Barely two weeks into office and Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has committed his government to upholding an appeasement policy that has seen Australia entangled in some of the worst human rights abuses imaginable in the neighbouring region of West Papua, where a struggle for independence has been waged for over four decades.
The Abbott government’s intentions, in this respect, were loudly signalled following the arrival of seven West Papuan refugees in the Torres Strait Islands last week. The asylum seekers told Australian government officials they feared persecution at the hands of the Indonesian authorities after supporting a Freedom Flotilla, which had set sail for their province.
The West Papuan group were allegedly informed that they would be flown to the Australian mainland. Instead, the asylum seekers were shuttled off to Papua New Guinea (PNG) – which became standard practice under the ousted Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd – and cut adrift in the capital, Port Moresby.
Precarious fate awaits
Their fate in PNG will be a precarious one. A large community of displaced West Papuans currently reside on abandoned drainage lands in Port Moresby, where floods and water-borne diseases are constant threats. The community was dumped on the land by the PNG government after their homes in the eight-mile district were bulldozed to make way for a new property development.
Yet far from displaying a hint of sympathy for the West Papuan seven and the bleak fate awaiting them, Prime Minister Abbott celebrated his government’s actions at a press conference this week in Jakarta: “We are fair dinkum about doing what we can to help Indonesia in every way and you might be aware of the fact that there were some people who turned up in the Torres Strait last week wanting to grandstand about issues in Papua. Well, very swiftly … they went back to PNG.”
“Grandstanding”, “issues”, if ever apologetic words have been uttered in defence of systematic persecution these are it. Indeed, following West Papua’s forced annexation to Indonesia in the 1960s, its native Melanesian population has faced a sustained campaign of state violence.
According to criminologist Elizabeth Stanley, Indonesian “security forces have killed as many as 200,000 Papuans since 1963 …. Terror has been made routine rather than exceptional”. Stanley explains, “Papuan people have been systematically ill-treated, arbitrarily detained, raped and tortured. These violations, undertaken under the rubric of countering subversive or terrorist forces, have been dovetailed with all kinds of social controls. Indonesian officials have placed restrictions on group gatherings, imposed curfews, forcibly displaced populations, conducted house and mail searches, monitored cultural events, and refused ‘outsider’ access to the regions”.
Condemning or combatting these actions are not on the current Australian government’s agenda. Abbott argues, “We want to do everything we reasonably can to demonstrate to the [Indonesian] government and the people of Indonesia that we respect Indonesia’s sovereignty”. Woe betide the West Papuan people then.
Abbott continues, “We want to work with Indonesia to ensure that Indonesia is strong in the years ahead because Indonesia is a future global leader and we want to be its trusted partner on this journey.”
So there you have it, partnership with the Indonesian state trumps the defence of a persecuted ethnic group. Sadly this is something of a bipartisan tradition among Australia’s two biggest political politics.
Labor’s complicity in Indonesian state crime
Earlier this year, before the Australian Labor Party (ALP) lost office, the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, staged an incredible attack on West Papuan supporters during a senate estimates hearing.
“The people who fly Papuan flags and the people who talk the language of secession and independence. They are planting in the minds of people who actually live in the place the notion that this campaign has some kind of international resonance,” Carr opined. He added, “that is a cruel deceit by self-indulgent people safe in their own beds, safe in a democracy. It is a cruel deceit about the potential of a demand for secessionism. Australia and the world recognise Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.”
In a salute to Australia’s colonial era, Carr evokes the image of a docile native people whipped into a frenzy by mischievous outsiders. Nothing could be further from the truth – West Papuans are more than capable of articulating and driving a struggle for civil and political freedom. Of equal absurdity is the suggestion that those who express solidarity with West Papuans somehow bear responsibility for the province’s parlous human rights situation. That ‘distinction’ lies with the Indonesian security forces, their political masters and foreign benefactors.
Indeed, the West Papuans call their plight “the silent genocide”. But perhaps silence is too kind a word, it is the censored genocide.
Though we shouldn’t be surprised by Carr’s political position, after all it was the former ALP Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who proudly eulogised Indonesia’s former ruler, General Soeharto, a man who helped engineer two epic bloodbaths in 1965 and 1975 respectively. In The Age Keating remarked, “Soeharto, by his judgement, goodwill and good sense, had the greatest positive impact on Australia’s strategic environment and, hence, on its history.” The accolades do not stop there, “Soeharto took a nation of 120 million people, racked by political turmoil and poverty, from near disintegration to the orderly, ordered and prosperous state that it is today.”
Ever the moral compass Keating assured us, “The descriptions of Soeharto as a brutal dictator living a corrupt high life at the expense of his people and running an expansionist military regime are untrue. Even Soeharto’s annexation of [East] Timor was not expansionist. It had everything to do with national security and nothing to do with territory.”
Of course this is what one might expect a government figurehead to say, given Australia’s deep military, economic and diplomatic ties with the Soeharto regime. Allan Behm, who once served as head of the Australian Defence Department’s International Policy and Strategy Division, observes:
“By the mid-70s, Australia and Indonesia had established a substantial and diverse defence cooperation program. During the subsequent decade, the defence cooperation program funded the transfer of some 23 ex-RAAF Sabre fighters and seven Attack-class patrol boats to Indonesia, and some tentative links between the Special Forces of the two countries that were largely confined to unit-level visit exchanges, long range patrol training, and some special training in counter-terrorist and counter-hijack skills.”
The actions of the Australian government have nothing to do with the interests of the Indonesian people. Indeed, the Australian state readily lent its military support to the Soeharto regime, which persecuted the Indonesian people for decades. The Abbott government’s position on West Papua has everything to do with insular conceptions of the Australian national interest held by foreign policy makers in Canberra; conceptions that rarely get discussed or debated outside discrete policy circles, which have something of an echo chamber quality to them.
Compounding matters many Australians know little about the depth or breadth of the atrocities that have occurred, and are occurring, in West Papua, or their government’s role in the suffering. Indeed, the West Papuans call their plight “the silent genocide“. But perhaps silence is too kind a word, it is the censored genocide. Communications and movement in and out of West Papua are under constant surveillance by the Indonesian military. Consequently reporting on the atrocities is a notoriously dangerous task for journalists and activists alike.
So the silence continues, and sadly it is aided by major regional powers like Australia which once again stands complicit in one of the great crimes of our age.
Kristian Lasslett is currently Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster and a member of the International State Crime Initiative’s Executive Board. He is editor of the State Crime Testimony Project and joint editor-in-chief of State Crime. His first book State Crime on the Margins of Empire (Pluto Press) is forthcoming. Kristian is presently carrying out research on forced eviction, corruption and civil society in Papua New Guinea.
Follow Kristian Lasslett on Twitter: @klasslett