West Papua, Australian complicity and the fight for freedom

Australian support for repression in West Papuans is driven by foreign policy, says Tom Orsag

The demand for independence in West Papua hit the headlines briefly in October as West Papuan activists briefly occupied the Australian consulate in Bali. Meanwhile the Australia government deported seven West Papuans who arrived here requesting asylum. This followed the arrival of the “Freedom flotilla” in West Papua in September, defying threats from the Indonesian military to complete its 5000 kilometre journey from Australia.

Indonesia seized West Papua by force in the 1960s. Its people’s ongoing struggle for independence deserves our support.

The three West Papuans who occupied had a letter calling on the Australian government to request the release of 55 West Papuan political prisoners from Indonesian jails, including Filep Karma, jailed for 15 years for raising the West Papuan flag in 2004. Indonesia has made the flying of the Morning Star flag of West Papuan independence a criminal offence.

Tony Abbott dismissed the protest at the Australian consulate as “grand standing” and reiterated his support for the “territorial integrity” of Indonesia and its control over West Papua.

Abbott’s complicity over West Papua is a sordid continuation of the long held policy of both Labor and Liberal governments. It is estimated the Indonesian military has killed 500,000 people in West Papua since the 1960s. In one massacre at Biak in 1998, 200 people were first gunned down and then their bodies dumped at sea. As recently as 2011 images of the torture of independence activists appeared in the international media.

Abbott declared that the situation there is getting “better, not worse”. But protests for independence continue to be brutally suppressed by the military, with arrests, beatings and killings commonplace. In May demonstrations making 50 years of Indonesian occupation were attacked by the authorities, with three people shot dead. Demonstrations in October were again broken up by force.

Colonial legacy

West Papua’s position inside Indonesia is a product of the European colonial carve up of the area. West Papua comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea, formerly controlled by the Dutch as part of the Netherlands East Indies. But unlike the rest of Indonesia its population is ethnically Melanesian, as is the eastern half of the island, formerly an Australian colony and now independent Papua New Guinea.

Indonesia won its independence in December 1949, following a successful national war of liberation against the Dutch.

The Dutch retained control of West Papua until 1961 when Indonesia, claiming all of the territory of the former Dutch colony, launched an invasion.

UN mediation led to an agreement that Indonesia would carry out a referendum to determine West Papua’s status, eventually held in 1969. This allowed West Papua to be integrated into Indonesia and was cynically referred to as the “Act of Choice”.

The vote is widely regarded as a sham. Just 1025 handpicked supporters of Indonesian rule took part. The vote was by a show of hands in the presence of the Indonesian military.

Indonesia wanted West Papua for a number of reasons: to expand its territory enabling more transmigration from crowded Java; to tighten its grip of sea lanes running through the archipelago and for its natural resources.

Following the take over, the Indonesian government has carried out what has been called a “slow motion genocide”. Papuans made up 96 per cent of the population in 1971. But following the government-sponsored migration of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians from Java, University of Sydney academic Jim Elsmlie estimates that Papuans make up just 50 per cent of the population today. This will decline further over time if the policy continues.

Australian complicity

Until 1962, the Australian government’s favoured West Papua remaining under Dutch control, consistent with its own colonial control of Papua New Guinea. After pressure from the US and UK governments, however, Australia shifted, remaining firmly against independence but now supporting West Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia. External Affairs Minister Garfield Barwick wrote that an independent West Papua would be a “standing provocation” to Indonesia, and a strong relationship with Indonesia was more important than allowing it self-determination.

On the eve of the farcical “Act of Free Choice” two West Papuan activists crossed in then Australian-controlled Papua New Guinea, carrying testimony from West Papuan leaders calling for independence. Australian authorities prevented them from travelling to the UN, detaining them on Manus Island, the site of the present refugee detention centre.

Australian government policy has been driven by a determination to place economic and strategic interests above all else. This has meant an unbending disinterest in the human rights and lives of West Papuans.

Two-way trade between Australia and Indonesia grew from $8.5 billion 2005 to $14.6 billion in 2012.

Direct Australian investment there totalled $5.4 billion in 2011. This includes Rio Tinto’s 15 per cent stake in Freeport’s Grasberg mine in West Papua.

Indonesia’s geo-political and strategic importance to the Australian ruling class is even greater.

Indonesia straddles the sea routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. World shipping, both trade and naval, passes through the Malacca and Sunda Straits.

In the late 1990s, Peter Hartcher wrote in the Financial Review that, “Forty per cent of all world shipping passes through the archipelago [of Indonesia] … A sixth of all Australian trade passes through those Indonesian straits.”

Both the United States, as the world’s sole military superpower, and Australia, as the regional military power, perceive an interest in keeping the islands of the Indonesian archipelago under the tight control of the political and military establishment in Jakarta. This ensures maximum “stability” for both economic and geopolitical interests in the region.

Any threats to the unity of the Indonesian state—such as the secessionist movements in West Papua or Aceh—are perceived as threats to this “stability”. They worry an independent West Papua would be a micro-nation open to “outside influence” from other world powers. This is something that Australia’s rulers are determined to avoid so close to home.

Therefore they have done everything they can to support Indonesia’s control over its archipelago, and oppose independence movements.

This complicity has extended to direct military support for the repression carried out by the Indonesian military.

There have been reports in the last year that Detachment 88, an Indonesian army unit that has received extensive training from the Australian Federal Police, is involved in torture and extra-judicial killings in West Papua.

Australia has long been complicit in Indonesia's oppression of West Papua

Australian supplied military helicopters were used in the 1970s to carry out indiscriminate shootings and napalm bombing, according to a report released last month by the Asian Human Rights Commission.

In November 2006, the Howard Government signed a new security treaty with Jakarta. As the Melbourne Age reported at the time, “At the core of the treaty is a commitment from Australia never again to intervene in Indonesia’s internal affairs or undermine its territorial integrity.” This includes any support for moves towards West Papuan independence.

The treaty also made it harder for West Papuans seeking political asylum to settle in Australia.

The grant of asylum to 43 West Papuans who arrived in Australia in February 2006 angered the Indonesian government. By including references to asylum seekers in the new treaty, the Howard government hoped to make the case of the 43 the last of its kind.

The 2006 treaty formalised renewed links between the Australian SAS and Indonesia’s Special Forces—Kopassus. The SAS had previously helped train Kopassus, only to see them used to terrorise the East Timorese in the lead-up to their independence in 1999.

Tony Abbott says he will “do everything that we possibly can to discourage and prevent” West Papuans assisting the independence movement from inside Australia. We have to make sure he fails.

Deadly spear of ‘development’: Freeport’s Grasberg mine

Two years before the formal decision on West Papua’s future, Indonesian dictator General Suharto signed a contract with US mining company Freeport to establish a mine at Ertsberg, on the largest above ground copper deposit ever discovered. Later Freeport set up another mine at Grasberg, today the world’s largest gold mine and the third-largest copper mine, with reserves worth an estimated $50 billion. The mine remains the largest single taxpayer to the Indonesian government.

Like all copper mines it produces huge amounts of waste. This has simply been dumped, severely impacting nearby rainforest. Local rivers are now unsuitable for aquatic life.

In 2006, Freeport chairman James Moffatt’s pay package was worth $US47 million and CEO Richard Adkerson made $US36.1 million.

Moffatt believes the company is bringing civilisation to the people of West Papua. In 1995, he told The Nation magazine, “We are thrusting a spear of economic development into the heartland of Irian Jaya … This not a job for us, it’s a religion.”

The mine is situated at the top of a 4700 metre high mountain range, which the company has hewn down by 1200 metres. As a result landslides are common.

In 2003, Freeport was forced to admit that it paid the Indonesian military to harass local Papuan landowners.

The New York Times reported that company records showed the total amount paid between 1998 and 2004 was nearly $US20 million. During the three month strike from September 2011, Indonesian police admitted they were paid “pocket money” by Freeport. They had shot and killed five miners.

One “noteworthy” Freeport board member was Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and war criminal. As President Nixon’s national security adviser, in July 1969, he wrote, “You should tell [Suharto] that we understand the problems they face in West Irian.”

As Secretary of State he agreed to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in December 1975. He was the company’s main lobbyist for dealings with Indonesia until 1995.


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