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The Agony of West Papua for Australian Foreign Policy

In the preoccupation of Australia’s LNP leaders with far-off diplomatic challenges, local regional issues of human rights problems in West Papua are well off the local political radar. Should Australia have a more empathic interest in the welfare of the ethnically diverse population of 3.6 million in West Papua? By Denis Bright.

The 2016 Free West Papua Campaign seeks to rekindle interest in the status of West Papua. This resource rich territory covering almost 420,540 square kilometres was transferred to Indonesia after negotiation of the New York Agreement in 1962.

The Australian government seems to be deaf to the ongoing human rights problems in West Papua. Perhaps some advocacy is occurring through private diplomatic challenges.

Public conscious raising on such controversial issues is left to non-goverrnment organizations such as the Free West Papua Campaign, Amnesty International and progressive church groups like the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CJPC) in Brisbane.

The Free Papua Movement is helping to raise awareness of human rights problems in West Papua through musical events internationally and in Australia.

Rockin for West Papua is a worldwide music collaboration where musicians are performing in cities around the world this October to help bring West Papua to a global audience.

Launched in Australia earlier in 2016 so far there are gigs booked in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart, Perth, Byron Bay, Gold Coast, Lismore & Newcastle, Edinburgh UK, plus other musicians from UK, South Africa, New Zealand, the Pacific, and Europe joining us.

“We stand for Peace, Freedom and Self Determination in West Papua. We believe that music can rise above tyranny, we believe that we can fight with music as our weapon, and we believe we can use it to unite, to mobilise and resist oppression” (Ronny Kareni).

Support for West Papuan Resistance

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) was recently formed as an umbrella coalition for West Papuan resistance both in West Papua and in supporting neighbouring countries, including Australia in 2014.

111a Resistance to Indonesian occupation continues across West Papua from village communities to large urban areas and college campuses. The support network in West Papua has been introduced by ULMWP.

While repression of the ULMWP in West Papua itself by the Indonesian military, police and private security firms has intensified since the formation of this umbrella resistance organization. More emphasis has been placed on support groups operating in adjacent countries.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) draws its support from the governments of PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Kanak Opposition parties in New Caledonia. The nucleus of MSG was established in 1986 and maintains an administrative office in Vanuatu.

Since 2015, ULMWP has observer status at MSG Forums which are held in safe-havens away from Indonesian security controls. The new links had consequences for the ULMWP support base in West Papua as reported from the Stateless Nations Support Group:

West Papua’s bid for entry into the MSG saw a violent crackdown by the Indonesian army. On May 28, 2015 up to 82 West Papuans were jailed and tortured for their public support of MSG membership. More were fired on and beat with gun butts. The week before another 84 were arrested for the same reasons.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group was founded in 1986 to promote and strengthen trade, promote Melanesian cultures, further the economic growth of its members, sustainable development, good governance, and security. The Free West Papua movement believes that joining the MSG “Will have potentially emancipatory consequences for West Papuans, and could threaten Indonesia’s historic claim over the territory.” (Nationalia).

Human rights concerns about the situation in West Papua have added traction when they are raised in the UN General Assembly:

Pacific island countries have criticised Indonesia’s human rights record in its Papua and West Papua provinces, using speeches at the United Nations General Assembly to call for self-determination in the region.

The comments earned a strong response from Indonesia’s delegation, which said the criticism was politically motivated and designed to draw attention away from problems in their own countries.

Delegations from Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Tonga all expressed concern over the provinces, which are located on the western half of New Guinea island and are home to a mostly Melanesian population.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said alleged human rights violations in the Indonesian provinces were linked to the push for independence.

“Human rights violations in West Papua and the pursuit for self-determination of West Papua are two sides of the same coin,” he said. (ABC News Online 26 September 2016).

Occasional reports trickle of West Papua on the manner in which multinational mining companies in West Papua are complicit in both human rights abuses and environmental damage through their relationship with the regional administration of the Indonesian Government. The operations of the Arizona based Freeport mining operations have been a focus of criticism for the past 50 years of mining operations in West Papua:

“Freeport needs a lot of government security support to operate,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“In remote areas like Papua, this means less monitoring and more potential rights abuses taking place in their mining operations.”

In fact, national police and military are in charge of ‘maintaining order’ so that copper and gold can be safely extracted, and tax revenues can flow into Jakarta.

Freeport’s massive Grasberg mine – one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, with a minority stake held by global mining giant Rio Tinto – is essentially closed off to outside access. (Papua New Guinea Mine Watch).

Officially the problems of human rights in West Papua is still in the too hard-basket. A now ageing Current Issues Parliamentary Brief invites caution in the handling of such sensitive issues in the interests of stability of relations between Australia and Indonesia.

Thus there aren’t really any choices for Australia either. While not wanting to exacerbate the very difficult situation that the Indonesian Government is in, Australia could quietly acknowledge its history and, indeed, seek to use it to convince Jakarta that it has a contribution to make. Australian decision-makers need to put an enormous effort into convincing Indonesia of its commitment to Indonesian sovereignty and to its stability. Recognising that so much of Indonesian stability generally could hinge on economic progress, this could include a major diplomatic effort to generate practical support for Indonesia as it seeks to meet the demands, in particular, of its Papuan, Moluccan and Acehese constituents. (Current Issues Brief 2000 Is West Papua another Timor?).

From an Indonesian perspective, the human rights and welfare of West Papuans is an internal matter which is being addressed through the Papuan People’s Assembly and the implementation of the Special Autonomy Law No.21/2001.

This progress has been evaluated in a Master’s level thesis by Muhammad Halmin of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The thesis has been updated to an in 2012.

Muhammad Halmin acknowledges some progress in the Indonesian management of its West Papuan Province with the following caveat:

The Indonesian government’s policy toward West Papua, which relies primarily on a heavy-handed security approach, is clearly one of the main sources of the West Papuans’ growing resentment. It is simply astonishing that, after more than three decades of integration into the Republic of Indonesia, the same problems and grievances as in the beginning continue to hamper the lives of West Papuans.

Criticism of Indonesia has been taking up by delegates from Australia’s Pacific neighbours in the UN General Assembly.

Pacific island countries have criticised Indonesia’s human rights record in its Papua and West Papua provinces, using speeches at the United Nations General Assembly to call for self-determination in the region.

The comments earned a strong response from Indonesia’s delegation, which said the criticism was politically motivated and designed to draw attention away from problems in their own countries.

Delegations from Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Tonga all expressed concern over the provinces, which are located on the western half of New Guinea island and are home to a mostly Melanesian population. (ABC News Online 26 September 2016).

The Australian Government seems to be out of step with regional opinion on the issue of human rights in West Papua. After a meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, the Australian foreign minister the Hon Julie Bishop supported the continuation of Indonesian policies in West Papua as a largely domestic matter for Indonesia:

“Australia restated, as we have done on many occasions publicly and privately, our unconditional support and respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty in this regard,” she said. (ABC News Online 21 December 2015).

Pragmatic media communication games in the management of human rights issues in neighbouring countries reflect the LNP’s selective filtering out of human rights issues which might weaken strategic ties with Indonesia and continued co-operation with the implementation of the Pacific Solution for asylum-seekers to Australia.

Even for a future Labor Government, West Papua remains an ongoing agony for Australian policy-makers to strike the right balance between across the spectrum between permanent Indonesian occupation, greater regional autonomy with human rights safeguards and complete independence.

denis-bright Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in developing pragmatic public policies based on commitment to a social market that is highly compatible with currently fluid trends in contemporary globalization.



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  1. Kevin Brewer

    We have a serious issue in that Julie Bishops BFF is the Indonesian foreign minister, who has spent a lot of time and effort in down playing what is clearly mass murder in West Papua (500000 dead West Papuans since the integration of WP into the neo-colonialist Indonesian state). And it seems to me to be obvious that DFAT is captive of the Indonesians and has been since the 70s. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion the Indonesians are friends. They are not, they are neighbours and have their own interests (mass murder, theft, and corruption of the state seem to be three of them). If they were friends we could tell them to their faces to get out of West Papua, that the US forced act of free choice (1204 tribal leaders sitting in a room surrounded by Indonesian army with loaded weapons) was illegal under any international law, and that we will not have the continual violation of West Papuans human rights. Indonesia has no sovereignty over West Papua, as it did not over Timor Leste. We need to make as much noise and trouble as we can on this issue. And we need to stop our army training the Indonesians at Canungra in warfare techniques used against the West Papuans. I can’t believe that the Australian army is still doing it. They were training them BEFORE Konfontasi when the Australian, NZ and British armies fought the Australian trained Indonesians in Borneo, and they are still doing it.

    A second point is that Papuans are our Australian Aborigines closest cousins. They were the group who arrived 50-70kybp and diverged when the sea level flooded the Torres Strait. If that gets into the politics it will be interesting, and if we can all promote the idea ( and …

  2. Cynthia

    Thankyou for this article. Having lived in the Solomon Islands for 12 years; I fully understand how Melanesians would have problems with the “Indonesian element”.

  3. John

    On July 27, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo appointed indicted war criminal General (ret) Wiranto Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law, and Security Affairs. A presidential spokesperson told the Jakarta Post that Wiranto “well-tested and was experienced in resolving various assignments, especially during the transition period from the New Order to the Reform era in the late 1990s.” In 2003, he was indicted by a UN-backed court for his role as commander of the military in the security force violence during Timor-Leste’s 1999 independence vote.
    Wiranto is responsible through acts of omission and commission for the gravest violations of human right in East Timor, West Papua, and Indonesia. He should be on trial or in jail, not holding a prominent government position.
    President Jokowi has abandoned all pretense to concern about accountability and justice for human rights crimes. Please sign and share ETAN’s petition opposing Wiranto as coordinating minister.

    And a film on damage and pollution from the Freeport mine.

  4. Paul

    Very interesting article. Something we don’t hear to much about in Australia.

    It is very important for Australia to stand up for human rights on all levels domestically and internationally. It is tricky for recent governments to do so (both labour and liberal) though as our own track record is not up to standard – as confirmed by the UN.

    Australia should diplomatically work with and prompt Indonesia for peace and a better way West Papua. Let’s hope so!

  5. Lalnama

    Australia needs to support West Papua, in both human & economic terms.
    We have been happy to exploit the country & ignore the abuse of its people’s from the Indonsians & the mining companies.
    It is time Australia took a humane approach to the people of West Papua

  6. West Papua Debacle

    The LNP and the Mainstream Media tell us that Australians are under threat from terrorists: What about the impact of state terrorism in West Papua where overseas assistance from DFAT is being used to train the oppressors: Like Alice in Wonderland we are out of touch and confused with our immediate surroundings.

  7. Catherine

    Thanks for your coverage of human rights problems in nearby West Papua. These issues tend to slip off the radar due to the ever present dramatic news coverage of more faroff areas.

  8. Steve

    Where is our halo as the responsible middle power relation to West Papua?

  9. Ryan

    Such important issues so close to home, yet very under reported by the media

  10. Challenge of West Papua

    Our social reality world should extend beyond the suburbs and the supermarkets. West Papua keeps our real geography in focus.

  11. Update on West Papua

    Update on West Papua from the Diplomat:

    “The result of this omission is calamitous. There is strong evidence of gross human rights violations in Indonesian-held West Papua, yet the UN is has not yet intervened in this territory. The counterterrorism squad, Detachment 88, which was developed in 2003 by funding through the United States government, is accused of being especially violent toward indigenous West Papuans.”

  12. Maria

    Denis, thanks for your insights on West Papua. Australia definitely needs to provide more support to this nation and I am surprised we don’t hear more about West Papua in the media given the close proximity to Australia.

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