25 September, 2015, Melbourne Press Club Press Freedom Dinner, Australia
Hello everyone. I am John Milkins. I am Gary Cunningham’s son - murdered along with his colleagues by Indonesian special forces, in Balibo, 1975. I am very humbled to be here tonight. I’ve been invited to tell you a bit of a story, about love, sacrifice, hope and truth - from a personal and an international level.
When I was six weeks old I was adopted. I always knew something was up. My sister was half Malaysian, and even in the hippie suburbs of 1970s Eltham, we knew that something was going on.
When I was twenty, with the love and support of my Mum and Dad, I always think of them as Mum and Dad, they let me know that I could look into my heritage and try and find my birth parents. I had everything I needed, but there was this indescribable core drive still that I felt I had to know where I had come from - to know where I was going.
It’s a strange feeling, sitting in a government department with other adoptees, about to find out about your first life, reading that manila folder as I drew it out for the first time. I discovered that I was Edward Giles Norman, and it said ‘mother Heather Norman, aged 21, and father, unknown’. After a long search, using electoral roles, I found my birth mum, Heather, and I wrote a ‘I’m researching my family history’ letter, and ‘if you happen to know anything about these details, please give me a call’.
Heather left her car in the driveway, and ran around to my grandmother’s house some eight blocks away. As she came down the driveway, Grandma knew.
Heather explained to me when we met that she’d always wanted me to have a two parent family. I have enormous respect for what she did in an age when there was no support for single mothers in the seventies. About two weeks later, I met about eighty people that I was related to, many of whom had no idea I existed. Grandma said to me that the hardest thing she’s ever done, was watch her daughter give birth, and then the prevailing wisdom was ‘do not touch the child’, so as Heather reached out to me, I was taken away.
I learned the most amazing things about that family. I learned that my uncle in that family is Peter Norman, who won the ’68 silver medal in the Mexico Olympics, and is known for his support for the black power salute.
On first meeting Heather, down by the fairy tree in Fitzroy Gardens, where I walked today on the way here - Heather told me that Gary Cunningham was my birth father. That freaked me out, because I’d just been studying [the Balibo Five]at university in a politics class. I spent a fairly dark five years in a library, looking at microfilm ... of their deaths. Horrible descriptions of what had happened. Very quickly it became not just five Australians, six with Roger East, but over 183,000 Timorese, and I felt the increasing need to do something about this. I couldn’t understand as a young man, becoming an angry young man, how this horrific tragedy had occurred on our doorstep, and our country seemed to be deliberately burying the truth.
I felt we had an enormous debt to the Timorese - after all they’d lost 40,000 of their people defending our shores in World War II, and we at that time were signing a treaty taking 90% of their oil.
After five years, I decided I had to know more about how Gary lived, and how he died. There was a 1975 article in one of those papers that mentioned the Cunningham family, and their address in Moorabbin. I looked that up, and this time Heather and I wrote a much more direct letter to the Cunninghams. ‘Your son, had a son.’ Because Heather had never told anybody that Gary was my birth father, she suffered alone for all those years. I found grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, that are here tonight.
Gary had no other children - that we know of [grins] and neither did his sister or brother. Of all of the Balibo Five young men, there are only two children - Evan Shackleton, and myself.
In 2002, the Bracks Victorian government set up the Balibo House Trust and invited family members to join. Together with channel 7, 9, Multiplex and World Vision, and many other generous sponsors, we refurbished the Balibo flag house where we saw Greg Shackleton painting the Australian flag on the wall. This was incredibly significant for us. It was the first time in 25 years that a government had acknowledged what we were going through. And it took a State government to do it.
At that ceremony, where we launched the Balibo Flag House, I read a letter ... from Gary. Written on the 15th of October, 1975, one day before his death. It says, in part: ‘I don’t think I’ll be back in time for Anne’s birthday, and probably not mine. The town of Balibo, really beautiful before the revolution, now is in ruins.’
We found out the Balibo Five were missing on Anne’s birthday, the 17th of October, and shortly afterwards, the letter arrived.
It’s incredibly humbling visiting East Timor. I carry this scarf with me, at times, to remind me of nine young men who were killed by their own relatives as they fled from Dili to Balibo - killed because their families worried that they would bring the militia with them, and that it was too dangerous to have Dili University students protesting.
There were many memorable moments for me at that particular launch in 2003. My wife, Liz, singing ‘Ave Maria’ in front of thousands of Timorese people, and Jose Ramos Horta, the then foreign minister, saying ‘I want to talk to her, but give me a minute, I’m still too emotional’. One amazing moment was a photo I took of Evan Shackleton standing with his mother Shirley, in front of the Flag House. Evan has his head thrown back, because we’d just realised that I, as a photographer, was taking Evan’s photograph where his father painted the flag on the wall, and my father filmed it.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the national interest. Encouraged by the support of the Victorian government, we lobbied the federal governments of Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK and of course Indonesia, who all felt and argued for many years that it was cross-fire between rival forces that killed our relatives. At a very personal level, this infected all of us.
Each family was told that there would be a funeral in Jakarta in the half sized box that they were put into, that we had to pay for the funeral, but we weren’t allowed to go. Ambassador Woolcott said, ‘no words can explain this pointless death in Balibo’. Well I say, they can, but they don’t want to be explained.
Since then, successive governments have hoped this issue would go away, in the national interest. In 2007, a coronial inquiry meant a great deal to us. It once and for all, after weeks of eyewitness testimony, showed that Brian Peters and the Balibo Five colleagues died from wounds sustained from when they were shot or stabbed deliberately and not in the heat of battle. No cross fire. That helped ... and the coroner did something very brave, outside of her mandate. She referred to it as a ‘possible war crime’ to the AFP and the Attorney-General’s Department. Five years, five hundred thousand dollars, no contact with the Indonesian officials, and the finding was that there were jurisdictional error issues, and we don’t think we can prove that the Indonesians were there.
We’ve put one FOI request in which has been refused. Stand by.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the light - because that’s the darkness, the looking back is hard. The positive things, are ... the opportunity to work with the community of Balibo, with the Flag House Trust, and I’d like to acknowledge other members of other families who have done an enormous amount, the Stewarts are here tonight.
The Flag House, with Balibo House Trust, we work to run sewing, cooking classes, we run a woodwork workshop, mechanics workshop and so on. In 2012 we found out that the community thought we owned a kinder there. We had a crèche, and the crèche had kicked the local police out of their cop shop, because it got too big. We went and looked at the kinder, and it had no roof, no toilets, the supplies were horrible. We fixed all of these things with the support of Rotary and Albert Park kinder, and 450 children so far in their little green and gold uniforms with ‘Balibo Five kinder’ have so far graduated.
Our most ambitious project to date has been the Balibo Fort Hotel and Cultural History Museum. This restored a 350 year old Portuguese fort above Balibo, and it’s currently creating income, employment and training opportunities for the people of Balibo, and it’s really starting to bring people to the west of East Timor. This would not have been possible without the very very generous support of Channel 7, Channel 9, Harold Mitchell Foundation, Crown, and Media Super, to name a few.
What we’re intending to do with this, is build on that. Many, many financial options, many supplies that we can get into the local community, but our next project is to bring dentists that can stay in the comfort that they’re used to, and train and run dental clinicians, while running a dental clinic to service about 15,000 people in the area.
So tonight, I’ve spoken about my journey of discovery and search for truth. My journey of adoption and personal discovery, to Australia’s journey to maturity as a nation. If we are truly mature, and self aware and adjusted society, we have to acknowledge our past, and only then can we know where we are going.
Most importantly, I’d like to thank all of you, members of the media. Every day you hold truths in your hands. Your freedom to write, film, tweet, draw or otherwise report these truths is of paramount importance. It is the media that kept fighting alongside us for the Balibo Five, and for press freedoms that are so important as fundamental human rights.
I ask you to keep that legacy going.
Thank you very much.
Longer version of this event. Includes speeches from Ron Tandberg, Laurie Oakes and Peter Grieste. Plus music video 'Balibo' by Ego Lemos Timorese musician.