It's Time To Take A Stand On Papua


Yesterday afternoon news reached my office that unarmed Papuans — women, young people, church leaders, academics, tribal elders — and at least one Australian citizen, were being shot at by the Indonesian security forces.

We now know that at least four people are confirmed dead, scores severely wounded and hundreds have been detained at the police station in Jayapura, the capital of West Papua.

We are deeply concerned that a number of these people including Forkorus Yaboisembut, the Chair of the Papuan Customary Council, were beaten or tortured. Their crime? Reading an aspirational declaration of independence and meeting to discuss how West Papuans might peacefully secure basic freedoms that you and I in Australia take for granted.

It is not my place to get into the politics of independence. That is for the Papuans to decide. It must be said, however, that until there is a free and fair vote of all eligible Papuan citizens in the territory, any claim by the Indonesian government that there is democracy in West Papua will be highly contested.

The fact is that the Australian government and many other western countries were party to a fraudulent transfer of sovereignty during the 1960s. That is not hyperbole. It is fact. Professor Pieter Drooglever and Dr John Saltford have separately documented the travesty of justice that unfolded in West Papua during the transfer from Dutch to Indonesia rule. Less than 0.01 per cent of the population participated in the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969 and those that did were forced to do so.

But this week’s peaceful gathering at Zaccheus Field in Abepura was not about the past. It was about the kind of future that West Papuans want. The Papuans’ desire for freedom is irrepressible. Many of the civil and political rights Papuan people want — like freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, an opening up of the province to foreign media, and respect of land rights — could be realised within the framework of the Indonesian state. By shooting and jailing Papuans who peacefully demand these legitimate rights, the Indonesian government is creating a bigger problem and fuelling political instability.

These events in our nearest neighbour raise serious questions back home. We are we providing funds, training and equipment to the Indonesian Military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) and the Police force, including the counter-terrorism police (Detachment 88). There is mounting evidence that they are anything but a positive force for human rights in the region. By furthering our close military ties, we become complicit in acts of repression by the TNI such as that unfolding in West Papua today.

The Australian government has been secretive with regards to these links. We don’t know exactly what kind of military assistance is being supplied to the TNI and the police. The Australian government needs to come clean about the extent and nature of our level of defence cooperation with Indonesia. The shootings in West Papua — and indeed in other places in Indonesia — raise serious questions about what, if anything, the Indonesian military and police have learnt from East Timor. And whether our own government has learned anything, either.

One thing we do know from East Timor is that when violence like this occurs and political rights are continually repressed you can guarantee that West Papuan resistance will continue and eventually become a mainstream issue. West Papua is on our doorstep. I hope we can be good neighbours.

We can not ignore West Papua any longer, and we need to send the strongest possible signal to the Indonesian government that violent repression of peaceful meetings, people merely exercising their right to free speech and assembly, is totally unacceptable.

Indonesia insists it is a democracy. Its constitution guarantees all its citizens the right to free speech and free assembly. We should hold them to this promise by immediately suspending all military assistance to and cooperation with Indonesia. There is no compelling evidence that on the balance of things Australia’s military assistance in Indonesia has improved human rights. I fear that our anti-terrorism support is sometimes being used to harasses and intimidate human rights defenders.

I want to be a part of a Parliament that can encourage the Indonesian government and the West Papuan people to find peaceful and democratic ways to address the root causes of conflict in West Papua. Guaranteeing free speech and releasing political prisoners would be a good first step. The President has promised an open dialogue, and he must keep that promise.

In the meantime those of us in Parliament need to seriously reflect on the kind of relationship we want with Indonesia. For the sake of our West Papuan neighbours, and for Australia’s long-held commitment to human rights, we must be prepared to take a bold stand.

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.