SYDNEY, 07 OCTOBER 2019 (ABC)—Tensions between Papuans and those ruling in Jakarta have simmered since it was formally incorporated into Indonesia from Dutch rule, following a disputed referendum in 1969.
In 2003, the province was split in two — becoming West Papua and Papua — but the region is often still referred to collectively as West Papua.
Over the decades since Indonesia’s takeover, calls for West Papuan independence have continued and at times resulted in deadly clashes.
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In recent weeks, the region’s unrest has reportedly caused dozens of deaths and injuries, but obtaining verified information is difficult because of reporting restrictions placed on international journalists in the region — and the Government is also intentionally slowing the region’s internet.
When questioned on the province’s deteriorating security situation in Canberra last week, Foreign Minister Marise Payne told reporters that all sides of the conflict should exercise “absolute restraint”.
“They are matters which our post in Jakarta is following up with authorities there.”
But considering the increasingly deadly nature of the unrest right on Australia’s doorstep, should Canberra be doing more than simply calling for restraint?
Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute, told the ABC’s Signal podcast that Australia’s political leaders have tried to “dodge the issue as best as possible” by giving reporters “routine answers for calm on all sides”, though West Papua’s deteriorating security situation presents Canberra with a complex “high-stakes game”.
Officially, both Indonesia and Australia are obligated to have “mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence and non-interference in the internal affairs of one another” as per the terms of the Lombok Treaty ratified in 2006.
This treaty came after a diplomatic row where Australia accepted 43 Papuan asylum seekers, which prompted Indonesia to withdraw its ambassador to Canberra.
He explained that this relationship is critical because of Indonesia’s growing economic and demographic importance, as the country of 260 million has a median age of 28 compared to Australia’s 38.
Pryke said this would push Indonesia into the top 10 largest economies and would “very quickly” leap over the size of Australia’s economy, which is currently the 13th-biggest in the world.
He added that diplomats had many factors to consider, including that if a high-ranking Australian official was to speak out about West Papua, they would have to ensure it had a material effect.
Pryke said West Papua’s situation had triggered calls particularly from Melanesian countries for Australia to step up.
He said that in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, there were “constant demands” for Australia to start “saying more on the issue”.
“In the Pacific, particularly in Melanesia, there is a sense of solidarity and fraternity with the Melanesian people in West Papua,” Pryke said.
Veronica Koman, a pro-Papuan Indonesian activist and lawyer, told the ABC’s The World program that “at a minimum”, Australia should push Indonesia to grant the United Nation’s Human Rights office and international journalists access to West Papua.
“I think that human rights concerns is above any bilateral treaty,” Koman said.
She said that at least 55,000 residents of West Papua were displaced, however the ABC is unable to independently verify Koman’s claims.
The human rights lawyer is currently taking refuge in Australia following threats to her safety.
In the immediate post-war period, Australia had initially supported the West Papuan bid for independence, but backtracked due to a Western Cold War strategy to minimise “the arc of instability”.
And, in the decades since, Canberra has shown its willingness to side with Indonesia on questions of secession.
While former prime minister John Howard touted the “liberation” of Timor Leste being one of his proudest achievements, recently declassified US intelligence documents suggested it was Washington’s intervention — and not Canberra’s — that forced Indonesia to respect the territory’s 1999 independence vote and allow a peacekeeping mission.
Nowhere in the documents is there any sign that Australia actively pressured the US to take steps to protect the Timorese, despite the worsening violence and evidence that Indonesia’s armed forces were supporting, or even working alongside, the militia groups.
Professor Clinton Fernandes at the University of NSW was in 1999 the principal intelligence analyst for East Timor at the Australian Theatre Joint Intelligence Centre (ASTJIC) in Sydney.
He told the ABC that the declassified documents “essentially confirm that the Howard government’s policy was to keep Timor in Indonesia. And at the end it was forced to backflip”.
Howard’s foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, denied accusations of the government’s apathy toward Timor Leste’s independence in a response to the ABC.
Pryke said that West Papua’s situation was “nowhere near” any red lines that may prompt the kinds of intervention that met Timor Leste in 1999, and said Canberra would not be the “first” to raise grievances over the situation with Jakarta.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was contacted for further comment on its stance on West Papua. (PACNEWS)