The relationship between Australia and Indonesia is the most testing of Australia’s foreign relations, and one which has consistently been mishandled. Responding to bilateral fallout over the issue of Papua, Rodd McGibbon’s recently published Lowy Institute paper ‘Pitfalls of Papua’ proposes that good relations, narrowly conceived, between Australia and Indonesia are above all other considerations.
A similar policy of ‘good bilateral relations above all else,’ with the previous Suharto regime, was promoted by what was known as the ‘Jakarta Lobby.’ Yet that policy failed to produce stable diplomatic relations.
McGibbon’s paper represents the Jakarta Lobby reborn. The paper largely restates what is already known about Papua, condescends towards concerns over human rights abuses, caricatures both the West Papua resistance movement and its external supporters, and proposes policy recommendations that warm up Suharto-era leftovers.
‘Pitfalls of Papua’ is beset with internal contradictions. The larger contradiction is that McGibbon promotes ‘realism.’ McGibbon says that Australian critics of the current policy propose that Australia ‘impose itself in a œpeace-making role [which]demonstrates a troubling lack of realism.’ The key tenet of this ‘realism’ is that the internal affairs of States are irrelevant to their international relations, and that international relations are conducted in an environment in which the only rules are those which are able to be imposed or agreed between individual States.
In keeping with this ‘realism,’ McGibbon proposes that Australia ‘boost security cooperation on border security with Indonesia’ and work with Indonesia to ‘manage the Australian-Indonesian border, including discussion of managing the cross-border impact of Papua.’ The problem, it seems, is not that Papuans have reason to flee their home, but how they can be stopped from doing so.
McGibbon then makes the error of discussing the situation in Papua, which he acknowledges is deeply problematic. By acknowledging Papua’s problems, McGibbon undoes the logic of ‘realist’ bilateral relations: he cannot acknowledge human rights abuses in Papua and at the same time ignore them.
Interestingly, although Australia’s security interests are promoted as paramount, nowhere in his paper does McGibbon say what they are. He emphatically insists on that which remains unstated.
A particular flaw in ‘Pitfalls of Papua’ refers to the prospect of a negotiated resolution to the Papua conflict. McGibbon notes the success in securing a resolution to the conflict in Aceh. However, he suggests there would be little political will for such a settlement in Papua. He also says that a modified version of such an agreement is the best hope of resolving the Papua conflict, and that attempts have been made by Indonesia’s Vice-President Jusuf Kalla to initiate just such a dialogue, as well as saying it is ‘a key priority for the [Australian] Government.’
McGibbon claims, however, that there is no united Papuan leadership with which to negotiate. Papuan activists note that most of their leaders have been killed, exiled or otherwise silenced, and the Indonesian Government has employed a policy of divide and rule. McGibbon seems unaware that there is now movement in Papuan political society towards a common position: to be able to negotiate with Jakarta.
Thanks to Bill Leak
This change is illustrated by the Free West Papua Movement, or OPM, declaring an end to their armed struggle news of which McGibbon regards as ‘isolated reports.’ Indeed, OPM leaders were interviewed on ABC television saying this, and issued a media statement to this effect.
From this point, McGibbon’s assessment slips into ridicule. He refers to activists’ comments about their first-hand experiences on the PNG-Papua border, describing a report by activist Nick Chesterfield as a ‘bizarre account replete with cloak and dagger anecdotes.’
Chesterfield is well known as a spokesman for the Free West Papua Campaign and is one of very few outsiders to have worked with West Papuan refugees along the PNG border, where he has received corroborated first-hand accounts of cross-border raids by the Indonesian military (TNI), as well as reports of Indonesian military intelligence activities. Chesterfield’s field reports are not so much ‘bizarre’ as is McGibbon’s denial of documented TNI activity against West Papuan refugees. By comparison, McGibbon has not visited this region or spoken to refugees there, even though, as a pro-Jakarta researcher, he has had surprisingly easy access to a province cut off to other researchers and journalists.
Of personal concern to this critic is McGibbon’s serious misrepresentation of an article by me, ‘The Trouble with the Territory’s Future,’ published in The Weekend Australian, 15-16 April 2006. The article outlined a possible negotiated political settlement as a means of resolving Papua’s conflict that, if achieved, might be monitored by European Union or US aid agencies. McGibbon claims the article advocated Australia lead ‘international efforts to formulate and enforce a peace agreement,’ even though the article explicitly rejected Australia’s involvement. McGibbon ridicules the idea that Australia could play such a role in Papua because it would alienate the Indonesian Government, yet, as previously mentioned, he also suggests Australia do just this.
A key belief of the old Jakarta Lobby was that widespread public opposition to a policy of appeasement over East Timor an opposition that sat consistently around 75 per cent according to public opinion polls reflected a lack of knowledge by ordinary Australians. McGibbon repeats this view about a lack of public knowledge, regarding a poll earlier this year at the time of the Papuan boat people crisis that showed 76 per cent of Australians supported independence for West Papua. McGibbon’s suggestion is that the Government counter such views with a ‘public information campaign,’ which might also be viewed as propaganda.
The Australian population was ultimately correct about the iniquities of East Timor and the Australian Government eventually bowed to popular pressure in 1999. Contrary popular opinion might be uncomfortable for self-assured elites, but the Australian people are often able to see that which is obvious, even if it does not suit elite agendas.
If there is value in McGibbon’s paper, it is that he confirms that the Jakarta Lobby remains alive and well. In his new position, moving from the ANU to the Office of National Assessments, McGibbon looks ready to repeat the Jakarta Lobby’s past policy mistakes.
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