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Commentary

Is West Papua Becoming Australia’s New Timor Leste?

By Jim Elmslie

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (Pacific Scoop, Sept. 24, 2012) – Allegations that Australia is funding death squads in West Papua have brought the troubled province back to Australian attention.

Blanket denials by both Indonesian and Australian governments – standard policy for such reports in the past, no longer cut the mustard.

The killing of Papuan activist Mako Tabuni by Indonesian police was for Jakarta a legitimate operation against a violent criminal shot while evading arrest. That Tabuni bled to death from his untreated wounds while in police custody did not rate a mention.

The Australian response was more measured. Foreign Minister Bob Carr took the allegation that Tabuni had been assassinated seriously because the partially Australian funded and trained elite anti-terrorist organization, Densus 88, was accused of playing a role in the killing.

For once there was a direct Australian connection to the human rights abuses that have been happening in West Papua for decades. Australian taxpayers may indeed be helping to fund Indonesian death squads. Carr called on the Indonesians to make a full inquiry into the affair.

The Indonesian response was to appoint Brigadier General Tito Karnavian as Papua’s new Police Chief. This sends the clearest possible message that Jakarta intends to deal with the Papuan separatists’ insurgency with lethal force, rather than diplomacy and negotiation.

Many activists have been arrested and a concerted effort is underway to break the back of the urban based, non-violent Papuan rights organizations, such as Tabuni’s KNPB (Komite Nasional Papua Barat).

Independence favored

Most Papuans would favor independence over Indonesian occupation.

This is a recipe for ongoing military operations, repression and human rights abuse as the Indonesian military and police hunt down "separatists."

This seems to suit most players. West Papua is the Indonesian military’s last zone of exclusive control after the loss of Aceh and East Timor.

It is a fabulous prize to control as extensive (legal and illegal) logging, huge mining projects and massive development funds provide rich pickings for those in control, while incoming migrants are drawn in by economic opportunities unavailable elsewhere.

It is really only the Papuans who are suffering in this massive free-for-all.

The plight of the Papuans is slowly but surely seeping into the global consciousness. While modern technology allows West Papua’s riches to now be exploited, it also allows the stories and images of Papuan suffering to emerge. Increased Indonesian militarization and repression only exacerbate this trend.

New East Timor?

This is the same trajectory that East Timor’s long struggle for freedom followed: an overwhelmingly dominant military on the ground but a growing sense of outrage within the international community, especially in the Western nations.

This led Indonesia to be treated almost as a pariah nation and underpinned East Timor’s rapid shift to independence in the wake of Suharto’s fall.

While no other nation supports West Papuan independence, except Vanuatu sporadically, and the rule of the Indonesian state appears unassailable, a dangerous dynamic is developing.

As the situation in West Papua deteriorates, human rights abuses will continue, with the very real prospect of a dramatic increase in violence to genocidal levels.

The ingredients are there: stark racial, religious and ideological differences coalescing around a desire for Papuan resources and Papuans’ land, on one hand, and independence on the other. Indeed many Indonesians, as well as the Indonesian state, already view Papuan "separatists" as traitors.

This should rightly concern Australians (and New Zealanders): the country is in a quasi-military alliance with Indonesia through the 2006 Lombok Treaty.

Australia is a player, albeit minor, in these events. When there is a divide in the opinion of the political, military and bureaucratic elite, and that of the wider population, as occurred in Australia over Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, the majority view tends to eventually prevail.

Papuan sympathy

And the majority view, formed by such programs as the ABC 7.30 Report, is moving to one of sympathy for the Papuans and antipathy towards Indonesia for what many see as a re-run of East Timor’s disastrous occupation.

This does not bode well for relations between the two countries.

Indonesia runs the risk of having its widely heralded democratization process stained by the Papuan conflict.

There is also the fact that while West Papua remains a military zone the Indonesian army will continue to be unaccountable and largely outside of civilian control, stymieing anti-corruption efforts not just in Papua but through out the country.

The consequences for the Papuans are abundantly clear: no basic rights and a life lived in fear.

While there are no quick or easy solutions to this conundrum, one choice is manifestly clear: does the answer lie in more words or more bullets?

Jakarta has so far rejected meaningful dialogue in favor of a beefed up security approach.

Strained relations

Australia, and Australians, should forcefully criticize this as being against our own, and Indonesia’s (let alone the Papuans’) long-term interests.

If the West Papuan conflict continues to follow the East Timor trajectory this problem will continue to grow, relations will become strained and tensions rise.

It is worth remembering that Australia and Indonesia very nearly came to blows over East Timor. Let us learn from the past and encourage, and promote, meaningful dialogue between all parties.

Dr. Jim Elmslie, Ph.D. is a founding Co-convener of the West Papua Project at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at University of Sydney. This article was first published in The Conversation.

Disclosure Statement: Jim Elmslie does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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