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The Papua problem - it's not going away

By Peter King - posted Thursday, 6 April 2006

The fracas between Indonesia and Australia over West Papuan refugees may blow over, but the underlying issues won't go away anytime soon. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has put his own credibility on the line by following the lead of Indonesia's baying nationalists in parliament.

Why does Yudhoyono insist all is well in Papua except for the nefarious activities of "separatists" and their international backers, who reputedly include the Australian Government?

He has a point, of course. The Australian Government collaborated with the Indonesian Government's pretence of good faith right up to the mayhem that followed the independence referendum in East Timor. Things are apparently going to be different with Papua.


Does the decision to grant asylum to West Papuans mean the Australian Government could finally be taking the Timor lesson to heart - the Australian people will not tolerate another Timor in Papua; another collusion with Indonesia all the way to a bloody showdown?

Certainly, John Howard and Alexander Downer must realise they have doubled the clout of Australia's West Papua independence lobby by allowing the 42 highly political (even the children) Melanesian seafarers to settle here, however temporarily.

Whatever the underlying reasons for the Australian Government's action, the Indonesian response has been as "incorrect, one-sided and unrealistic" as Yudhoyono tells us Australia's decision was. Dozens of Indonesian non-government organisations and Papua support groups have been telling the Jakarta elite loudly and clearly, for the past eight years, about "reform", that Papua is being betrayed again, as it was under the Dutch and under Indonesia's Soeharto regime.

Why? Papua is difficult, the Indonesia lobby in Canberra tells us. Papua is far from Java: Indonesia has trouble focusing on it, but reform will eventually prevail under Yudhoyono. This is nonsense.

Indonesia's problem is military ill will, a nationalist lack of will, and reformers' paralysis of will - above all, in Papua. For the Indonesian President to contest refugees' claims of persecution and offer guarantees for their safety is a futile exercise so late in the day. All the Papuan abuses that "reformasi" was supposed to tackle continue to flourish - military manipulation, mayhem and rapacity, including protection of illegal logging and devastating mining.

The Papuans have symbolically given back the former Indonesian president Gus Dur's half-wanted gift of special autonomy, as the revenues that were promised have disappeared. The unwelcome province splitting done by another former Indonesian president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, has not been undone by Yudhoyono, either. The determined escalation of Papuan political demands this year, including the closing of the Freeport mine, is the predictable outcome of this stand-off.


Peace is now a possibility for Aceh, after the tsunami and massive international intervention. Must we wait for a political tsunami with disastrous human consequences in Papua?

While Papua was under the Dutch, Australia took an active interest in its future. It supported self-determination and even contemplated the two halves of New Guinea achieving independence as a united Melanesian entity. Among other things, Downer must overcome the amnesia on Papuan history within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He said a few years ago that Australia had always supported Papua's incorporation in the Indonesian republic, while Australia's ambassador in Washington, Dennis Richardson, has recently informed the world that "Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always has been".

Recent Papuan history, it seems, begins in 1962-63, when the Dutch got out, leaving the field to Soekarno's and Soeharto's generals. Papua has been in Australia's too-hard basket for 43 years. It is time to take it out. Yudhoyono's outburst may signal, however indistinctly and indirectly, that Australia has become an important dialogue partner in resolving an issue that is not going to go away - the future for the Papuans, Indonesian or otherwise.

Working with Indonesia on the matter may be the way to advance the interests of both countries - while helping to extricate the Papuans from their impasse.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 5, 2006. 

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About the Author

Peter King is convener of the West Papua Project at Sydney University and the author of West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos? (UNSW Press)

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