Australia 'Blind And Deaf' On Papua


The Australian government is becoming irrelevant when it comes to foreign policy on West Papua.

Despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s speech insisting that his government will do all they can to prevent West Papuans and their supporters “grandstanding” in support of West Papua, senior Indonesian officials don’t trust the Australian Government, with good reason.

West Papua remains a non-negotiable issue with Indonesia, whoever is in power. Australian politicians are more fickle. We supported Papuan independence in the 1950s and could be persuaded to do so again. Let’s not forget that Abbott’s mentor John Howard was the one who ended up supporting international intervention for a free East Timor.

Abbott not only has a deficit of trust with Indonesian leaders to make up for, he has also got Papuan leaders offside. When I spoke with Rev Sofyan Socrates Yoman, a senior Papuan church leader, a few days ago he called Abbott “blind and deaf”, someone who “does not know gratitude for the way Papuans protected Australian soldiers in West Papua during World War II”. Yoman says that the human rights violations have worsened under President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono’s leadership. “All we have got is sweet promises and speeches from the President that have amounted to nothing more than lies while the Papuan people face ethnic genocide” said Yoman.

Abbott’s praise for the Indonesian government’s policies in West Papua is disingenuous and dangerous. Informed Indonesians don’t even agree with Abbott’s assessment on West Papua. Indonesian policy advisers from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences have been warning Jakarta for years that the security approach is not working in West Papua and that Special Autonomy is viewed nearly universally by Papuans as a “total failure”.

If the political situation in West Papua continues to deteriorate Abbott can expect not the trickle of West Papuan refugees that currently make their way to Australian shores but thousands, which is what happened in 1984. So regardless of whether one supports independence for West Papua, from the point of view of Australia’s national interest, Abbott’s comments were foolish.

Viewed from a Papuan perspective Abbott’s position only encourages Papuan leaders to continue to pursue closer ties with Pacific Island countries, particularly Vanuatu, whose Prime Minister showed vision in his speech on West Papua last week before the United Nations General Assembly. These regional dynamics will only deepen Australia’s isolation in the Pacific.

So what is behind the PM’s posturing on West Papua? Abbott’s true intention is to try and secure Indonesian cooperation to “stop the boats”. That much is clear. To do so Abbott needs Indonesia more than Indonesia needs him. As many others have said, refugee flows in Indonesia are not a major domestic concern.

What the Indonesian government does care about is retaining West Papua at all costs. This desire is stoked by a deep seated suspicion that the Australian government is behind pro-independence plots in West Papua. That may seem ridiculous to Australian readers but many Indonesians, including senior officials, genuinely believe the Australian government covertly supports West Papuan independence. I imagine the conversation in the Presidential Palace between Abbott and SBY went something like “If you agree to stop the boats we will do all we can to stop those pesky little Papuans from protesting”.  

So one way to read the forced return of the seven West Papuans to PNG on the eve of his visit to Indonesia is that it sends a signal to the Indonesian government that Australia is serious about cracking down on pro-independence support for West Papua.

But does it? Abbott sent the Papuans to Port Moresby. In the process he drew Papua New Guineans into the fray and further alienated members of the PNG government, a significant number of whom understandably view the Australian government’s position on refugees as trying to push an Australian problem onto Pacific Island countries. Abbott has simply shifted the issue onto PNG and in the process, put West Papua in the international news — something that’s happening more and more these days.

The tough no-nonsense rhetoric on boats and West Papua favoured by Abbott, Morrison, Rudd and Carr is all talk. Just like the Labor government before them, the Coalition won’t do anything to put a lid on growing domestic outrage over Indonesian repression in West Papua. Even if they wanted to, they can’t, at least not without fundamentally altering Australia’s political culture and traditions.

Of course, one can expect that the Australian government will seek an enhanced military relationship with Indonesia. The Australian government will also do all they can to accelerate resource extraction in West Papua. But they will not do anything to stop Australians protesting over the Indonesian government’s occupation of West Papua. Abbott will grandstand in the media, he will tell Indonesian government officials that he is trying to prevent growing support for Papuan independence, but he won’t actually do anything.

Before providing evidence to prove that assertion it is important to look at the Australian government’s most important arsenal in the fight to clamp down on support for West Papua in Australia: the Lombok Treaty. Proposed by Howard in 2006 and ratified by Rudd the following year, the treaty is officially known by its cumbersome title the “Agreement Between the Republic of Indonesia and Australia on the Framework for Security Cooperation”.

The main part of the Treaty that refers to West Papua is Article Two, Principle Three. That section reads as follows:

“The Parties, consistent with their respective domestic laws and international obligations, shall not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party, including by those who seek to use its territory for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other Party.”

While West Papua is not mentioned by name, that passage pours cold water on Australian domestic support for West Papua. It’s also a promise not to launch unilateral action like the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) again.

The only problem is the Lombok Treaty is dead and buried. The operative phrase is “consistent with their respective domestic laws and international obligations”. The problem for Indonesia is that if the Australian government implemented their understanding of the treaty, then we would be in violation of those very domestic laws and international obligations. The Indonesian government’s understanding is that Australia will return West Papuan refugees back to Indonesia and stamp out Australian support for merdeka (freedom) in West Papua. That is not happening and the reason it is not happening is that because if it were Australia would cease to be a democracy.

The Australian government is not even coming close to enforcing the Lombok Treaty. Here are just a few examples that the last two Australian governments have not advertised in their visits to Jakarta and Bali:

  • In 2012 International Parliamentarians for West Papua hosted a meeting in parliament house in Canberra. That meeting was openly advertised and attended by all sides of politics.
  • In 2011 the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby hosted a pro-West Papuan music concert. During the concert the banned Morning Star Flag was openly displayed on stage.
  • More recently the Australian government allowed the West Papua Freedom Flotilla to successfully complete the cultural exchange between West Papuans and Aboriginal Australian elder Kevin Buzzacott and other Australian allies. According to organisers the most direct intervention from the Australian government was a visit by customs officials whose only concern was to check that the Freedom Flotilla boats had the requisite number of life jackets and that all their safety equipment was in working order.
  • Immediately after the election, the Coalition backtracked on Bob Carr’s statement that he would refuse consular assistance to any Freedom Flotilla activists who were arrested.
  • Between 2006, after the Lombok Treaty was signed, and the present, scores of West Papuans have been granted permanent residency and citizenship in Australia. I have interviewed many of those Papuans and not a single one was informed of the Lombok Treaty. Not one Papuan was asked not to exercise their right of free speech in support of independence. And nor should they be.
  • Even the seven West Papuans recently deported from the Torres Strait on the eve of Abbott’s departure to Jakarta were not sent back to Indonesia, their place of persecution (not that I condone Abbott’s actions). But it is worth noting that the Papuans were sent to PNG, to the seat of the pro-West Papua Governor, Powes Parkop.

Of course this is not to say Australians should rest on our democratic laurels. As Indonesian colleagues have observed, when it comes to the number of women in cabinet and the government’s openness to being scrutinised by the press over its refugee policy, Indonesia is more progressive than Australia.

It is also true Abbott could try and enforce the Lombok Treaty and restrict our cherished democratic traditions. For this reason alone it is imperative we remain vigilant. But he hasn’t. If he did, it would be a favour to West Papua: their cause would be linked with a fight for our democratic soul.

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.