Our Regional Responsibility

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Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s recent evauation of West Papua’s problem with Indonesia (or as Canberra sees it, Indonesia’s problem with West Papua) showed little understanding of the issue and profoundly wishful geopolitical thinking.

"Indonesians have been very sensitive to human rights implications of law and order activity in the Papua provinces," Carr told ABC radio last week.

"I just ask those idealistic Australians who might entertain some other arrangement [on West Papua]: what would be the cost in terms of our friendship with Indonesia, and in terms of our budget, of a different arrangement?"

"It’s inconceivable, utterly inconceivable."

But West Papua is not a boat Australia can turn around. It is right there permanently on the northern border.

West Papua dreams of justice — to regain the independence promised and fleetingly realised decades ago under their former Dutch colonisers prior to Indonesia’s invasion, which came with UN cooperation, US expectation, and eventually Australian acquiescence.

If anything, and quite contrary to Carr’s verdict of being "inconceivable", Indonesia’s repressive put-downs are galvanising the struggle in West Papua.

The West Papuans and a considerable number of concerned people in the region are now enlarged and enlivened by "awakenings" and "springs" of other down-trodden peoples far from their shores (thanks to Twitter, Facebook and You Tube).

Australia cannot spurn West Papuan claims any more than it can ignore the more violent, eruptive claims of the Syrian democratic uprising. When will the Australian foreign policy establishment realise this? What is occurring in West Papua has no less conviction and serious intent — it is simply liberation at a slower, more tropical pace than in the Middle East.

Australia cannot talk itself out of its responsibility to mediate a just and peaceful solution. Otherwise, all the trips to Jakarta, all the grandstanding with Bambang, all the bilateral rhetoric about Indonesian sovereignty, will be no more than rearrangements of the furniture on a sinking Titanic.

Carr may not hear the band playing, but West Papuans have been suffering and singing for decades and Australia will have to listen at some point.

It is not often that historic chance and geographic necessity combine to present opportunities for a bold and righteous approach in foreign policy, but this is what West Papua presents. When will Australia seize it?

The Gillard government rightly wants to engage with the greater Asia-Pacific, but it wants to do so by leap-frogging the pressing needs of those most proximate to it.

It is all very well to want to sit at the top table with the big boys of globalisation, at the UN Security Council, with Asia rising and the like, but never at the expense of talking down the hopes of indigenous peoples whose futures are being left to the jackboots.

Either West Papuan aspirations are in a dreamland, or Bob Carr’s perspective is — both cannot be true. The Australian government must listen again to their viewpoint, it is consistent and ancient, and hear that their cry for justice, freedom and sovereignty is nothing less than a local echo of the universal cry for of the human spirit.

Carr must put his faulty policy logic into reverse and let it be seen and known that Australia’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific will be one of moral consideration. He should make it plain that Australia has nothing in common with demagogic state power that characterises so many of the neighbours it is seeking to do business with.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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