Australia and West Papua: Absent Allies

Why Australia will not be the white knight for West Papua that it was for East Timor.

In 1999, after 25 years of occupation and oppression, East Timor achieved independence from Indonesia. The tiny developing nation was able to take a stand against the Indonesian forces with the support of powerful allies like the Philippines, Portugal and, most crucially, Australia.

Australia was instrumental throughout the process of referendum, conflict and resurgence. It was a letter to the Indonesian government from Australian Prime Minister John Howard, which triggered a referendum for independence. It was the Australian-led peacekeeping force, INTERFET, which quelled the resulting violence and it was the Australian Electoral Commission, working with the United Nations (UN), which monitored the first East Timorese elections.

Now, as the nation of Timor Leste begins to find its feet in the international community and the final stragglers of its long-standing UN Peacekeeping Mission fly away, the focus is shifting across the archipelago to West Papua. Inspired by its neighbor's success, West Papua's independence movement, OPM, has stepped up its efforts to gain allies. They have begun to campaign globally to raise awareness and to approach parliaments and the media, asking them to act on their behalf on the world stage. This time, however, Australia has remained silent and immovable, unwilling to commit to the cause.

Regional Relationships

At first glance, this seems strange, as the facts of the situation in West Papua are strikingly similar to those of East Timor. It comprises half an island, populated by people culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia, unwillingly under their control following an undemocratic referendum, living in a military state with a culture of violence, kidnapping and torture. With widespread killings and the remnants of a government policy of transmigration, designed to displace and disenfranchise, the people and culture of West Papua are gradually being wiped out.

Every nation in the region knows what is happening, and most are finally beginning to take action. Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) have all made plans to visit West Papua in 2013 to determine whether it is a colonized nation under the jurisdiction of the UN Decolonization Committee. The group will also consider whether to grant West Papua membership to the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional cooperation body which played a significant part in the independence of East Timor.

Like these nations, Australia has close ties to West Papua due of its proximity, and because it administrated neighboring Papua New Guinea until 1975. Nonetheless, Australia has failed to follow the lead of the Melanesian Spearhead Group and has remained stubbornly silent on the matter. No party leader has taken a public stance and there has been minimal media attention. Most of the Australian public remains blissfully unaware that atrocities are taking place in their own backyard.

When East Timor was under the control of Indonesia, there was constant media coverage and vigorous political debate in Australia, so why is it that West Papua is not afforded the same attention?

From Activism to Apathy

The reality is, all of the unique factors which made Australia advocate for East Timor are absent in this case, and without incentives to act, Australia has stayed silent. Throughout the struggles of East Timor, the massacre of five Australian journalists at Balibo by Indonesian soldiers remained a wound in the nation’s psyche — a tragedy which galvanized the Australian press and hardened hearts against Indonesian control. Without a similar tragedy, West Papua remains a distant, impersonal conflict.

Between 1975 and 2000, thousands of East Timorese refugees sought asylum in Australia, raising awareness and campaigning for independence as they built new lives and homes. At present, there are approximately 60 West Papuan refugees in Australia, as the Australian government has offered limited asylum for fear of offending Indonesia. The 2006 decision to permit 43 West Papuan refugees to seek asylum in Australia caused diplomatic furor, as Indonesia took it as an implicit criticism of their governance in West Papua. Without a strong community of activists and participants in Australia, it is more difficult for the public to connect with West Papua and to put faces and personalities to the victims of the conflict.

In 1999, the Indonesian government was at its weakest, struggling after the Asian financial crisis and the dramatic fall of its long-standing leader, Suharto. When Australia took on Indonesia, it was facing a crippled nation, ill-able to afford to continue funding a military presence in East Timor or to risk regional conflict. Today, Indonesia has an economic growth rate of 6% and is predicted to become the world's fourth largest economy by 2040. With a stable government and a powerful military, it is both a valuable ally to Australia and a formidable opponent.

Moreover, Australia's relationship with Indonesia is already tense, strained by the Labor government's implementation of policies hostile to Indonesia. In 2011, a controversial ban on live cattle exports soured trade relations. In 2012, the imprisonment of 180 Indonesian minors in Australian prisons sparked a transnational court case. In 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke carelessly of the possibility of a crisis with Indonesia, suggesting that the opposition leader would cause conflict if elected.

Through two troubled terms of office, as thousands of people were oppressed, tortured and killed, Rudd and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard have been reluctant to take a stance on the issue of West Papua, or even mention the matter in public. Instead, they have relied on the position taken in the 2006 Lombok Treaty, which officially recognizes Indonesian sovereignty in West Papua. While momentum for independence increases and Australia's allies begin to take sides, even Indonesia has acknowledged that the problem is becoming an international concern. It is now time for Australia to make its position clear. Whether it reaffirms its stance in support of Indonesia or throws its weight behind West Papua depends on the results of the federal election in September.

Elections and Predictions

Considering the internal strife which has split the Labor Party over the past three years, it seems very possible that a Liberal government will take power at the next election. In that case, Tony Abbott, a man recruited and schooled in politics by John Howard, would step in as Australian prime minister. With Abbott in the hot seat and West Papua on the agenda, the question is, how will Howard's protégé proceed?

The answer, it seems, is by protecting the domestic interests of Australia. After two terms of turmoil and diplomatic tension, the Liberal Party is planning to foster a closer political and economic relationship with Indonesia. Abbott has already confirmed that he will apologize to Indonesia for the live cattle export ban and build bridges with Jakarta on the issue of asylum seekers, which suggests the new government would adopt a policy of appeasement rather than advocacy for West Papua.

If Rudd were to be elected, his policy, it seems, would be similar. Judging by the overtures made during his recent visit to Indonesia, the some-time prime minister would make an effort to undo the damage done by his predecessor to the nations' relationship. As a self-professed connoisseur of Asian diplomacy, Prime Minister Rudd would undoubtedly go to great lengths to demonstrate his loyalty to Indonesia and commitment to mutual economic growth, abandoning advocacy for West Papua in the process. This attitude was confirmed in June this year, when Rudd's foreign minister, Bob Carr, described the idea of independence for West Papua as a "cruel hoax," because he believes that the international community will never support it. It seems impossible that a government with a foreign minister who believes that West Papuan independence is a pipe dream would ever commit to the cause.

Both sides' reluctance to take action on the matter is understandable. After seven years of a government focused mainly on itself, Australians are crying out for their representatives' attention. With an ever-present economic crisis and the ebbing drain of the war in Iraq, the public does not want to become involved in foreign conflicts. Instead, they want good domestic governance, and whichever party takes power will shape their policies to reflect this.

Will History Repeat Itself?

Australians are not yet ready to hear the cries of the neighboring West Papuans or to take a stand against their powerful partner, Indonesia. Instead, they remain deaf and mute, a silent observer of their struggle and the atrocities it entails.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for West Papuans looking for an Australian alliance. In 1993, when Howard was first elected prime minister of Australia, he ran on a platform of appeasement of Indonesia and acceptance of their East Timorese occupation. Following a period of economic hardship and ongoing conflict in Iraq, Australians at the time wanted to look inward and avoid further conflict. Pundits predicted that the Howard government would never defy Indonesia. Six years later, Australian forces were leading the way to East Timorese independence.

Now, with Howard's protégé a real contender for the leadership, we cannot help but wonder whether the story will repeat itself. A generation later, we can look back and recognize that, on occasion, the decision to fight for what is right outweighs economic considerations, outweighs diplomacy, and defies political prediction.

If the East Timorese struggle for independence has taught us anything, it is that allies can emerge when least expected, and that one dedicated friend can mean the difference between fighting and freedom. The question is, will Australia ever be that friend for West Papua? Or, lacking the circumstances and impetus for change, will they stand back, as they have done for more than 50 years, and watch as the Papuan people slowly disappear?

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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