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Walking the tightrope with Indonesia

By Gary Brown - posted Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Indonesia’s displeasure with Australia’s granting of three-year temporary protection visas to over 40 West Papuan asylum seeker “boat people” who arrived here recently is entirely understandable.

Having been forced to disgorge its East Timorese conquest a few years ago, Jakarta now fears that a similar process might see it mulcted of the western half of New Guinea island as well.

Jakarta acquired West Papua in the early 1960s only after much sabre-rattling by the former Indonesian dictator, Sukarno. Australia acquiesced in this annexation, which was legitimised later in the decade not by a vote of the people but by a stage-managed so-called “act of free choice”.


Australia also acquiesced in Jakarta’s rape of East Timor. For over 20 years following the 1975 Indonesian invasion, governments of both persuasions parroted the line that Indonesia’s sovereignty over the country was legitimate. Canberra afforded Jakarta diplomatic recognition and support, even though the policy was never popular at home.

Then, when the Suharto dictatorship began to disintegrate in the late 1990s, Australia (under John Howard) abruptly changed its approach. As is well known, we led the INTERFET military mission to East Timor which cleaned up the worst of the mess after the Indonesian military and its sponsored militias went on a rampage following the East Timorese vote for independence.

What Jakarta fears is a similar backflip from this or some future Australian government. Though John Howard and Kim Beazley have been loudly supporting Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, people in Jakarta can hardly be expected to forget that similar assurances over East Timor were effectively abandoned almost overnight. And they are deeply concerned that another Australian backflip will reignite secessionist tendencies in other parts of Indonesia - especially Aceh, where a tenuous peace has only just been achieved after decades of conflict.

In our free society there are people and groups which actively promote the idea of West Papuan independence despite official policy to the contrary. It is difficult for some Indonesians, who have had limited experience of this kind of pluralism, to believe that this is possible without at least tacit government approval. And it is easy for other Indonesians, who see domestic political advantage in playing the nationalist card, to exploit this perception.

Without a doubt the West Papuan issue is a very difficult one. One can indeed curse the colonial powers who saddled many states with awkward boundaries, the legacy of which still disturbs the peace in more places than just West Papua. It would certainly have been better if West Papua had never been part of the Netherlands East Indies, because Indonesia claims is that it is the legitimate successor state to that colonial entity, and that (whatever the case with Timor) West Papua is legitimately a part of Indonesia.

But both places are distinctively different from the mainstream ethnic and religious composition of most of Indonesia. West Papua is a predominantly Melanesian area, with far stronger ethnic and cultural links to Papua New Guinea than to Indonesia. Bahasa-speaking Muslims are seen as an alien element by many West Papuans. Despite minimal external support, an independence movement has existed there for many years.


What is Australia to do? Indonesia is our neighbour. Having at last emerged from the grip of vicious and corrupt dictatorship, it is trying to build a functioning democracy. It needs our support in this endeavour. Australian actions which might fuel secessionism are always going to be resented in Jakarta.

But our granting of protection visas says to Jakarta that we believe these people needed protection: that they were not safe if returned to their homeland. This implicitly articulates an (accurate) Australian belief that Indonesian rule in West Papua is still marred by significant human rights abuses. And, despite the history, on ethic and religious criteria the Indonesian claim is undeniably questionable.

At the same time, and even ignoring the adverse consequences for our bilateral relations with Indonesia, the idea of an independent West Papua has few attractions. Such a state would be weak, weaker even than our former Melanesian colony, Papua New Guinea, and like PNG it would look to Australia for support once independence was achieved. I welcomed East Timor’s liberation (and still do: Jakarta’s only right to that territory was the right of naked military conquest) but there is no denying that it too is weak, and subject to significant domestic problems.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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