Subject: GLW: Policy, public opinion and Papua

From Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2006.

Policy, public opinion and Papua

Clinton Fernandes

When it comes to Australia-Indonesia relations, public opinion has often been under-estimated by policymakers, who have then been frustrated by the challenges it poses.

More than a year before Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, William Pritchett, first assistant secretary in the Department of Defence, warned policymakers that it would not be possible to conceal Indonesian brutalities from the Australian public. Nor would it be possible to conduct a good working relationship with Indonesia in the face of sustained public condemnation. He argued that Australia should "favour the emergence of the territory [East Timor] through self-determination, as an independent state" despite Indonesian objections.

Pritchett's view was rejected, and negative public opinion bedevilled the Australia-Indonesia relationship for more than two decades. Civil society groups in Australia and overseas took up the cause of East Timor, ultimately capitalising on the Suharto regime's diplomatic vulnerability during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. The liberation of East Timor in 1999 represented a major crisis in Australia-Indonesia relations. Australian diplomacy, often criticised on moral grounds, had failed even by its own standards of pragmatism, practicality and hard-headedness.

The recent report on Indonesian atrocities in East Timor and an incipient West Papua solidarity movement in Australia are two factors that should be a warning to future policymakers.

Under Indonesian occupation, East Timor suffered the largest loss of life as a proportion of its total population since the Holocaust. The East Timorese government's reluctance to take the lead in pursuing Indonesian war criminals should be understood in the context of its acute strategic dilemma: instead of conducting Milosevic-like prosecutions at an international tribunal in an established venue such as The Hague, the UN created a feeble organisation in Dili as part of the impoverished local court structure. This is a great discouragement to many Timorese, who had hoped for a modicum of justice. The diplomatic snub is combined with articles such as that by Julie Szego in the February 20 Age. The East Timorese, we are told, should be congratulated for "refusing to get bogged down in the comfort zone of victimhood".

Neither the Australian government nor the Labor opposition has shown any interest in taking the matter further, probably with the Australia-Indonesia relationship in mind. Yet, pursuing the Indonesian military over its atrocities in East Timor is of great relevance for the future of a democratic Indonesia and the Australia-Indonesia relationship, for to do so will make it harder for officers to carry out repressive actions elsewhere in the archipelago.

For example, Brigadier General Mahidin Simbolon, deputy commander of the military region that included East Timor, was promoted to major general and placed in charge of the province of Papua. The same militia proxy tactic used in East Timor began to be employed soon after he got there. Simbolon had served at least six tours of duty in East Timor. He had led the operation to capture Xanana Gusmao in 1992 and was a key actor in the Indonesian military's covert warfare strategy. There are many more like Simbolon. It is precisely the impunity with which war crimes are committed that encourages the commission of more crimes.

These matters are of great relevance to West Papua, whose native population has experienced military repression, environmental destruction and financial hardship.

There is widespread public support in Australia for the West Papuans' desire for greater control over their lives. This desire need not mean an independent nation-state, however. Even at this late stage, there is still a chance that the Papuan people can negotiate their grievances within the territorial limits of Indonesia. But the continuing ban on foreign media and consistent claims of military repression indicate that this window may be closing. If it does, a determined solidarity movement for West Papua will give the Australian government no rest, and the Australia-Indonesia relationship will remain "characterised by ignorance, suspicion and, in some quarters, hostility", as a recent parliamentary committee put it.

Like East Timor before it, inaction over atrocities in West Papua is flawed not only on moral grounds but even by its own standards of pragmatism and "national interest".

[Dr Clinton Fernandes is the author of Reluctant Saviour, published by Scribe, 2004.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2006. 

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