Keeping West Papua In The Dark


In May this year, during the heat of the West Papuan asylum seekers crisis, the Indonesian Government froze ties with Deakin and RMIT Universities.

Two Deakin academics, Damien Kingsbury and Scott Burchill, were accused of supporting West Papuan independence and the break up of Indonesia. RMIT was accused of flying the West Papuan Morning Star flag.

RMIT had already been black-listed in September 2002, on the recommendation of the Indonesian Embassy, following the very public investiture of Jacob Rumbiak a West Papuan activist and former political prisoner as a senior research associate. The university was also identified as being part of the pro-West Papuan independence network in Australia that was publicised in the Indonesian press in April 2006 because of its association with a pro-independence seminar and concert held in February 2003, and for allegedly flying the Morning Star flag in April of this year.

Bans and travel restrictions on journalists and academics were a feature of the former Suharto Government. Regrettable as these attempts to restrict academic and media scrutiny were, they were not out of character with an authoritarian regime. But the banning of Kingsbury and Burchill, along with that of other Australian and European academics, is more remarkable for what it tells us about the democratisation process in Indonesia, and the ongoing sensitivity about foreign interest in governance and human rights issues.

Suharto banned Cornell University’s Ruth McVey and Ben Anderson because their analysis of the 1965 coup (the suppression of which brought Suharto to power in 1966) questioned the legitimacy of his Government. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s David Jenkins was banned because of a 1986 article exposing Suharto’s burgeoning business empire.

Similarly, the post-Suharto Governments’ restrictions on foreign academics and journalists also reflect their political vulnerabilities. West Papua is one of the most worrying issues for Indonesian sovereignty and therefore a matter on which it is highly sensitive to international scrutiny. The arrival of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers in Australia only intensified the anxieties.

Throughout the asylum seeker controversy, the official Indonesian position has been that there is no persecution of West Papuans and no human rights abuses, while acknowledging that there had been during the Suharto past. The Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, Hamzah Thayeb, told the ABC TV’s Asia Pacific Focus program that there had been fundamental changes throughout Indonesia, including West Papua. ‘ We are now trying to correct all these past mistakes. In this process, we have given autonomy to the regions and not only that, specifically to West Papua.’

Defence Minister, Juwono Sudarsono, admitted to foreign correspondents in February that some cases of killing, rapes and abuses by some soldiers had occurred in West Papua, but said Jakarta was working hard to minimise violations.

There is a contradiction between Jakarta’s protestations that political conditions are improving in West Papua and the perceived need to restrict access for foreigners. Sudarsono provided some insight into Jakarta’s thinking when he told foreign correspondents: ‘We feel that Indonesian unity and cohesion would be threatened by foreign œintrusion and concern.’ He said foreign journalists could be ‘used as a platform’ by West Papuans to publicise the alleged abuses What the Indonesian Government objected to most was the way the asylum seekers effectively used their presence in Australia to attract attention to their struggle for independence and their allegations of human rights abuses.

The Defence Minister explained further: ‘We want to decide the scope, the pace and the speed of change in Papua.’

Indonesia has made great advances in opening up its political system since the fall of Suharto. However, Juwono Sudarsono’s statements are a clear indication that the Government is intent on restricting West Papuans’ attempts to use the democratic freedoms enjoyed by many other Indonesians. Inevitably, the restrictions give credence to suspicions that Indonesia has something to hide in West Papua.

The restrictions on academics also have implications for the nature of research undertaken in West Papua. Nobody’s interest is served by meagre research. Indonesian policy makers suffer from the restrictions just as much as foreign governments’ analysts and the academic community.

Research conducted about contemporary West Papuan politics and the conflict with Jakarta would undoubtedly be of a higher standard, more nuanced in its assessments and based on a greater diversity of sources if the academics could spend more time in Papua. Ironically, the difficulties of access have tended to mean that the literature is dominated by overt supporters of West Papuan independence.

Given the pressures on Australian academics to publish, the risks of offending the Indonesian Government and being denied access to Indonesia are a significant disincentive for many. A number of the foremost scholars of West Papua have moved their research to other countries and issues. Others struggle to engage in robust intellectual debate while keeping an eye on Jakarta’s sensitivities.

Former Foreign Ministers Ali Alatas and Gareth Evans developed the idea that what the bilateral Indonesia “Australia relationship required was ‘ballast.’ Crises in the relationship could be much better managed, they argued, if there was a matrix of relationships extending beyond the two Governments that bound the two societies together. In the past decade, universities have become an important part of the ‘ballast’ in the bilateral relationship. It is in this context that the black-listing of universities is most regrettable.

In 2003 there were 11,865 Indonesian students enrolled with Australian universities, yet their Government’s attitude towards the exchange is ambivalent. On one hand, it appreciates that Australian universities are helping the development of a skilled work force. On the other, it is aware of the financial contribution its citizens are making to Australian universities and the broader Australian economy.

An Indonesian Embassy spokesman told The Age in May: ‘Deakin University reaps advantages from Indonesia, and if we co‑operate with Deakin we should have advantages. If that’s unbalanced, then why should this co-operation go on further?’

In addition to the Indonesian students studying at Australian universities, Australian academics teach at Indonesian universities and supervise postgraduate students. There is significant joint research between Indonesian and Australian academics. Australian academics deliver most of the AusAid education and training programs for Indonesia as well as conduct consultancies for the Indonesian Government. Despite the Australian Government’s travel advisories, Australian students continue to study at Indonesian universities.

It is at times of tensions between the two Governments that universities can make a particular contribution to maintaining people-to-people relationships.

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