to Pak Dading (ret. Lt.Gen Dading Kalbuadi, at the time the commander), who was at the border area. If I am not mistaken, Pak Dading then contacted Jakarta, and asked what they should do with those people.
So, it is not true that the five journalists were killed in the crossfire between the TNI and the Fretilin?
When they were first captured, they were still alive. We surrounded them with our weapons. I saw this at a distance of 30 meters from the lower ground of the hill. They were inside and they seemed to be filming from the top. There were shots coming from that direction from time to time, which is why we aimed there and surrounded the building.
What happened then?
It was a difficult situation. If we captured them, the Indonesian troops would be implicated. We didn’t know what to do with them, execute them or what. At that very moment, when our troops were sitting around, suddenly shots came from the direction of where the journalists were. Maybe someone was trying to rescue them, we thought. Our troops ran over there, to find all five of them dead.
Exactly when did the attack happen?
We entered Balibo just before dawn. But when the incident took place, it was already daylight, maybe about 10 or 11 in the morning.
When the shooting took place, what were the orders from Yunus Yosfiah or Dading Kalbuadi?
Nothing yet. From the team leader, Pak Yunus, there were no orders to kill them or whatever. Pak Dading was still waiting for instructions from Jakarta. Communications took a long time. So, the shots happened when we were provoked into shooting at the place where they were hiding, because shots came from there.
Was there an effort to identify the five journalists? Were they asked who they were?
No, because none of them spoke Indonesian and none of the troops spoke English.
But did the troops know they were journalists?
We should have known, because they were carrying cameras and other equipment. That should have been obvious from those close to them. The shooting happened from a distance of about 15 meters.
Before the troops entered Balibo, did they know there were five foreign journalists inside the town?
We didn’t know. That’s why we were shocked and confused when they were captured. We didn’t know what to do with them.
So, what happened after the shooting?
Pak Dading went to the site. A TVRI reporter, Hendro Subroto came along. Then Pak Dading spoke with my commander, Pak Yunus.
How were the condition of the troops at the time? Were any of the troops blamed for acting without orders?
It was a difficult situation for us. If we kept the journalists, not execute them, when they got out, they would say, “Yes, that’s right, the Indonesians captured us.” It could be used as evidence that we were there. So it was a difficult decision to make. Perhaps, at that time, people at the top thought the shooting was the best way out. I am not sure. If they were not executed, they could be witnesses to the fact that the Indonesian army had invaded Timor.
So, the shooting was a rational decision?
Yes… but it was provoked by the shooting coming from where they were. Later, they found a Thompson gun inside the building, next to them (the five journalists).
What happened after that?
The bodies of the five journalists were taken to the house of a Chinese in Balibo, about 300 meters from the location of the shooting, just inside the town. There, the bodies were covered with rice husks and then burnt.
Why use the rice husk?
Because they take longer time. They (the bodies) needed to be totally disintegrated That took two days. Some wood was also used.
Why were the bodies torched? Wouldn’t that have shown that the troops tried to cover the shooting?
Because we were in a bind at the time. We had to make sure that the involvement of Indonesian troops was not known. That’s why we didn’t wear uniforms when we attacked, we wore civilian clothes. You may have heard of the blue jeans brigade. That was us with long hair.
Who ordered the bodies to be burnt?
Well, there were orders from…(unclear response). I don’t know exactly, I was just a young officer then. But we were in a difficult position. If we let them live, they would tell everyone it was an Indonesian invasion. If they died and we abandoned them, there would be evidence that they were shot in territory controlled by Indonesian guerrillas. So, the simple way was to eliminate everything. We just claimed not to know anything. It was the instant reaction at the time.
Besides the TNI, who else was in Balibo at the time?
Besides the Susi Team (advance team), the pro-Indonesian forces of Apodeti and UDT jointly took part in Balibo. There were Apodeti leader Thomas Gonzalves and UDT leader Joan Tabarez. There was one unit of our troops against two of theirs. We were 50, they were about 100.
During the invasion, was there support from Indonesian battleships?
I think there was. When we entered Balibo, there were shots from our ships offshore.
Why was Balibo the first target of attack?
Balibo was not the first one. We had advanced quite deeply at that point, but we were forced to withdraw, running back to Haikesak (a small village at the Indonesian border), and to Atambua. After reinforcements came from UDT and Apodeti, we entered again. The troops had been mobilized and trained since the end of 1974. At the point, we should have reached Dili, preparing a dropping zone and other facilities to support the big invasion, like setting up ammunition dumps in specific areas.
What was the situation in Balibo when you entered it?
Balibo is a small town, with non-descript buildings. There were five concrete buildings, the biggest owned by a Chinese and another served as a health center. In areas bordering with Indonesia, like in Balibo and nearby villages, the population tended to be supporters of the Apodeti, and more pro-Indonesian. This was quite different from people on the eastern side, which could not be accessed by our troops and which were controlled by Fretilin.
When you were assigned in East Timor, you reportedly had close relations with Xanana Gusmao?
I befriended Xanana after the operation carried out during the time of Pak Sahala (ret. Lt.Gen Adolf Sahala Rajagukguk, former Army Deputy Chief of Staff) in 1981. After that operation, the TNI was sure that Fretelin was in disarray, falling apart. Finally, all Kopassus troops were withdrawn from Timor, with only two companies – Nanggala 51 and 52, remaining.
After the troops were withdrawn, they consolidated and attacked us again. I started thinking, if we keep ourselves low all the time, how can we advance? I finally opened communications with Xanana. He welcomed it. Maybe Xanana thought some good could come from it because at that time he was already thinking that post-war, he could be in politics. That was sometime between 1982 and 1983.
What did Xanana say?
He was very formal at first. We spoke in Tetum. He always stressed on me: Indonesia will not be able to continue funding the war in Timor.
Did your good relations continue?
Yes, we have kept in close touch until today. Since the jungle days, I have been the only Kopassus officer who is able to meet with him. So today, if Timor needs intelligence equipment, I help out. Once, Xanana even asked my help to ‘sterilize’ his office (from wiretaps).
Going back to the Balibo film. What is you impression of it?
From the start until the middle (of the film), it’s quite balanced. The film also blamed the governments of Australia, the United States and Britain, which gave their blessings to the Timor war. But the main incidents, surrounding the shooting of the five journalists, were over-dramatized. No one was tortured. The scene depicting the TNI’s entry into Dili was not that spectacular.
What do you think of demands to expose and try the Balibo perpetrators in court?
A lot of time has passed, right? The perpetrators are now old men. We no longer have a problem with Timor Leste.
Were you against the referendum in Timor Leste?
I thought it was a hurried decision.
Do you think the integration of East Timor between 19175-1999 was a wasted effort?
Look. At the time, the communists had gained control in Portugal. All areas under their control, including colonies they thought of letting go, were also influenced by communism. So it was not wrong for Australia and the US to push Indonesia into taking over. It was the Cold War at that time.
But Indonesia failed to win the people’s hearts over there.
At that time, East Timor was seen as a dumping place for errant bureaucrats. In Timor, without supervision, those petty bureau chiefs became small kings. They were nepotistic about recruitment, refusing to hire local people, opting instead to give jobs to relatives from Java.