Australia hopes its relations with Indonesia will not be damaged by its launch of a war crimes investigation into the 1975 killing of five Australia-based journalists during an attack by Indonesian forces in East Timor, the Australian foreign minister said on Thursday.
The investigation was recommended two years ago by an Australian coroner who found that the deaths were deliberate and probably ordered by senior Indonesian officers.
The coroner's findings contradicted the Indonesian and Australian governments' official version of events: that the journalists were killed accidentally in a crossfire between Indonesian troops and East Timorese defenders.
Indonesia was surprised by the investigation, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, while noting the decision to launch a probe was not made by his government but by independent police chiefs.
"We don't regard these as issues that will disturb the fundamentals of the relationship," Smith told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The findings by a New South Wales state coroner in 2007 strained Australia-Indonesia diplomatic ties because it named three former senior officers of Indonesia's special military forces who likely ordered the killings.
Indonesia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah warned that the new investigation could obstruct bilateral relations. "We don't want to see this issue become another hurdle on how we approach the bilateral relations," Faizasyah told ABC radio in an interview broadcast Thursday.
Jakarta tore up its defense treaty with Canberra in 1999 when Australia led an international peacekeeping force into East Timor during the bloody aftermath of its separation from Indonesia following a 24-year occupation.
But since terrorists bombed the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002, killing 202 people including 88 Australians, police, defense forces and intelligence agencies from both countries have cooperated closely on counterterrorism and a new security treaty was signed in 2006.
Greg Fealy, an Australian National University expert on Indonesia and terrorism, said the investigation could undermine relations between the two national police forces that have developed during several joint terrorism investigations in Indonesia since 2002. "I would have thought that was an obvious possible complication in this kind of investigation," Fealy said.
"It could complicate what's been a very smooth relationship in recent years, which the AFP (Australian Federal Police) has gone to such trouble to manage very carefully and could irritate a lot of officials," he added.
Damien Kingsbury, a Deakin University specialist on Indonesia, agreed that the "constructive working relationship" between the two police forces could be tested.
"As the investigation proceeds, I think there will be considerable backlash from at least some quarters in Indonesia," he said.
Indonesia invaded East Timor after the small half island descended into civil war following the end of Portuguese colonial rule. Indonesia's invasion plans were secret at the time, and direct involvement of Indonesian troops in operations in East Timor was highly sensitive.
The bodies of the five journalists, two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander, were found burned in the East Timorese town of Balibo. Indonesian special forces and their East Timorese proxies attacked the town Oct. 16, 1975.