Posted by RASUDOFM DOGIYAI ~ on
Kamis, 27 Juni 2013 ~
West Papua is creating tension beyond its borders as it fights for independence. (Reuters)
Australia was instrumental in supporting
East Timor's fight for independence in the 1990s. What role would an
Australian Coalition government have in the move towards West Papuan
independence, asks Tracee Hutchison.
prime minister John Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer
began working toward East Timor's independence in 1999, history now
tells us that they did so, initially, without letting on to the
As the Australian government continued to
publically support Jakarta's territorial claim over the resource-rich
Indonesian province, privately the actions of Howard and Downer set in
motion the makings of a new nation.
John Howard's leadership
overseeing the UN-sponsored independence referendum and Australia's
peacekeeping role in the fledgling nation remains, as he wrote in his
biography Lazarus Rising, one of his proudest achievements and won him
international acclaim. (Perhaps everywhere except Indonesia, where the
issue of Timor Leste remains contentious).
spiritual investment in East Timor was already considerable by the time
the country voted overwhelmingly to break free from Indonesian rule. The
killing of five Australian newsmen at Balibo in 1975 and the wave of
Timorese refugees who made Australia home in the wake of the Indonesian
occupation meant many Australians knew Timor's story well.
helped that the country had a Mandela-like leader who led Fretilin's
resistance from his jail cell, one who also happened to fall in love
with his Australian go-between in the process - and another who
traversed the world stage as leader-in-exile, a Nobel peace laureate in
Fast-forward 11 years after Xanana Gusmao was sworn in
as the country's first president and the prospect of another Timor-like
territorial tug of war with Indonesia at its epicentre is getting some
tentative traction in the region. This time it is the Indonesian restive
province of West Papua that is creating tension beyond its borders.
Australian political leaders spent another week focused on a power
struggle over who would lead the country, heads of state from Pacific
island nations were grappling with a power struggle over a West Papuan
application for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an
intergovernmental organisation made up of the four Melanesian states;
Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The West Papuan
National Coalition for Liberation had proposed that, as ethnic
Melanesians, Papuans had a right to representation.
At first blush
it's not the stuff of headlines and in Australia it didn't make any.
After all, the MSG's core business of promoting regional trade and
political consultation within a 'Melanesian framework' isn't going to be
of much consequence to too many people in Australia.
But the mere
fact the MSG made Papua's application for inclusion in the group an
agenda item is significant in itself. And one that won't have gone
unnoticed in Jakarta. Nor would the group's joint communiqué - released
without any fanfare late on Friday night - that alleged human rights
abuse in the Indonesian province need to be addressed as part of ongoing
engagement and dialogue with Indonesia.
These may well prove to
be benign manoeuvrings, but at least one Melanesian leader has warned
that history would judge them poorly if the bloc displayed a lack of
leadership on the West Papua issue. Vanuatu's prime minister Moana
Carcasses - a strong supporter of Papuan independence - told fellow MSG
leaders that the group's "failure to take decisive action" on Papua
would be "exposed by future generations".
While the application is
still being considered, the prospect of West Papuan membership in the
Melanesian Spearhead Group poses a vexing dilemma for regional
geopolitics. In the lead-up to last week's meeting of the MSG PNG prime
minister Peter O'Neill slipped up to Jakarta for a meeting with
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono vowing to raise human
rights abuses in West Papua in their discussions. Publically, SBY and
O'Neill issued a joint statement on those talks that the two nations
would "work together" on their shared border issues. Again, the mere
fact the issue was raised at this level is not insignificant.
supports Indonesia's territorial governance over West Papua and neither
side of politics would meet with high-profile West Papuan independence
campaigner Benny Wenda when he undertook his self-described 'Freedom
Tour' through Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Vanuatu earlier this year.
Benda lives in exile in London and counts Julian Assange's Australian
lawyer Jennifer Robinson among his supporters.
But while Australia
currently keeps the Papuan cause at arms-length, it hasn't always been
that way. Australia, somewhat controversially, accepted a group of West
Papuan asylum seekers as genuine refugees back in 2006. The group of 43 -
community leaders and their families among them - had fled in fear
after violence broke out when the West Papuan flag, the Morning Star,
was raised in direct defiance of Indonesian law in the province. The
incident caused a bitter diplomatic spat between Jakarta and Canberra.
Australia, by acknowledging the group would face persecution if they
returned home, had directly challenged Indonesia's sovereignty and
governing policy in West Papua. John Howard was Australian prime
minister and SBY was Indonesia's president.
In more recent years,
the Liberal/National Coalition has mirrored the Rudd/Gillard position on
Papua. Both sides of Australian politics understand Jakarta's influence
and strategic importance as a regional powerhouse and both have been
massaging the relationship through the prism of regional security and
Despite a steady flow of allegations of
human rights abuses in West Papua since the country's 'Act of Free
Choice' elections in 1969, the issue of West Papuan independence remains
firmly off the Australian-Indonesian bilateral political agenda. It is a
curious twist of history and fate that Australia fell in love with East
Timor's quest for independence from Indonesian but West Papua, with its
not dissimilar circumstance, has been something of a silent witness.
three months time, if the polls are accurate, Australia will have a new
prime minister and a new foreign minister. Tony Abbott is a proud
protégé of John Howard and Julie Bishop, should she stay in the foreign
affairs portfolio, has invested a great deal travelling and talking to
regional leaders in the Pacific. Bishop, in particular, would understand
the acute sensitivities of the Papua question in the Melanesian
When John Howard was elected prime minister in 1996 an
independent East Timor was unthinkable but it proved to be his greatest,
and most unlikely, foreign policy triumph. Could an equally unthinkable
destiny await West Papua under the stewardship of an Abbott-led
The momentum for change may well be starting to rumble across the Pacific.
Tracee Hutchison broadcasts across Australia/Asia/Pacific for ABC News Radio and Radio Australia. View her full profile here.