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West Papua: How to lose a country

When Julia Gillard meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono in Bali on the weekend West Papua barely got a mention. Although the text messages inside West Papua went into overdrive with the rumour that the reason Australia and the United States were stationing 2,500 U.S Marines in Darwin was to prepare for military intervention in West Papua.

I told my friends in West Papua it wasn’t true.

But then I got thinking. Actually Australia is doing a lot to help Indonesia loosen their grip on the troubled territory. Not by design of course. But the effect is much the same as if the Government suddenly adopted a radical pro-independence policy.

Confused? Let me explain.

Last month the Indonesian police and military fired live rounds into an unarmed crowd of civilians in West Papua, killing five. The Army and Police then tried to make out that it wasn’t them, that what had taken place was a coup by the Papuan Liberation Army; that it was the Papuans who were doing the shooting. Yudhuyono tried to sell Obama and Gillard a version of that story in Bali on the weekend. That might have washed twenty years ago but in this age of social media and smart phones it is much more difficult to hide the evidence.

Since the killing of five Papuans on October 19, the wounding of scores more and the arrest of six Papuan leaders, international media coverage of West Papua has spiked and Indonesia’s international standing has taken a beating. The Army, Police and President’s denials and attempts at cover-up have not helped the government’s reputation.

The killings have also generated outrage and division within Indonesia. And October 19 was not an isolated incident. A series of shocking acts of torture of Papuans by the Indonesian military have been captured on video and recently released. And when I speak of outrage I am not talking about protests from human rights groups. National legislators from a range of Indonesian political parties have begun to publicly criticise the Indonesian military, police and even the President over the government’s policy, or lack of it, in West Papua. Even the cautious Indonesian Bishop’s Conference urged Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono to hold a third party mediated dialogue without delay.

Indonesian critics recognise that the political crisis in West Papua is spiralling out of control and that the central government and the security forces are making things worse. Indonesian journalist Bramantyo Prijosusilo writing in the Jakarta Globe went as far as saying that the “powerful forces bent on forcing Papuans to separate from Indonesia are none other than the central government, especially its military and police force.”

He has a point. West Papua teeters on the brink of open rebellion. After the shooting on October 19 one student previously uninvolved with politics told me “if the police and military thought they could shoot us dead like animals and we would somehow stop pressing for freedom, they are wrong. We don’t care about the military; we don’t care about the police. We are not afraid anymore.” Days later he was on the streets along with 3,000 other Papuans calling for a referendum.

This is not just about political insurrection. The economy is on the brink as well.

Consider the massive Freeport/Rio Tinto gold and copper mine. Eight thousand mine workers there have been on strike since July. Freeport’s pipeline has been cut in more than 20 places, the company has been unable to deliver on its contracts, the local government in Mimika which depends on revenue from the mine to supply services is cash strapped, and Freeport itself is losing billions.

That could mean Australian jobs are affected. Over 800 Australian companies supply the mine through Cairns and Darwin. The Australian owned company International Purveying Incorporated sends everything from Toyota’s, heavy mining equipment, and frozen beef dinners to Freeport every few days.

How long shareholders and investors will put up with heavy loses and adverse economic risk is any ones guess. But it won’t be forever. And it is not just Freeport / Rio Tinto that is in the firing line. BP, Clive Palmer’s nickel businesses in Raja Ampat, and logging interests are all the target of a torrent of anger from landowners. CEOs like Palmer and Freeport’s Bob Moffet may not ask the Indonesian government to negotiate with Papuans demanding political freedoms but sooner or later shareholders and investors will demand just that.

So how is the Australian government responding to these shifting power dynamics? Well that is the problem. They are not. The government’s position is the same as it has always been: continued support for the Indonesian military / police unhinged from any tangible improvements in human rights such as guarantees of free speech, release of political prisoners or moves towards supporting political dialogue.

No matter what side of the political fence you sit this is not smart policy.

For years Papuans have been telling our leaders that Special Autonomy had failed, that the Freeport mine was a source of conflict, and that the military and police were killing them. Just in case we were not paying attention they described the situation as “slow motion genocide”.

So for those realists out there who think an independent West Papua would be a mistake, here’s some free policy advice: stop funding the armed group splitting Indonesia apart.

Giving a blank cheque to the Indonesian military while there is continued suppression of political freedoms in West Papua is the surest way for Australia to help Indonesia lose a country.

It seems the Australian government might be eager to usher in freedom in West Papua after all.

Jason MacLeod is the newest blogger on This Blog Harms. Jason will be blogging mostly about civil resistance, particularly the use of people power in self-determination struggles in places such as West Papua. 

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  • 1
    CTar1
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    This really has the potential to be very troublesome.

  • 2
    Danuarta Roger
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    LOL, this article if full of gross miscomprehension of the entire Papuan situation.

    Firstly, the strike and sabotage faced by Freeport is not done by native Papuans or by the separatists, instead it is being led by a Javanese employee with military connections, Mr Sudiro.

    I believe this whole strike and sabotage episode is an underhanded attempt by Indonesian government (President Yudhoyono in particular) to force Freeport to provide more money to the government in view of approaching 2014 elections. These foreign mining companies has always been milk-cow for Indonesian politicians.

    President Yudhoyono has noted how his opponent Mr Aburizal Bakrie has been able to enrich himself by forcing Australian mining company to sell their gigantic coal mine in Sangatta (East Kalimantan) by using similar tactics of strikes and sabotage.

    Secondly, the Papuan separatists did try to make some rioting to attract attention of world leaders who were in Indonesia for East Asia Summit. However, the Indonesian police has been remarkably composed in face of these provocations. The perpetrators of rioting are now safely behind bars, and not a single foreign leader even took notice of the childish theatrics of the Papuan separatists.

    In short, it seems Freeport would need to reduce its net profit and surrender larger portions of its revenue to remain within Indonesia. Not bad, it is about time for Indonesia to grab larger share of Freeport’s revenues.

  • 3
    Andrew
    Posted November 27, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    While Indonesia’s conflict resolution record is not impeccable, there has been a relative success story in relation to the special autonomy region of Aceh and has resulted in a large reduction of violent conflict in that region. The implementation of the special autonomy arrangements between Aceh and Papua has some differences though, such as the central government permitting Aceh to keep a sizable amount of it’s resources, granting Aceh’s own law system (sharia), and the pull out of a large majority of the Indonesian Military that were posted there.

    I do not believe that this has occurred in West Papua yet and maybe a special autonomy resolution that involves some of these circumstances might help reduce the debilitating conflict that has occurred in the area for some years. Perhaps upon this stepping stone of special autonomy, which would hopefully include a wealthier, more educated and more empowered West Papuan society, the eventual and hopefully peaceful transition to independence could occur. Alas, the transmigration program, originally implemented by the dutch colonial government and continued by subsequent Indonesian governments, might hinder a future independence movement and seemingly complicates the matter even further.

    Perhaps the Australian government should start off with baby steps in the direction of independence by pushing for greater autonomy, and the cessation of the transmigration program with the eventual goal of independence that might result in less blood shed over a longer, maybe more realistic timescale? at the moment the Indonesian government seemingly has no intention to let Papua have it’s independence, perhaps this could change in the future with a sway of Indonesian public opinion? It seems that in periods of great social revolution the local populace, and neighboring countries seem to bear the social and economic costs such as was the case with East Timor where Australia still has a military presence after 10+ years.

    forgive the rambling incoherent nature of this blurb I just though I might add some info to the discussion. I am in no way an expert on Aceh or Papua, just an interested Australian.

  • 4
    Andrew
    Posted November 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    @Danartu

    Thanks for the comments Danartu. I thinks its great to have a discussion with an Indonesian on this subject and to have your (nationalistic) perspective voiced.

    Perhaps you may believe that Papua belongs to Indonesia for time immemorial, but but others have a different perspective and believe that the original inhabitants of West New Guinea have only ever wanted independence from colonial powers be it Dutch or Indonesian. here is a few things to remember when thinking about “racially intolerant” Papuans who might be a little pissed off at military/transmigrants entering what they think is there country… the so called plebiscite in 196something was fully engineered by the Indonesian government and ended up with roughly 1000 key Papuan individuals voting to remain part of Indonesia. Hardly a plebiscite if you ask me. Not to mention USA support for the assimilation of Papua into Indonesia because of the fear of Indonesia turning into a communist nation which was never realized as the communist party was destroyed in 1965, and many ethnic Chinese in the process by intolerant ethnic Indonesians (using ur logic).

    In response to your second claim that the transmigration is not a government funded program, could you please read the governments agenda on their official website. I suppose you can speak and understand bahasa indonesian? Maybe you would like to go to the Government Website of Manpower and TRANSMIGRATION (http://bto.depnakertrans.go.id/tentang/sejarah.php) and read the History of the Transmigration program (Transmigrasi sejarah) and also the description in registering for the website in order to TRANSMIGRATE under government FACILITATION. And have a look at the different aide and support that is given citizens wishing to transmigrate.

    Again, a few random incoherent comments, but hey this is a blog. i can’t be bothered to reply in essay form. but seriously to just dismiss Papuans aspirations for independence as primitive tribalism of a stone aged society, and to try and obscure an inherently damaging government policy of transmigration as ordinary indonesians just trying to get along in the world is really just… well bullshit.

  • 5
    Jason Macleod
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Great to see the discussion.

    In regards to the Freeport strike. Danuarto is correct, the strike leader is indeed a Javanese man by the name of Sudiro. However, the bulk of the workforce on strike are Papuans and three-quarters of the “foremen” are Papuans. The point about the local and central government deserving a greater share of the profits from Freeport remains.

    The comments about the Indonesian government not tolerating separatism misses the point. There are a whole range of things the Indonesian (and foreign governments) can do to address the root political causes of the conflict within the framework of the Indonesian state. That includes allowing free speech, releasing political prisoners and beginning a dialogue process.

    As for the Papuans rioting on October 19, you’ve got to be kidding?! The Papuans held a nonviolent political rally and the Indonesian police opened fire after it had finished – while people were still singing and dancing. The police and military shot dead three and fatally stabbed two others. Now the organisers are in jail while those members of the security forces who killed the Papuans get a written warning.

    Is it any surprise the Papuans want freedom?

  • 6
    Andrew
    Posted November 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Godwins law must be right…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

  • 7
    Danuarta Roger
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    @MacLeod:

    So, you admitted that you are wrong to connect the recent strikes with “separatism”. Instead, the strike is an effort led by a Javanese who are very successfully leading a majority ethnic-Papuan workforce is getting Freeport to sacrifice its fat profit margin and leaving a larger bulk of its revenuew within Indonesia.

    In terms of “dialogue”, Indonesian govt is always open for discussion but will never budge one inch regarding the final and internationally-acknowledged integration of Papua within Indonesian Republic. We just treat such “demands” as joke, just as if some Aborigines demand whites to start “dialogue” whereby the topic is demanding whites to leave Australia. Indonesian govt will only entertain reasonable dialogue and will never submit to intimidation, violence, or extremist demands from “separatists”.

    In terms of “peaceful” demonstration, are you being fed another dose of fairy-tale myths by separatists? I guess you would describe the 2006 rioting whereby a violent mob beat unarmed policeman and some non-Papuan civilians as “non-violent”. We Indonesians are not gullible donkeys that just accept the childish lies of separatist propaganda. No wonder these dumb separatists never accomplish anything for all their “efforts” for the past 50 years. LOL

  • 8
    Jason Macleod
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Not so Danuarta. The Freeport strike may be lead by a Javanese but many of the leadership are also Papuans, that includes 3/4 of the nearly 300 section leaders. Moreover, leaders from the seven tribes and their communities also support the strike. The strike may be about higher wages and better conditions but issues of economic injustice need to be seen in the context of wider grievances. The issues of economic justice and freedom are separate but they are also connected. Just ask any Papuan.

    Now to the Papuan Congress.

    Yes it was peaceful. 100% so – on the Papuans side, at least. It was the Indonesian police and military who shot and stabbed people to death.

    And many Indonesians, including politicians, are outraged at security forced violence.

    Violence needs to be condemned – whoever perpetrates it. I say the same thing about 2006.

    You seem like an Indonesian nationalist. Nothing wrong with that. And i hear your anger. Nothing wrong with strong views either, although your comments about “dumb” and “stone age” Papuans are inflammatory. They discredit your arguments and are offensive.

    It also sounds like you condone security forces killing Papuans nonviolently exercising their right to free speech? Is this the kind of Indonesia you really want?

    It is these views and unwillingness by Indonesians to sit down and talk about the root causes that is driving so called separatism in Papua.

    In that respect you are supporting the independence cause. Ironic really.

  • 9
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    @Danuarta I don’t think you are adding much to this discussion by referring to groups and people in derogatory terms.

    Refer to the blog’s “moderation guidelines“.

    NAJ Taylor

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