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Fifty years on, Australia’s Papua policy is still failing

Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono isn’t getting the right kind of encouragement to create a long-term solution

Richard Chauvel 27 September 2012 2588 words

West Papua National Committee chair, Victor Yeimo, on ABC TV’s 7.30.

“Yep. The world is behind Indonesia now. It means they all compromise with Indonesia to kill West Papua.” Victor Yeimo, the chair of the West Papua National Committee, was describing to journalists Hayden Cooper and Lisa Main how Papuans are losing their struggle because Indonesia has so effectively deflected international attention from the conflict. The two Australians had gone undercover in Papua for ABC TV’s 7.30 and discovered what they called “a police state operating with impunity.”

Despite the brevity of the visit and the fact that Cooper and Main were not able to travel outside the provincial capital of Jayapura, their report gave an insight into not only how the Indonesian security forces have been able to maintain their physical control, but also why the government has not been able to resolve the conflict. Indeed, the means by which Indonesia sustains its control in Papua are among the major factors that help explain why successive Indonesian governments have failed to find a viable solution. The criminalisation of peaceful political activity, state violence against pro-independence activists, and human rights abuses not only sustain Indonesian control but also fuel Papuan antagonism.

Cooper and Main’s assertion that members of an Australian and US–trained and funded Indonesian police anti-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, were involved in the murder of pro-independence leader Mako Tabuni once again made Papua an issue in Australia’s relations with Indonesia. Foreign minister Bob Carr told the ABC that Australia had made representations to Indonesia about Mako Tabuni’s death and requested that an investigation be held. Carr added that since becoming foreign minister he had not hesitated to raise the issue of human rights abuses in Papua with the Indonesian authorities, including his counterpart, Marty Natalegawa.

After Carr’s first meeting with Marty Natalegawa in March this year, Greens senator Richard Di Natale, whose portfolio includes West Papua, had questioned Carr about Papua. Carr told the Senate that the first thing he had done when they met was to assure his counterpart that both sides of Australian politics recognised Indonesian sovereignty in Papua, as had been reaffirmed in the 2006 Lombok Treaty. In keeping with Indonesian aspirations for the treaty, Carr added, perhaps with the questioner in mind, “It would be a reckless Australian indeed who wanted to associate himself with a small separatist group which threatens the territorial integrity of Indonesia and that would produce a reaction among Indonesians towards this country. It would be reckless indeed.” Carr went on to repeat this argument, adding, “That is reckless and it is not in Australia’s interests.”

According to Carr, Marty Natalegawa volunteered that Indonesia had “a clear responsibility to see that their sovereignty is upheld in respect of human rights standards.” Carr interpreted this as an indication that Indonesia listened to Australian representations. But statements like these have lost their credibility with each act of state violence and abuse of human rights in Papua. As Carr himself noted, previous Labor foreign ministers had made representations to Indonesia about these acts — as, he presumed, had his Coalition predecessors.

In August, the Indonesian vice-president’s adviser on matters relating to Papua, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, lamented that whenever something “negative” happens in Papua it becomes an issue in Australia. The difficulty for both governments is that “negative” things happen frequently in Papua and Indonesian government attempts to quarantine Papua from international scrutiny are not always effective, as Hayden Cooper and Lisa Main’s report demonstrates.

Mobile technologies in particular have made the strategy increasingly redundant, if not counterproductive. The video of Indonesian security forces’ violent disbanding of the peaceful Papuan People’s Congress in October 2011 was easily accessible on the internet within days of the event and broadcast by Al Jazeera to an international audience. Indonesian soldiers’ “trophy” videos of colleagues torturing Papuan villagers, posted on the internet in 2010, belied their government’s representation of Indonesia’s policy in Papua and the security forces’ behaviour.

IN HIS statements in the media and in parliament, Bob Carr was doing no more than restating a position that all Australian governments have held on Indonesia’s sovereignty in Papua for half a century. In January 1962, the external affairs minister, Garfield Barwick, convinced his cabinet colleagues that it was not in Australia’s interests to support the emergence of a small and, in Barwick’s view, unviable state in West Papua. Barwick reversed the twelve-year-old Menzies government policy in support of the Dutch in West Papua and withdrew Australian support for Dutch promises of self-determination for Papuans and decolonisation separately from Indonesia.

Barwick argued that supporting the emergence of an independent West Papua was incompatible with Australia’s strategic imperative to develop close cooperative relations with a preferably non-communist Indonesia. Australia accepted the New York Agreement of 1962, under which Papua passed from Dutch to Indonesian control. But the government didn’t anticipate that the resolution of the Indonesia–Netherlands dispute would sow the seeds of a seemingly intractable conflict between the Indonesian government and many of its Papuan citizens. Barwick expected that the young Dutch-educated Papuan politicians who had demanded the right to form an independent state in the early 1960s would be accommodated within Indonesia.

The 2006 Lombok Treaty, to which Carr referred, not only restated Australian support for Indonesian sovereignty in Papua, but also went further. The “Papua” clause committed the Australian government to “not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party, including by those who seek to use its territory for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other Party…” Indonesia hoped, naively, that this provision would oblige the Australian government to limit the pro-independence activities of exiled Papuans and their supporters.

The treaty has not restrained the criticisms of Indonesian policy and the campaigning of Papuans and their supporters in Australia. But the Australian government, caught between its desire not to offend Indonesian sensitivities and the flow of reports of ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Papua, has been rendered mute. Conflict and human rights abuses in Papua are not part of the story the Australian government is keen to tell a sceptical public about Indonesia; it wants Australians to believe that this neighbour is no longer a military dictatorship and has grown into a vibrant democracy with a rapidly developing economy. It wants to convince Australians that the relationship with Indonesia is of the greatest importance, as is reflected in the fact that the embassy in Jakarta is Australia’s largest and the aid program in Indonesia is Australia’s most generous.

The Lombok Treaty was negotiated after the shockwaves generated by the arrival of forty-three independence-flag-waving Papuan asylum seekers on Cape York in January 2006. Australia’s decision to accept the Papuans as asylum seekers and grant protection visas led to the recall of the Indonesian ambassador. In the often turbulent history of Australia’s relations with Indonesia, this is the only time an Indonesian government has acted in this way.

Although the treaty codified cooperation between Indonesia and Australia in counterterrorism, intelligence, maritime security, law enforcement and defence, it is Australia’s commitments in relation to Papua that are most important for Indonesia. When president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke to the Indonesian media after his discussions with Julia Gillard in Darwin in early July this year, the first issue he discussed was Papua, telling the Indonesian press that Gillard fully supported Indonesia’s sovereignty in Papua. In turn, he assured Gillard that his government was raising the level of welfare and standards of justice for Papua.

In contrast to Yudhoyono’s emphasis on Papua in his comments to Indonesian journalists after the meeting, Gillard was silent on the issue. Instead, she highlighted the areas of cooperation important to the Australian government, including defence, people smuggling, economic development and trade, as well as cooperation in the multilateral fora like the G20 and APEC.

Indonesian leaders seem to feel that they need to remind Australia of its commitment to Indonesia’s sovereignty in Papua at every opportunity, which suggests that the serial repetition of that commitment by Carr and his predecessors is not taken on its face value. As Dewi Fortuna Anwar noted, “There is still a strong belief in some Indonesian circles the separation of East Timor from Indonesia resulted partly from Australian pressures… We know there are people in Australia who support the Free Papua Movement.” The subtext: “For twenty years you said that East Timor was Indonesia’s, then you changed your mind when the crunch came.” Australian opinions and activities in relation to Papua, within both the government and civil society, are viewed in Jakarta through the prism of the separation of East Timor.

Responding to Carr’s interview, Mahfudz Siddiq, the head of the Indonesian parliament’s Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security, suggested that Carr’s call for an investigation into Mako Tabuni’s murder reflected double standards. Mahfudz had never heard an Australian politician complaining about the security forces killing Muslim terror suspects. He considered that the Detachment 88 was doing its job in Papua, combating terrorism.

THIS criticism of Bob Carr highlights some of the complexities of the bilateral relationship and the different security priorities of the Australian and Indonesian governments. Detachment 88 was established after the 2002 Bali bombing, with US and Australian support, to combat terrorism. The military and police skills developed within the unit can be used for pursuing Islamist terrorists, as desired by the United States and Australia, and equally for repressing Papuan separatists, who many Indonesians regard as terrorists too. There have been reports that Detachment 88 was involved in the killing of Kelly Kwalik, another pro-independence leader, in December 2010, and in the violent breakup of the peaceful Papua Congress of October 2011, which reportedly left three dead. Richard Di Natale reminded Carr about the differences between Indonesian and Australian security priorities when he referred to a bipartisan recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties to “increase transparency in defence cooperation agreements to provide assurance that Australian resources do not directly or indirectly support human rights abuses in Indonesia.”

Like many Indonesian politicians, Mahfudz Siddiq is sensitive about any foreign interest in Papua. But he and the deputy head of the commission, T.B. Hasanuddin, have been calling for change in the Indonesian government’s Papua policies. Their concerns about Papua became more acute with the spate of shootings in May and June around Jayapura, which included the murder of Mako Tabuni. The commission visited Papua during the violence and became aware of the atmosphere of fear that the shootings had created. Mahfudz and Hasanuddin realised that foreign interest in the conflict was partly a result of the failure of government policies to resolve it. Since the June visit, they have advocated for government to take a comprehensive and peaceful approach using dialogue. They recognised that Papuans had little trust in the authorities and that the history of Papua’s integration into Indonesia during the 1960s had become a political issue.

Three months of advocacy brought no progress with the government. As a result, the commission had established a working committee on Papua. “If all these problems are allowed to go round and round and become a tangled web…” Mahfudz argued, “it will become a time bomb for this Republic.”

Mahfudz’s frustration is understandable. Towards the end of 2011 and at the beginning of this year there were signs that the Yudhoyono government was rethinking its approach to Papua. In November, the president announced that he was prepared to conduct a dialogue with Papuan leaders to resolve the conflict peacefully. He appointed retired general Bambang Darmono and Farid Hussain (who was involved in the peace negotiations in Aceh) as special representatives with briefs to promote dialogue. In December and February, the president and key ministers met with two groups of Papuan church leaders. To an extent this initiative reflected two years of advocacy and lobbying for dialogue by the Papua Peace Network, led by Papuan Catholic Theologian Neles Tebay, and Indonesian Institute of Sciences researchers under Muridan Widjoyo. Together, they had developed a systematic process to mobilise support for dialogue as the best means to resolve the conflicts in Papua.

There seems to have been little progress since the February meeting, however. Indeed, at the end of June, after a month of violence in Papua, President Yudhoyono told officer cadets in Bandung that he was not prepared to enter into a dialogue about issues related to national unity or a referendum on independence. He disparaged Papuan interest in re-examining the history of Papua’s integration into Indonesia. He emphasised that the United Nations and the international community recognised Papua as part of Indonesia, and said that it was the government’s responsibility to secure Papua and act firmly against any separatist movement. He requested the security forces not to be excessive or abuse human rights.

While President Yudhoyono did not dismiss the possibility of a dialogue entirely, he rejected any discussion about those issues that most concern Papuans. It is difficult to imagine a lasting resolution of the conflict that does not involve a frank dialogue about human rights abuses and the history of integration, among other sensitive issues. If the Papua conflict had been easy to resolve it would have happened decades ago. The president’s comments to the officer cadets identified core nationalist reasons why any Indonesian government will be reluctant to have a dialogue with Papuans. Many Papuans assume that dialogue means a discussion of a referendum, while the government in Jakarta can only countenance a discussion about the resolution of Papua’s problems within the Unity Republic of Indonesia.

Although the pattern of violence and human rights abuses in Papua has created an awareness in the media and among academics and some politicians in Jakarta that government policies are not working, there is no significant Indonesian political constituency for an accommodation of Papuan interests and values. The national consensus that Papua is an integral part of Indonesia, constructed by President Sukarno during the struggle against the Dutch in the 1950s and early 1960s, remains strong today. Indonesians, who have a strong sense that Papua is Indonesian, find it difficult to appreciate and accept that many Papuans do not share this national identity. Sukarno made Papua the object of a unifying nation-building campaign within which Papuans saw no place for themselves.

The policy impasse in Jakarta and the conflict in Papua place the Australian government in a difficult position. Like all its predecessors since 1962, the Gillard government doesn’t question Indonesian sovereignty in Papua. It shares the assessment that close and cooperative relations with Indonesia are a strategic imperative. Nevertheless, it has a strong interest in a resolution of the decades-old conflict that accommodates Papuan interests and values, not least because it is aware of the long shadow that the separation of East Timor cast over the bilateral relationship. The crisis over the asylum seekers in 2006 remains a reminder of the Papuan conflict’s capacity to destabilise Australia’s relations with Indonesia.

Bob Carr supports President Yudhoyono’s “commitment to raise the living standards of the people of Papua and reinvigorating special autonomy.” He says that “Australia believes that this is the best path – the best means – to achieving a safe and prosperous future for the Papuan people.” Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such anodyne support will encourage the president to make the difficult policy changes that might make resolution possible. •

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