Subject: Scott Burchill on East Timor/West Papua

Also: Australia & West Papua: Timor redux?

East Timor - our part in their misery Scott Burchill

The Age, 23 January, 2006

The UN's inquiry into Indonesia's brutal 24 year occupation of East Timor, leaked to the Australian media last Thursday, will come as no surprise to activists who opposed the policies of successive Australian Governments, beginning in 1975. Nor to the people of East Timor.

However, the report which documents torture, rape, slavery and starvation leading to the unnatural demise of as many as 180,000 civilians (from a pre-invasion population of 628,000) should shame those ministers, journalists, diplomats and academics who downplayed or ignored consistent human rights abuses in the former Portuguese colony - incredibly described as "aberrant acts" by former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

This group, known as the Jakarta lobby, not only sought to protect the reputation of the Suharto dictatorship at every opportunity. They went out of their way to oppose East Timor's claim for independence (a "lost cause" - Richard Woolcott) and accused critics of the regime in Jakarta of not only exaggerating the scale of the repression, but of being "racist" and "anti-Indonesian" (Woolcott).

Their influence on official policy has been considerable. Rather than indict those responsible for crimes which would have made Slobodan Milosovic and Saddam Hussein blush, governments from Whitlam to Howard ignored regular reports of atrocities which the Catholic Church believes constituted the greatest slaughter relative to a population since the Holocaust. Why?

When "stability", oil and gas reserves and "good relations" with Jakarta were (mistakenly) thought to be at stake, the state terrorism of the Indonesian military was uncomfortable for Canberra but acceptable, providing most of it could be concealed from the Australian public. When that proved impossible, as in the case of the 1991 Dili massacre, damage control designed to protect the bilateral relationship rather than humanitarian concern, was the order of the day. The Howard Government's current approach to Islamist terror could scarcely be a greater contrast in behaviour.

The double standard continues today. While NATO spends millions trying to track down Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic, Suharto remains comfortably retired in the suburbs of Jakarta, with neither Canberra nor Washington showing any interest in bringing him to account for his considerably more serious crimes.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian legal system is cracking down on small-time drug traffickers but shows no stomach for prosecuting senior military officers responsible for the heinous acts detailed in the UN report. Despite promises to refer these officers to an international tribunal if Indonesia failed to bring them to justice, Alexander Downer now seems equally reluctant to see those he misleadingly described as "rogue elements" in court.

The hefty price of maintaining stability in the archipelago has been paid in Timorese blood and anguish, and yet it still proves elusive. This is because rebellions and secession are partly a reaction to what is being "stabilised" behind Indonesia's political boundaries.

The recent arrival of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers reminds us that turning a blind eye to repression in the name of stability is not only a dereliction of our ethical duty, it is politically shortsighted and usually results in blowback. Unfortunately for these latest arrivals, the government which will decide if they qualify as refugees could not be less sympathetic to their claim for independence. John Howard and Alexander Downer are more committed to West Papua's retention within the Republic of Indonesia than most of the residents of its Eastern-most province appear to be.

And yet after reading the UN report into East Timor, who can dismiss their accusations of political persecution and genocide? Is history repeating itself?

It may be expecting too much for each member of the Jakarta lobby who played such a prominent and nefarious role in East Timor's nightmare to reflect on the UN's findings and examine their conscience. However, governments such as Australia's, which contributed to the immiseration of the East Timorese by recognising Jakarta's illegal invasion and brutal occupation, still owe these people a great deal, the least of which are reparations and the truth about their modern history as detailed in this devastating report.


Australia & West Papua: Timor redux?

Scott Burchill

The recent arrival of 43 West Papuan asylum seekers in northern Australia is yet another reminder of both the moral and political failure of long-standing policy towards the political boundaries of the Republic of Indonesia.

Since the rise of General Suharto to power in 1965, Canberra has turned a blind eye to Jakarta’s military repression and brutality across the archipelago in the mistaken belief that this is the best guarantee of stability in a country with powerful centrifugal forces. Although there is little if any evidence for it, the ‘Balkanisation’ of Indonesia is Canberra’s greatest regional fear.

Despite what they knew was being “stabilised” in East Timor between 1975 and 1999, and the manifest failure of policy towards the former Portuguese colony, there is no evidence that Australia’s foreign policy elite – dominated by the Jakarta lobby - has reconsidered its approach. The most serious consequence of this refusal to acknowledge past failures is that identical mistakes with similarly disastrous results are now the basis of Australia’s policy towards West Papua.

West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto  

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West Papua & Indonesia Since Suharto


Unfortunately for these latest arrivals, the government which will decide whether they qualify as refugees could not be less sympathetic to their claim for independence. John Howard and Alexander Downer are more committed to West Papua's retention within the Republic of Indonesia than most of the residents of its Eastern-most province appear to be, and are happy to say so publicly.

How did things get to this strange position? Several points can be made about Australia’s approach to what is often referred to as Indonesia’s “territorial integrity.”

First, secession and the fragmentation of nation-states are not the same thing, though both are normal features of international life. Just as independence for Tibet would not break-up China, neither would the separation of Aceh or West Papua ineluctably ‘Balkanise’ Indonesia. The secessionist movements in Indonesia’s eastern and western most provinces are primarily the creation of Jakarta’s military brutality and economic exploitation. The future shape of the republic will depend on whether these citizens feel that their bond with Indonesian nationalism is worth salvaging – whether they still wish to be governed in common with the rest of the archipelago. It will not be decided by the diplomatic preferences of neighbours who reflexively favour ‘stability’ regardless of what is being stabilised.

Secondly, Canberra’s love of regional stability and the status quo assumes an immutability of political boundaries which is historically unusual. The politics of contesting and redrawing political boundaries never ends. Occasionally it is a violent process (Ethiopia & Eritrea 1980s & 1990s, Yugoslavia 1990s), frequently it is negotiated (Norway/Sweden 1905, UK/Irish Free State 1921, Malaysia/Singapore 1965, East & West Germany 1989, Czechoslovakia 1993), sometimes it’s a combination of both (USSR 1990). Indonesia, after all, needed a revolution rather than stability to gain its independence.

One thing is certain. Changing political boundaries are normal and need not be feared. The status quo may not last, whether in Europe, the Middle East or Southeast Asia. Is Australia opposed to the reunification of the Korean peninsula, or the return of Taiwan to Beijing’s sovereign control? Both would involve shifting existing political frontiers. How can the Israel-Palestine conflict be solved without a redefinition of political boundaries?

Thirdly, some separatist movements are political protests against being governed in common with others (Tibet, Philippines, Aceh, West Papua, Chechnya). These sub-national revolts often imbricate with ethnic, cultural and religious divisions, which were either constructed out of the colonial experience (Rwanda, Solomon Islands) or not reflected in post-colonial state structures (Bougainville, Fiji, West Papua). Sub-national economic development in specially designated zones (South China) and breakaway territories (Taiwan) are also centrifugal forces which can intensify national fragility.

Sovereign states fragment when they no longer command the authority and loyalty which they possessed or once claimed to possess. It is now common for minority groups to argue that their identities and interests are excluded from the dominant images of nationhood propounded by the state: they no longer feel part of the common national project. Consequently, they start looking for new political structures which more faithfully acknowledge their ethnicity and satisfy their political and economic interests.

This is essentially what has been happening at the western and eastern extremities of the Indonesian archipelago. Although both Aceh and West Papua can boast of nationalist movements which predate Indonesia’s formation fifty years ago, in their current form both the GAM in Aceh and OPM in West Papua are manifestations of Jakarta’s greed and brutality. For decades Acehnese and Papuans have been excluded from the national project directed from Java, wanted only for their natural rather than their human resources.

In the case of West Papua, uneven nationalist sentiment and disorganised military resistance has been bolstered by economic exploitation, transmigration, cultural attacks on Melanesians and a fraudulent plebiscite – the so called Act of Free Choice - conducted, much to its discredit, under the auspices of the United Nations in 1969. Perhaps as many as 400,000 West Papuans have lost their lives during an independence struggle now in its fifth decade. As Peter King has documented, very little has improved in West Papua despite the exposure of Jakarta’s crimes in East Timor and Indonesia’s recent democratic transition. This is the kind of (state) terrorism which the West has no interest in terminating.

Unlike the East Timorese, West Papuans lack an international sponsor and battle to keep their independence struggle in the media’s headlines. They face that most lethal of combinations – state brutality and international indifference. An obvious starting point for the resolution of the conflict in the territory is not an offer of “special autonomy” from Jakarta but for the United Nations to revisit the 1969 plebiscite, which is no longer considered to have any legal legitimacy. What does Indonesia and Australia have to fear from an authentic act of self-determination? Presumably it’s a Timor-like ballot result which overwhelming rejects Indonesian rule.

Fourthly, Canberra should better understand the process of how quickly newly drawn boundaries become ‘sacred’ and ‘non-negotiable’ – how modern traditions and feelings about homelands are invented for contemporary political purposes. That the shape of post-colonial Indonesia was modeled on the hated Dutch East Indies is a paradox which should encourage reflection on how contrived and modern nationalist sentiment can be. Self-determination is not necessarily a once-and-for-all event at the time of decolonisation: beyond the rhetoric of self-appointed patriots, the sanctity of borders is often shallow.

When the social bond which unites and integrates people into the same political community has irrevocably broken, neither violence nor offers of limited autonomy can restore trust and a sense of belonging.

Before anyone can speculate about the allegedly dire consequences of boundary changes, a prior question must be asked of those who equate stability with the status quo: what level of destruction and human suffering are you prepared to accept in the defence of existing territorial boundaries? It would be prudent and realistic for Australia’s leaders to adopt a more open-minded approach to the possibility of shifting frontiers in this region. This might save them from being caught on the wrong side of history again.

It remains one of the paradoxes of Australian political culture that those who embrace economic globalisation and the importance of change and economic reform are so inherently frightened of alterations to the territorial boundaries of states, despite the lessons that history teaches.

Whether it is to curry favour in Jakarta or because it has been listed as a pre-requisite for a new security agreement between the two countries, the Indonesian political elite must know that in its quest to retain West Papua within the republic it has no stronger supporters than the Howard Government. Given the sensible choice of remaining silent on an issue it can do little to influence, the Australian Government prefers to declare its commitment to the status quo loudly and often.

However, as in the case of East Timor, it is not governments in Canberra that Jakarta has to worry about. It’s popular opinion. In this case history seems to be repeating itself, and they have good reason to be concerned.

It is no surprise that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asked Prime Minister John Howard to return the 43 asylum seekers to West Papua. If Canberra was to grant them refugee status it would not only be conceding the moral and political bankruptcy of its foreign policy towards Indonesia, it would also be validating claims of political persecution, state terrorism and genocide in West Papua.

refce: Peter King, West Papua & Indonesia Since Suharto (UNSW Press, Sydney 2004).

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