Subject: Ask the West Papuans & Timorese

This article - with only two sentences missing - appeared in the NZ Herald 7/6/06

"Ask the West Papuans What changes they want"

Maire Leadbeater

(Activists who sought independence for East Timor never thought the transition to democracy would be easy)

Two Herald contributors, John Roughan and Michael Richardson have now gone into bat for the virtues of a unified Indonesia. I totally agree that New Zealand should foster positive links with Indonesia. If that means a boost in Government funds to the tertiary institutions so that they can get their Indonesian language courses going again I am all for it.

However, I strongly dispute the suggestion that good relations depend on uncritical acceptance of Indonesia's rule in West Papua, or that the current crisis in Timor Leste shows that the country would have been better off if it had stayed under Indonesian occupation.

Let's take things back a step. Through the long bloody years of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, our Government had scant concern for East Timorese aspirations. When I combed the declassified diplomatic records of those years it seemed to me that some of the officials couldn't understand why the resistance continued.

Tim Groser, formerly our Ambassador to Jakarta and now a National MP, visited East Timor in 1995 and noted the strong support for independence but could not understand why people would not support "the obvious compromise" of substantial autonomy.

Back then he seemed to share the concern Richardson has today about support for West Papua - that international activists were keeping the issue alive.

He noted: "After all, the poor position of the East Timorese is hardly worse than many other grossly unfortunate people in the world, but whose plight does not have an international character." [1]

Around that time desperate East Timorese activists began seeking asylum in foreign embassies including ours, but New Zealand increased its defence cooperation and sent our Skyhawks to practice ground attack tactics with Indonesian planes.

Despite our government's intransigence, East Timor's resistance gained even stronger international support epitomised in a Nobel Peace Prize win for two of its leaders.

More importantly it won over significant numbers of concerned Indonesians, and ultimately important national political leaders.

Unlike John Roughan, I never thought that an impoverished and traumatised society would make an easy transition to independence.

There are roots of this year's heart wrenching internal conflict that lie deep in the dark years of Indonesian military repression. Back then with spies on all sides, it was difficult to know friend from collaborator.

Timor Leste's remarkable Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation did the best it could to heal the wounds with their meticulously detailed accounting for 24 years of human rights abuses. Community hearings gave victims the opportunity to tell their stories and for perpetrators to atone for more minor crimes.

But there has been no positive response to the Commission's call for an accounting and compensation from the 'big fish', the Indonesian generals and those nations who provided crucial support.

In the case of Australia, that country still benefits from the favorable oil and gas deal it stitched up with Indonesia during the occupation. Regrettably, impunity on this scale lays the ground for others to take the law into their own hands.

At the time of the Indonesian invasion Australian and New Zealand talked about the principle of self-determination, one of the clearest tenets in the United Nations Charter. But 'pragmatism' and Indonesia's anti-communist credentials led them to kowtow to their powerful regional neighbour.

In the same vein John Roughan decries "two bit" states. He is not alone. Australia is backing away as fast as it can from any perceived sympathy for the plight of West Papuans after having accepted the asylum claims of 42 West Papuan seafarers. Under international law Australia had little choice but to accept the group because their claims of persecution were watertight. Now none is likely to reach safe haven because Australia will work with Indonesia to mount a high-tech air and sea border surveillance using submarines, warships, planes and even satellites.

If any do make it through this cordon they will confront the "Pacific solution" policy under which asylum seekers will be sent offshore to have their claims processed.

A key focus of West Papuan anger has been the Freeport McMoran mine whose gold and copper reserves rank among the largest in the world. The US owners derive fabulous wealth and the mine is Jakarta's largest tax-payer.

Meanwhile, the local people live in poverty and many millions of tons of waste are dumped each year into their once pristine rivers.

Would Roughan and Richardson take their arguments to the point of arguing for a new age of Empires? If not then we should give the seductive arguments against "separatism" a more critical look, and more importantly ask the West Papuans what they want. Back in 1961 the Dutch colonial power planned for the decolonisation of West Papua, but Indonesia persuaded its western friends to back its claim to control the mineral rich territory. The UN to its shame also colluded with Indonesia and decided not to challenge a patently sham 1969 referendum in which only 1,022 press ganged men took part.

Even so, West Papuans are not currently calling for a new vote. Rather, over the past four years there has been a strong call coming from the churches and the traditional councils for West Papua to be declared a "Land of Peace". This vision is about restoring human rights, dignity and basic fairness and the pre-requisite is a broad based dialogue with Jakarta and substantial demilitarisation.

Aceh will soon have a new law which sets the parameters for the province to have internal self-government. If that process continues to go well it will set a valuable precedent and there is bound to be considerable national and international pressure for a similar plan for West Papua. No doubt that will not suit the military, but there are indications that some political figures, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are open to peace proposals.

Maire Leadbeater


Indonesia Human Rights Committee

[1] New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta, 6 June, 1995, to Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade "East Timor Ambassador's visit"


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