Indonesia and Australia

The Australian government should be congratulated for giving temporary protection visas to a group of West Papuan refugees escaping Indonesian repression. It is a welcome start, though much more can be done.

Damien Kingsbury is Director of International and Community Development at Deakin University and an Indonesia expert. The following article is his comment on the latest diplomatic and political row between Indonesia and Australia and is published here exclusively:

Indonesia, Australia and West Papua
Damien Kingsbury

Australia’s decision to grant 42 of 43 Papuan asylum seekers temporary protection has put Australia’s relationship with Indonesia under renewed strain. It has also highlighted contradictions in Australia’s policy toward Indonesia.

The already parlous political environment in Papua has worsened in recent months. The escape to Australia by 36 adult Papuans and seven children, claiming human rights abuses, was both an indication of this increasing problem, and intended to highlight it. The riot at the giant Freeport gold and copper mine last Thursday, in which three police and a military intelligence officer were killed, was another.

There have also been a series of demonstrations and riots in and around the provincial capital of Jayapura against the elections on 10 and 11 March for the legislatures of the now divided province. Jakarta had promised to address Papua’s many political and economic problems with the granting of ”˜special autonomy’ in 2001. However, this ”˜special autonomy’ has largely been observed in the breach, with the division of the province being the final betrayal.

The TNI has also doubled the number of its permanent troops in Papua since last September. Their casual violence towards indigenous Papuans and the requirement to fund up to three-quarters of their living costs from local sources – both legal and illegal – has worsened the local security environment. Last December, military (TNI) commander in Papua, Major-General Mahidin Simbolon – who was deeply involved in East Timor’s violence in 1999 – confirmed that local soldiers and police had been paid US$26.6 million between 1998 and 2004 by Freeport for ”˜protection’.

Australia’s recognition of the claims of the Papuans as political refugees highlights its own internally contradictory policy towards Indonesia. The granting of asylum officially confirms their claims of continuing human rights abuses in the territory. Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, murdered Papuan leader Theys Eluay in 2001.

Last year, Australia formally renewed training between the army’s SAS and Kopassus, which had been ended after the TNI’s involvement in the destruction of East Timor in 1999.

Australia’s military links with Indonesia, and its proposed security treaty which will probably be signed in June, is the sort of papering over of such contradictions that led to the fallout between Australia and Indonesia over East Timor. It was, and remains, a policy, the longer term costs of which are much greater than its claimed short term benefits.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is trying to bring the TNI more firmly under civilian control, which the TNI is resisting. The TNI’s position in Papua, and the future status of the territory, is the test case in this contest for control.

Yudhoyono’s closeness to Australia will work against him and damage his cautious but clear reform agenda, including on an intended negotiated outcome to the Papua problem. He, or more likely his senior ministers, such as Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono, will therefore have to be seen to be critical of Australia and thus play into the hands of the pro-TNI hardliners.

Australia’s contradictory and confusing policy towards the TNI does not assist Yudhoyono in his efforts towards military reform, complicates Indonesia’s internal political processes, and leaves most Australians wondering why successive governments have insisted on supporting such a corrupt and brutal military.

A clearer policy for Australia would be, like the Indonesian government itself, to recognize that the TNI is still not under civilian authority. It should therefore refuse to deal with them until that is clearly and demonstrably the case. Accepting Papuan asylum seekers would then be consistent with this view and it would actually accord with the Indonesian president’s own policy towards the TNI.

But that is not Australia’s policy at this time. And given the almost fetish-like insistence by influential policy advisers in Canberra of cuddling up to the TNI regardless of its crimes, Australia’s relationship with Jakarta will continue to be bounced from pillar to post.

In the meantime, the people of Papua, and elsewhere in Indonesia, will wear at least some of the consequence of Australia’s confused bilateral policy.…