Papier Mâché Diplomats


The imprisonment two weeks ago of five Torres Strait residents in an Indonesian jail for the next two to three years has nothing to do with visa offences. It is a diplomatic power game between a paranoid, oppressive Indonesian Government and the latest in a succession of gutless Australian governments who, since 1963, have been afraid to take a stand against the brutality of our neighbours.

The Australian Government’s seemingly endless lack of courage is compounded by an ineffectual Department of Foreign Affairs and the blatant lack of independence of the Indonesian judiciary.

Nowhere apart from in the most brutal regimes do people get sent to jail for innocuous visa offences. They are simply deported. It is patently obvious to even the most casual observer that the Indonesian Government is playing for far higher stakes. They’re clearly still sulking over the arrival of 43 West Papuans in Australia in January 2006, and the protection visas which were subsequently issued. They were furious and recalled the Indonesian Ambassador at the time. This is a typical tit-for-tat response.

The Indonesian Government will likely use the imprisonment of the five as a means of leverage for extracting some additional aid in exchange for the prisoners — whether that be in the form of trade, defence contracts, or maybe even fishing rights in the Torres Strait. Then the pusillanimous politicians will be able to take all the credit for their release. Too late, they already stand condemned.

I publish the local newspaper where the "Merauke five" are from in the Torres Strait. The Torres News has provided more effective coverage of this case than any other outlet in the country. I gave up using DFAT as a source of information in October last year as I quickly realised they knew less about the situation than I did. I was stunned when I was asked to provide them with information as I seemed to have better sources than they did. Now I know why one of the five detained Australians called the DFAT employees assigned to represent them "papier-mâché diplomats".

The Merauke five were told at the start of court proceedings they could expect a fine of about $4000 and to be sent home. According to a family member of the five, everybody agreed to this — prosecutor, judges, defence.

Then, just before Christmas, the same source believes that the prosecutor was ordered by Jakarta to seek three-year jail terms. The prosecutor and the judges apparently apologised to the five for the change, and then, lo and behold, jail terms were imposed on 15 January.

At least it confirms what we already knew about the independence of the Indonesian judiciary.

Indonesia stands accused by international human rights authorities such as Amnesty International of the murder of more than 100,000 West Papuans since it took control of the province — in a move that was generally accepted to be illegal — in the 1960s.

That figure is 20 years old, as Indonesia will not allow any neutral observers into the country. What would the figure be now?

Their record of genocide against West Papua is outrageous and is compulsory reading.

The Indonesian Government knows full well that successive Australian governments have been prepared to do virtually anything to keep the relationship between the two countries "neighbourly". This current Government is no different.

Weapons for the Indonesian Army are already made in Australia. Wonder what else they want? It does raise the question though, with Indonesia having set the precedent about visa violations, will all illegal fishermen be sentenced to jail terms in this country? I’m sure they didn’t have visas when they entered our waters.

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.