The Silent War – Australia and Indonesia mum on Papuan human right abuses

by Duncan Graham | Sep 1, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

An Australian academic has lit the fuse of diplomatic fury by publicly criticising Indonesia’s brutal response to the Papuan independence movement, a sensitive topic for governments of both countries. Duncan Graham reports from Indonesia on the silent war to our north.

Queensland historian Dr Greg Poulgrain last week told a Jakarta seminar that the Indonesian government’s approach in Papua has long been top-heavy, bureaucratic, clumsy and self-serving.

“The military arrived in 1962 and 60 years later they’re still there in strength … more troops there now than ever before,” Poulgrain said.

“The NGO Kontras declared that 734 Papuans were killed in 2022. That’s two-and-a-half times the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army last year. And from (the highland province) Nduga there were 60,000 refugees.”

However, a report of the Jakarta seminar, organised by the government research agency Baden Riset dan Inovasi Nasional (BRIN), was published in Indonesia’s leading newspaper, Kompas. It ran to 830 words but didn’t mention Poulgrain or his comments, though he was the invited international guest speaker.

An estimated half-million indigenous Papuans are alleged to have died in the past fifty years through Indonesian military action.

But the Australian Government still stays hush.

Before she became Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong wrote that Labor was distressed by “human rights violations” in West Papua. In a 2019 website post, she says the Lombok Treaty “remains the bedrock of security cooperation” between Australia and Indonesia. Wong has had little to say about West Papua since becoming Foreign Minister.

The Lombok Treaty binds Australia and Indonesia to mutually respect the “sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence of each other.” In short, don’t mention the bad stuff.

It’s about the mining riches

The Grasberg mine in Central Papua has proven and probable reserves of 15.1 million ounces of gold, making it the world’s fifth biggest gold deposit.

It’s run by PT Freeport Indonesia, a joint venture between the Indonesian Government and the US company Freeport-McMoRan.

Poulgrain claims gross revenue from the mine last year was about $13 billion:

We can be sure that the immense wealth of gold was a crucial influence on the sovereignty dispute in the 1950s and still influences the politics of Papua and Indonesia today.

Extreme poverty

Despite the riches, Papua is reportedly one of the least developed regions in Indonesia, with poverty and inequality levels up to three times above the national average of 9.5 percent, as calculated by the Asian Development Bank.

Poulgrain told his Jakarta audience that in 1983 the London-based Anti-Slavery Society sent him to check a report that Papuan under-fives in South Papua were dying like flies – six out of ten were dying: ‘The report was correct.’

The Indonesian government says it has allocated more than Rp 1,036 trillion (AUD 106 million) in the past eight years for development (mainly roads) in a bid to appease self-government demands. That’s a tiny sum against the income.

Independence denied

In 1962, control of the Western half of the Island of New Guinea, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, was temporarily run by the UN. In 1969, it was ceded to Indonesia after a referendum when 1,025 ‘leaders’ hand-picked by the Indonesian military voted unanimously to join Jakarta.

It was labelled an Act of Free Choice; cynics called it an Act Free of Choice. Historian Dr Emma Kluge wrote: “West Papuans were denied independence also because the UN system failed to heed their calls and instead placed appeasing Indonesia above its commitment to decolonisation and human rights.”

West Papua – a human rights tragedy right on our doorstep

The Organisasi Papua Merdeka (freedom) – OPM – started gaining traction in the 1970s. Indonesia has designated it a ’terrorist group, giving the armed forces greater arrest and interrogation powers. Journalists are banned. Requests for entry by this correspondent were given verbal OKs but are now ignored.

Freedom fighters in exile

The only news coming from the remote areas are Christian pastors smuggling out notes and statements from different OPM factions, like the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. (ULMWP).

This is chaired by Benny Wenda who lives in the UK. In 2003 he was granted political asylum by the British government after fleeing Indonesia while on trial for leading an independence procession. Earlier this year he was in Fiji and more recently Vanuatu seeking support for Papua independence through the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), formed in 1983.

The lobbying is angering Jakarta, a major donor to the region. Papuans identify as Melanesians and are mainly Christian. The Indonesian delegation walked out when Wenda got up to speak.

The ABC reported that the leaders couldn’t reach a consensus, but Wenda told Radio NZ he was confident the ULMWP will eventually get full membership:

The whole world is watching, and this is a test for the leadership to see whether they’ll save West Papua.

Curiously, Indonesia is an associate member of the MSG, though the Republic is dominated and led by Javanese. Around two million (0.7 per cent) Papuans are Indonesian citizens.

Wenda is not the only emigre: Prize-winning Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman is wanted by the Indonesian police for allegedly speaking out on violence in Papua. Like Wenda, she says she does not support hostage-taking.

Koman lives in Australia, works with Amnesty International and says she gets death threats. Her parents’ house in Jakarta has reportedly been stoned.

The separatists’ cause gets little sympathy from Indonesians in other provinces. Papuan students in Java have been attacked and suffered racial abuse. Anyone caught flying OPM’s Morning Star flag risks 25 years in jail.

A long history of inaction

Poulgrain is a specialist in Indonesian history and an adjunct fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast and Malang State University in East Java. His interest in Papua goes back to his student years as a backpacker exploring the archipelago.

Poulgrain told MWM that his involvement in the debate was as an independent historian seeking a peaceful settlement.

In 1999 when Megawati was vice-president (she’s now the chair of BRIN), he was invited to a meeting on Papua with ten of her advisors:

They said to me, quite frankly, Papua was a problem they did not know how to solve.

“I suggested vocational training schools. We started – but the whole educational project stopped when the East Timor referendum established independence. Times haven’t changed.’

In 2018 activists delivered a petition to the UN with 1.8 million signatures demanding an independence referendum. That’s gone nowhere. Instead, Jakarta has split West Papua into six provinces supposedly to give locals more say, but to no real effect.

An analysis by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies concludes:

As the US and Australia continue to support Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in Papua, both administrations are unlikely to take bolder stances.

“International action in the situation is likely to remain limited to the Pacific Islands… Separatist violence, having shown its resiliency to Indonesia’s attempts to control the region, is thus likely to continue.”

Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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