4 September 2019
Off the tip of north Queensland is a looming problem that Australia has long tried to avoid: a people suppressed. The region of West Papua receives little attention in Australia, partly because Indonesia blocks access to aid groups, foreign media and the United Nations. But Canberra, too, prefers this silence.
In recent weeks, however, the people of West Papua have shown that they don’t intend to be forgotten. Following an incident in which a group of Indonesian nationalists was filmed racially abusing Papuan students, Papuans have launched the largest independence protests in decades.
Dozens of demonstrations have been held, some of which have resulted in deadly clashes with Indonesian forces. In Jayapura, the capital of Papua, protesters set fire to the parliament and police buildings. Indonesia blocked phone and internet access across the region and dispatched 6000 troops.
On Monday, it was reported that four Australians were being deported from Indonesia after participating in the protests. The arrests allowed Indonesian authorities to resort to their perennial claim about West Papua: that foreign forces, particularly those from Australia, are encouraging the province’s secession as a means to weaken and divide Indonesia. “We know these groups [of demonstrators] have relations with an international network,” said Indonesia’s national police chief, Tito Karnavian.
These paranoid claims are a reminder that Indonesia is an insecure archipelago, a country that consists of thousands of islands and hundreds of languages, and whose current national borders are an accident of postcolonial history. The concern among Indonesian military and political leaders is that Australia, having supported Timor-Leste’s independence (although for many years it did not), will now back West Papua, and that other countries will follow suit.
West Papua, whose people are Melanesian, has a distinctive history, and its status has never been settled. The reason to support its independence is not to destabilise Indonesia. It is to end an injustice. The region was not initially a part of Indonesia when the republic gained sovereignty in 1949, but remained under Dutch control. It was handed over to Jakarta by the United Nations in 1963, pending a vote by the province on independence. But the 1969 ballot was a sham, involving about 1000 voters handpicked by Indonesia from among a population of 800,000. Since then, Indonesia has conducted a number of brutal military crackdowns against West Papuan separatists. It deliberately moved non-Papuans into the area until the current president, Joko Widodo, ended this transmigration practice in 2015. The region now has a population of about 3.5 million, only half of whom are indigenous Papuans. It’s Indonesia’s poorest region, despite having one of the world’s most lucrative copper and gold mines – a key incentive for Jakarta to retain it.
Seeking to avoid damaging its relationship with Indonesia, Australia has rejected calls for a new West Papuan referendum. In 2006, Canberra recognised Indonesia’s territorial integrity in the Lombok Treaty, which explicitly opposed separatist movements. The Howard government had backed Timor-Leste’s independence, and now hoped the treaty would placate Jakarta.
Indeed, the Coalition and Labor, both of which have struggled to develop close ties with Jakarta, have dismissed calls for West Papuan independence as reckless. It’s been easy for both major parties to maintain this position because there is scant public discussion in Australia of the predicament in the region. But this could change, particularly if reporters are able to access information about Indonesian crackdowns, and if media outlets publish the stories. International support for a referendum could grow. And while this would not defuse Indonesian paranoia, it would help to protect Australia from being seen as the lead instigator in a push for independence. Currently, several Pacific nations support the West Papuan cause, as does British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is believed to be the only leader of a major Western political party to publicly do so.
In the meantime, Australia continues to ignore the injustice in the region, even as it occurs on its doorstep. “I’m honoured to be here to celebrate these achievements,” Scott Morrison told his Timorese counterpart during a visit to Dili last week, marking twenty years since Timor-Leste’s Australia-backed independence referendum. “Your nation forged through sacrifice is perhaps the greatest achievement of all … We are pleased to have been able to play the part that we have.”