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Australia's illogic over Timor and West Papua



This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins other Pacific leaders for a summit in Tuvalu. There, in addition to climate change and other matters, he will be challenged by his counterparts to address the issue of human rights violations in West Papua.

 Aerial view of Manokwari, capital of West Pupua. (Ricky Martin / EyeEm)For some Pacific leaders and Papuan activists, the continuing resistance and repression in Papua is due to the denial of self-determination to the Papuan people by the United Nations in August 1969, 50 years ago this month, and their forced incorporation into Indonesia as its 26th province. Australia endorsed the incorporation and continues to uphold it.

A few days later, the PM will travel to Timor-Leste to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that nation's act of self-determination. In August 1999, also facilitated by the United Nations, 78.5 per cent of East Timorese voted freely for independence from Indonesia, ending their forced incorporation as Indonesia's 27th province.

One wonders if the Prime Minister will be aware of the supreme irony of these two events, the lack of logic in Australia's conflicting policies on the fate of the two peoples, and Canberra's flexible approach to the much vaunted international rules based order when it does not serve pragmatic national interests.

As it has for many years, Vanuatu is spearheading expressions of concern about ongoing violence in West Papua. Aware that China's increasing presence in the region is giving the Pacific new leverage in Canberra, Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu has overcome objections by Australia to rally support from other members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and have West Papua listed on the summit agenda. 

He particularly wants the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Papua and report to the Forum before its next meeting in 2020. Also of interest is that Regenvanu hosted a visit to Port Vila in May by Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General. Guterres was Prime Minister of Portugal in 1999 and is highly regarded in Timor-Leste for urging UN intervention there in response to the violence following the referendum.

Regenvanu has also ensured a seat at TIF proceedings for Benny Wenda, the UK-based leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Wenda is campaigning for the UN General Assembly to re-examine the 1969 Act of Free Choice. The World Council of Churches has recently registered its concerns about human rights in Papua.


"Fifty years on, Papuans continue to feel a deep sense of injustice; and Papua remains Jakarta's only post-independence territorial problem which neither military crackdowns nor good will gestures have resolved."


All this is heresy in Jakarta and Canberra. As with East Timor previously, both regard West Papua as a non-negotiable part of Indonesia. 'Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia's internal affairs,' stated a Foreign Ministry response to PIF.

Australia is even more forthright: 'Australia recognises Indonesia's sovereignty over the Papua provinces, as stated in the Lombok Treaty of 2006. Australia will not support efforts that undermine Indonesian sovereignty over Papua in any forum and will not associate itself with any PIF communique to that effect.'

The UN recognised that East Timor and West Papua both enjoyed the right to self-determination and a free one-person one-vote say on their political future. In East Timor, after a long struggle, the principle was honoured in 1999 and resulted in peace, human rights and the relationship that Timor-Leste and Indonesia now enjoy. In West Papua, it was subverted by Suharto's military, who allowed only 1025 Papuans to vote.

The result is plain to see. Fifty years on, Papuans continue to feel a deep sense of injustice; and Papua remains Jakarta's only post-independence territorial problem which neither military crackdowns nor good will gestures by President Joko Widodo have resolved.

Scholars in the Netherlands and others increasingly argue that the UN is guilty of a grave miscarriage of justice in West Papua. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for a review and the UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, recently described the Act as 'an utterly flawed process'.

Papuans are entitled to ask, why did the UN treat them differently to the East Timorese? And is a flawed process irreversible? For answers, they are rightly turning their attention to the rules based system. The law that incorporated Papua into the Republic is currently being tested in Indonesia's Constitutional Court in Jakarta and UN members are being asked to support a review of the 1969 process.

If they are confident of their case, what have Jakarta and Canberra to fear from such enquiries?



Pat WalshPat Walsh is the author of The Day Hope and History Rhymed in East Timor and Other East Timor Stories (2019).

Main image: Aerial view of Manokwari, capital of West Pupua. (Ricky Martin / EyeEm / Getty)

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, East Timor, West Papua, Indonesia, Joko Widodo, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

In my opinion, Australia is in many ways a bad neighbour to its Pacific neighbours. Accepting Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua resulting from an election rigged by Indonesia 50 years ago is unconscionable. Australia's pathetic response to the climate crisis when Pacific Islands are going under due to rising sea levels is also unconscionable. I suggest to readers to go to ABC I-view and watch 'climate change - the facts'. There are prophetic voices like Sir David Attenborough speaking out, but I don't find many prophetic voices in Australia's major political parties, which doesn't bode well for the future of our region or the world!

Grant Allen | 13 August 2019  

An excellent article and So good to see that the plight of West Papua people hasn't been completely forgotten by other Pacific neighbours.

Anna | 14 August 2019  

I totally agree with Pat, I am old enough to remember the so called referendum on Papua's independence in the 1960's and Australia's support of Indonesia taking over the province from the Dutch, despite Papuan resistance. In every respect the Papuans are a distinctly separate civilization from the Javanese centred Indonesians. Our record on East Timor was also looking suspect until events there overtook the Government . The seabed dispute made us look very greedy over the Sunrise gas fields dispute. I watched the 4 Corners programme on Climate Change. David Attenborough painted a worrying scenario, not just for us, but more importantly for the Pacific Islands. Sadly Morrison. like Abbott and Turnbull before him, supports the fossil fuel industry above the interests of the Pacific Islanders. I wonder what the pollies will do when we have the peoples of these islands knocking on our door when their nations disappear beneath the waves. Narau and Manus will not be there to send them to!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 14 August 2019  

A very fine article indeed by a man who knows more than most about the intricacies of regional politics, and holds the Timorese, Papuan and Indonesian peoples in high regard. Whether the Australian PM is attuned to any of the nuances of the Australian relationships with these neighbours is important. I am reminded of the comments of both John Howard and Alexander Downer that they felt their greatest achievements were connected to the freeing of East Timor. Undoubtedly, in 1999 their time was committed to the situation, but that is in contrast to the history of their reluctance to work towards justice in previous years. Howard’s Christmas letter of 1998 suggested “autonomy” within Indonesia for the Timorese, not freedom. Had that been installed, the Timorese might even now be as satisfied as the currently “autonomous” Papuans. In fact Howard only changed course when President Habibie announced dropping East Timor. How could Australia then possibly maintain its traditional position that Timor should remain part of Indonesia when Indonesia itself wanted it gone? The Australian people cannot be underestimated here, as utter shame finally moved thousands onto the streets. Will Indonesia ever want to slough off Papua? Will Australians learn the story of Papua? Pat’s itemising of the current movements regarding Papua is enlightening, and exciting. The hopes of the Papuan people must be fulfilled, but that can only come through international processes. Canberra, unfortunately, seems to be still fearful of Jakarta, reluctant to assert any independence from its shadow.

Susan Connelly | 15 August 2019  

Thank you Pat Walsh for reminding us of the genocide of the West Papuans occurring just off our northern coast. Yes, the UN supervised Act of Free Choice in 1969 was a great disgrace for the UN and a disaster for our West Papuan brothers and sisters who refer to it as the Act of No Choice. And it shows a contradiction in the UN performance that it later supported the East Timorese demand for independence and conducted a much more efficient independence referendum. It was still difficult because, thanks to Howard and Downer (the very reluctant saviours), it occurred with the presence of the Indonesian military (TNI) and its Timorese militias running amok and terrorising the population. The UN peace force should have been there before the exercise which may have prevented the loss of 2000 more lives and 80% of Timor's infrastructure. Prior to 1969, there was another disaster for the West Papuans in 1962 when US president John Kennedy intervened to give in to Sukarno's demand that Indonesia take over West Papua when the Dutch government was preparing the people for independence. The US was eager to get its hands on West Papua's copper and gold resources which it did I have also suspected for a long time that the CIA was plotting with Suharto and other extreme right wing TNI generals from the late 1950s to intervene in Indonesia to turn it into a client state of the US. This occurred in 1965 with the loss of up to 3 million Indonesians I think it is interesting that our PM who prays for more love in Australia is so utterly devoid of love and compassion for all the victims of TNI repression and those doing it tough at home. Still, I suppose that if he prays hard enough the billions he gives to the super wealthy and the big corporations will trickle its way down into the hands of the people who need it! Could it be that the recent conferral of the freedom of the City of Oxford on Benny Wenda, a leader of the West Papua freedom movement, will help to increase awareness about West Papua and lead to its final independence from the TNI barbaric brutality? I certainly hope this comes very soon as the West Papuans have been denied their freedom, human rights and access to their resources for far too long.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 August 2019  

One could argue that as Papuans are racially different from Indonesians, the fact that they were vassals of Indonesian monarchs in pre-Dutch times doesn’t make it legitimate for Indonesia to claim them now, ‘decolonisation’ having been the in-thing since WW2. One might even think culture also buttresses the independence argument, West Papua being a majority Christian (61%) society, with Islam at a relatively distant 38%. But the US owns jurisdictions such as Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa that have majority populations of different races to ‘Americans’ and, frankly, if I were a native resident of the island of New Guinea faced with a referendum choice of becoming independent or incorporating in some way into the Commonwealth of Australia, I’d give political correctness the flick and ‘self-determine’ with the proven worth of a western European state with the usual western European virtues of good administration and economy, in company with the overwhelming majority of Hawaiians, Guamians and American Samoans. While a racial difference per se doesn’t mean anything, two contrasting strategic questions for us outsiders arise: is the Papuan Christian ethos best protected by independence; does it moderate Muslim-majority Indonesia to own a Christian-majority province run under special conditions of autonomy?

roy chen yee | 16 August 2019  

Thank you Pat for a timely reminder of Australia's responsibilities to justice in our region. The reason why Indonesia violently represses West Papua, forbids protest and refuses democratic rights to its citizens is largely economic. West Papua is rich in natural resources: gold, silver, natural gas, copper, timber, etc. "The Indonesian government is exploiting these resources, ever since it took over West Papua, while few of the profits are returned to West Papuans." Wikipedia. "In 1936, Dutch geologist Jean Jacques Dozy climbed the world’s highest island peak: the forbidding Mount Carstensz, a snow-covered silver crag on what was then known as Dutch New Guinea. During the 4,800-metre ascent, Dozy noticed an unusual rock outcrop veined with green streaks. Samples he brought back confirmed exceptionally rich gold and copper deposits. Today, these remote, sharp-edged mountains are part of West Papua, Indonesia, and home to the Grasberg mine, one of the biggest gold mines – and third largest copper mine – in the world. Majority-owned by the American mining firm Freeport McMoRan, Grasberg is now Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer, with reserves worth an estimated $100bn." Guardian 2/11/2016. Surely West Papuans cant complain about the rape and pillage of their resources to benefit Jakarta?

Francis Armstrong | 18 August 2019  

Decency and (supposed) 'enlightened' self-interest collide in regard to Australia's support for the West Papuan people (not necessarily their independence) and dealing equitably with the Timorese. During Dutch colonial rule Irian Jaya was 'off limits' to Javanese and other nonindigenous settlers. I have been to Indonesia several times and like the people, however, you would have to be blind to the fact that the Javanese, the most numerous ethnicity, are seen as 'the new Dutch' by other Indonesians. Any attempt at West Papuan independence will be met with the same repression that happened in Timor Leste. It is a real problem and it may get worse before things improve. We need to bear in mind that the power dynamic between us and Indonesia is changing greatly in their favour so we need to tread carefully, as well as firmly, with them on what they see as 'internal matters'. Re Timor Leste, we need to grow up and treat them with equity. We owe them a debt from WW 2. Maybe now is the time to pay up.

Edward Fido | 20 August 2019  

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