Same Old TNI Tricks


As long as the Indonesian army (TNI) administers West Papua, abuses to the indigenous Papuan population will occur. The raison d’être of the TNI is to do whatever it takes to hold the archipelago together.

When the Indonesian Republic came into being on 27 December 1949, West New Guinea as West Papua was then known remained under Dutch control.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

After sustained pressure from Indonesia, including the threat of force, the handover from Dutch to Indonesian administration occurred in 1963. It was the same year that Indonesian President Sukarno launched a program of confrontation (Konfrontasi) against the new Malaysian Federation. Australian troops were deployed in support of the Federation and as a result found themselves in action against Indonesian troops in Borneo. That was 43 years ago.

(In 1969 a UN-supervised Act of Free Choice was held to determine if West Papuans wanted independence or incorporation into the Indonesian Republic. The Indonesians hand picked Papuan delegates, who dutifully agreed to incorporate.)

The basic cause of tension in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia over the past 43 years has been the TNI, which administers the archipelago with an iron fist. Under both Sukarno and his successor President Suharto, the TNI enjoyed close ties with the Indonesian Government, and substantial involvement in the political arena. Following the collapse of the Suharto regime and his replacement by Dr BJ Habibie in March 1998, the military were forced to accept a reduction in power and influence. And elections were held in June 1999 which further reduced their power.

However, this reduction was only in terms of direct access to civilian politicians in Jakarta; the role and prestige of the military in holding the country together remained unchanged and unchallenged.

Then came East Timor.

Habibie undermined and humiliated the military by negotiating with Australia and other countries on the future of East Timor. Through sustained intimidation, the TNI expected the East Timorese to vote for autonomy within the Republic; instead they voted for independence. Although Australia was publicly blamed for its interventionist role, privately the TNI blamed Habibie and his civilian advisers for breaking up Indonesia.

The TNI has not given up its blueprint to regain East Timor, nor its desire to hang onto West Papua, despite the limited nature of Indonesia’s claim over both territories.

For some time, the TNI has been applying pressure on the Indonesian Government in order to increase their power back to the level they enjoyed under Suharto. Whether they achieve this by ignoring or altering directives from Jakarta (thereby undermining elected representation), or by engineering the collapse of the electoral process, does not overly concern them. The aim of the TNI is to directly control the affairs and policies of Indonesia.

The protest coming out of Jakarta at the moment, spurred by 42 West Papuan refugees being given asylum in Australia, is directed as much at the TNI as it is at Australia. Indonesian politicians and commentators have to appear tough on Australia in order to influence the TNI to take them seriously, but I believe they also seek to pass a message to the TNI to soften their brutal administration of West Papua in order to avoid international scrutiny that might force another and this time properly conducted Act of Free Choice in the province.

The indigenous population of West Papua do not believe they are part of Indonesia they believe they were tricked by the Act of Free Choice into giving up their sovereignty. Every day of brutal and oppressive administration by the TNI only reinforces that belief. The continued suffering of the West Papuans increases the prospect of civil war and the consequent influx of refugees into Australia and PNG.

John Howard and Alexander Downer must address the issue of the TNI if they want to reduce tension in West Papua. The power and authority of the elected Government of Indonesia diminishes the further one travels outside of the city-state of Jakarta, and whatever power or authority it does enjoy is at the discretion and interpretation of the TNI. The civilian politicians of Jakarta can’t change or influence a thing in West Papua. It is a TNI-controlled province.

If Howard and Downer are to develop a relationship with Indonesia that has a measure of strength and durability they should learn from the mistakes of Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Evans. They must talk directly. They must highlight, address and discuss the problems as they see them, with the Government and the TNI. They must not talk out of both sides of their mouth. The must not sweep the problem of West Papua under the carpet where it will only fester and get worse, and they must not bend to the old Jakarta appeasement lobby in Australia.

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.