Reluctant Indonesians


In February, a month before the Department of Immigration issued temporary protection visas to 42 West Papuans, Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer went to Jakarta for discussions with his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda. He explained that the Department of Immigration’s forthcoming decision would be constrained by international law and treaty obligations, and did not reflect Australia’s foreign policy towards Indonesia. Downer reiterated Australia’s support for Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua and for President Yudhoyono’s ‘special autonomy’ package for the province.

Soon after Downer’s visit, Australia’s Ambassador to the US Dennis Richardson addressed the US-Indonesia Society in Washington DC. He reaffirmed that ‘Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always has been. As far as Australia is concerned, Papua is an integral part of Indonesia.’

The Ambassador went on to ask whether ‘those whose raison d’être was East Timor’ had simply adopted the cause of West Papua. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph on 10 March, Ambassador Richardson’s remarks were so supportive that Indonesia’s Ambassador to the US, who was also present at the meeting, joked that he may soon be out of a job.

Thanks to Cathy Wilcox

In fact, there is truth to Richardson’s assertion that many of the same people who were involved in East Timor are now instrumental in what is happening in West Papua  – but in ways that Australia’s diplomats may not want publicised.

One such person is Indonesia’s current Ambassador to the US, S Parnohadiningrat, who was secretary of the Indonesian Task Force for the ballot in East Timor in 1999. The debacle that ensued left Indonesia’s international reputation in tatters.

Another is Mahidin Simbolon, the military commander now in charge of West Papua, who was previously deputy commander of the military region that included East Timor. Simbolon served at least six tours of duty in East Timor. He led the operation to capture Xanana Gusmao in 1992 and was a key actor in the Indonesian military’s campaign of State-sponsored terror against the East Timorese people. In 2001, Simbolon was promoted to Major General and given command of West Papua. The same militia terror tactics from East Timor began to be employed there soon afterwards.

Even the US-Indonesia Society was established after the Dili Massacre in order to counter the challenge posed by the East Timor solidarity movement in the US. But it was unable to mount a successful defence of the Indonesian military’s human rights record because every time it argued that improvements were being made, events on the ground proved otherwise.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) is still coming to terms with its loss of power in a democratising Indonesia. In the post-Suharto era, it is locked in a struggle for supremacy with the civilian authorities.

Since coming to power in 2004, President Yudhoyono’s actions indicate that he is trying to bring the TNI more firmly under civilian authority: he replaced the hardliner Ryamizard Ryacudu with the more moderate Djoko Santoso as Army Chief of Staff, and promoted his classmates from the Class of 1973 and his brothers-in-law, Erwin Sujono and Pramono Edhie Wibowo, to senior military positions, indicating his desire to have trusted personnel in key positions.

President Yudhoyono’s ‘war on illegal logging’ should also be understood in the context of his determination to end the military’s n etwork of illegal businesses.

The TNI still receives only 30 per cent of its budget from the Government, with the rest coming from its network of legal and illegal businesses. The remote and resource-rich West Papua  – where the military runs illegal businesses such as logging and human, arms and drug trafficking, and is building up troops and raising militias to terrorise the population  – provides a significant source of income.

In this sense, West Papua is a test case for Indonesia’s democratic transition.

Australia’s plans to strengthen its defence engagement with Indonesia in the form of joint exercises and training is a blow to this process. This co-operative military agreement may well have the consequence ¾ whatever the intention ¾ of supporting hard-line military elements against the more moderate elements of Indonesian society. It will not improve the military’s human rights abuses but legitimise them. An alternative would be to openly declare that the Indonesian military is not under civilian authority, and that there will be no military ties until things have changed.

Even at this late stage, there is still a chance that the West Papuans will be able to negotiate their grievances within the territorial limits of Indonesia. As the anthropologist Brigham Golden has pointed out, the Papuan catchcry of ‘merdeka’ is commonly understood as an ideology of political independence, but can also be understood as ‘a moral crusade for peace and social justice on earth.’

Unfortunately, Australia’s military engagement with Indonesia and the continuing ban on foreign media in West Papua may mean that the window of opportunity is closing. If it does, a reinvigorated solidarity movement for West Papua may be an unwelcome reminder to Alexander Downer of what he said in his first speech as the Coalition’s foreign affairs spokesman: ‘We cannot simply speak with a loud voice when injustice occurs on the other side of the world, whilst whispering softly or remaining silent when similar events take place within our own region.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.