Appeasing Jakarta


In shelving the Migration Amendment ‘Designated Unauthorised Arrivals ‘ Bill last week, John Howard achieved two things.

Not only did he avoid formal defeat of the legislation, he also prevented further debate being recorded in the Senate Hansard which would have undoubtedly included critical references to Indonesian diplomatic pressure on Australian migration law, and serious human rights issues in West Papua. The Government is unlikely to abandon the legislation, which is still favoured at the highest levels, and the fact that it has not been rejected by Parliament will be beneficial in any future resurfacing.



Howard’s shelved attempt to modify domestic law to improve relations with Indonesia is but the latest example of the negative impact of the ‘pro-Jakarta’ line on Australian democracy. This line has long required our politicians and diplomats to obscure, downplay and even apologise for the human rights record of the Indonesian army (TNI), who continue to create a climate of fear and corruption in many parts of the archipelago.

Howard’s predecessor, Paul Keating, consistently lamented the meddlesome role of the media and NGOs in complicating his own pro-Jakarta relations with the Indonesian dictator General Suharto. Keating’s policies failed not because he was bad at Orwellian apologetics (his appeal for Australians to respect ‘Asian values’ was a particularly clumsy defence), but because the human rights abuses committed by the TNI became obvious to an increasingly skeptical Australian public, before being exposed to the entire world by the events in East Timor in 1999.

Jakarta’s reaction to the failure of the Migration Amendment Bill has been predictable. There have already been calls for the recently returned Indonesian Ambassador to again be recalled to Jakarta, and for immediate Indonesian lobbying of Australian Government Ministers ‘to ensure that changes to Australia’s immigration policy are still pursued.’ These now familiar calls come from the Indonesian Parliament’s powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Theo Sambuaga.

In June this year, when an Indonesian delegation visited Canberra to lobby against the Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) granted to 42 West Papuan asylum seekers, it came armed with a list of names of Australian ‘supporters of Papuan separatism,’ which had been widely published in the Indonesian press.

The list was compiled for Sambuaga’s Foreign Affairs Committee with the assistance of Indonesian Intelligence, Badan Intel i jen Negara (BIN), who it can be presumed had been observing the activities of law abiding Australian citizens in Australia prior to the list being made public. Despite this, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone met with the delegation on 13 June, and assured them that a review of the West Papuan asylum seekers’ case was underway.

One does not require a strong imagination to picture the reaction of Sambuaga if the situation were reversed that is, if the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, with the assistance of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, publicised a list of Indonesian citizens it suspected of holding terrorist and militia sympathies.

All 43 West Papuans have now been granted TPVs, and with the withdrawal of Howard’s Amended Migration Bill, it will be impossible for Canberra to isolate the issue of West Papua from wider Australian-Indonesian relations in the coming months.

Many former TNI veterans from the Indonesian occupation of East Timor are now based in West Papua, which hosts an estimated 40,000 TNI troops. Since the Indonesian takeover of the province in 1962, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 West Papuans have been killed. Meanwhile, West Papua remains virtually closed to outside scrutiny, with little access granted to either international media or NGOs. The issue should be of growing concern to Australians and Indonesians concerned with human rights and the rule of ‘civil’ law.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

Although there is growing awareness in Jakarta of the ill treatment of West Papuans the Indonesian Government remains either unable, or politically unwilling, to cure the true cancer creating an environment of instability in Indonesia. Despite the country’s admirable steps toward democratisation, the TNI remain largely unconstrained by civil laws.

Australian MPs should not feel obligated to continually assure Jakarta over the question of West Papuan sovereignty. After all, the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated in 2003: ‘Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important.’

Rather, Canberra and Jakarta must engage in a frank and forthright exchange of views on this issue. It would be in the interests of both nations if such an interaction were honest, ethical and consistent with the spirit and obligation of international law. This can only occur when Canberra ceases shrouding the TNI with a veil of legitimacy.

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.