While I’ll admit that I’ve found the furore and subsequent media hysteria around the Australian government tapping the phone of Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudyhono and his wife fairly amusing, one thing has remained a little bit frustrating for me. No one likes to think that we spy on other countries, but the very idea of a nation is based on exclusion and some antagonism with our neighbours. Otherwise we wouldn’t have borders at all.
But the question we really should be asking is “what are our government listening for?” Tony Abbott says it is “for good and not evil.” So what kind of things do we think cause our intelligence analysts to prick their ears up as they listen in? Mass murder? Human rights abuses? Genocide?
It would appear not. Because while our government was bugging the first lady’s private calls, in broad daylight, 200km from Australia’s coast, the people of West Papua are crying out for the outside world to pay attention to what the Indonesian government and military are doing to their people and their land.
How’s this for an intelligence scoop? You don’t even need all that fancy spy technology. On October 5th, three West Papuan men risked their safety to climb the fence of the Australian consulate in Bali. They wished to present to the Australian people an open letter asking that Australia put pressure on Indonesia to release political prisoners and allow foreign journalists and human rights observers into the country.
Australia’s response? The Australian consulate threatened to call the police. Tony Abbott responded by publicly saying “Australia will not give people a platform to grandstand against Indonesia.” The spies didn’t look up, most Australians paid no attention, and the people of West Papua kept dreaming and struggling for a time when they would be free.
In the aftermath of World War II (when Japan successfully invaded its South Eastern colonies), the Dutch empire was in decline. They lost control of Indonesia, and prepared to leave their other colonies in the region – Maluku and West Papua. On December 1st, 1961, West Papua declared its independence from the Dutch. It didn’t last long.
Indonesia had its eyes on West Papua and its resources. While they are geographically close, Papuans are different ethnically (they are Melanesian, similar to aboriginal Australians), religiously (Christian compared to mostly Muslim Indonesia) and culturally (Papua is made up of hundreds of tribes, each with their own distinct languages). But Papua is cursed with an abundance of land and natural resources.
The United States, in the middle of the cold war, feared that Indonesia would turn to Russia for help, gifting the USSR a significant ally in the region. So the US launched a pre-emptive strike. In August 1963 in New York, the US negotiated an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands where Indonesia would take control of West Papua. No Papuans were present. Within a few years, American mining company Freeport-McMoran had begun mining the world’s biggest gold mine near Timika in West Papua.
Part of the agreement was that at some point West Papua would hold a referendum for their independence. In July 1969, the so-called “Act of Free Choice” took place, where 1025 Papuans were chosen to represent the population. They had guns pointed at their heads and were told to vote to stay with Indonesia. For reasons that remain a mystery (pressure from Indonesian military? From the US?), the United Nations observers declared it a valid result.
Since then, over 500 000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian military. Papuans have never stopped struggling for merdeka (freedom), but they have been met the whole time with brutal repression. Theys Eluay, the president of the self-appointed Papuan Presidium Council, was murdered in 2001. As I write this, the current President and Prime Minister, Forkorus Yaboisembut and Edison Waromi, are in jail. They were arrested as part of the brutal shutdown of the Third Papuan People’s Congress in October 2011. Any moves towards independence can be charged as treason. Filep Karma is currently serving 15 years for raising the West Papuan flag.
Meanwhile, the natural resources of Papua have been plundered. The gas, gold, copper and forests of Papua have provided a windfall for the Indonesian government while Papuans live in poverty, often mourning the destruction of their sacred land. Indonesia’s transmigration program has slowly made Papuans a minority in their own country. Combine this with the deaths and the suppression of Papuan languages and customs, and you have what is referred to as West Papua’s “slow genocide”.
But back to Australia and its phone tapping. The role of Australia in the oppression of East Timor is well documented. Similar to West Papua, a declaration of independence was followed almost immediately by an Indonesian invasion. Australia turned a blind eye then and continued to train Indonesian soldiers and stage joint military exercises even after the Indonesian military was internationally condemned for slaughtering 180 civilians in 1991’s Dili massacre.
John Howard’s government and Peter Cosgrove’s military positioned themselves as defenders of freedom when Australia sent its army to assist East Timor’s transition to independence in 1999, but the hypocrisy of it was plain to see. Australian’s diplomatic and trade relations with Indonesia, and its access to the oil reserves of the Timor Sea, will always be a higher priority than human rights in our neighbouring countries.
West Papua is a depressingly similar story. Australian helicopters were used in the 1970’s to kill thousands of Papuan civilians, Australian trained military commit atrocities there, and the Australian government (Liberal or Labor) steadfastly refuses to speak up about it or show any support for the Papuan cause.
In 2006, when 43 West Papuan asylum seekers arrived on Cape York in a dugout canoe, it became a significant diplomatic incident. It lead to Australia signing the Lombok treaty, which affirms a mutual commitment to “the sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of both Parties, and the importance of the principles of good neighbourliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.” I guess the question of what a good neighbour means is open to interpretation.
Earlier this year the West Papuan cause came into focus in our national media when a group of Australian activists called the Freedom Flotilla declared their intention to sail to West Papua as a gesture of support for the freedom movement there. Then foreign minister Bob Carr accused the activists of “a cruel deceit, offering false hope to the people of West Papua that there is international support.” Shadow minister Julie Bishop encouraged Indonesia to use “whatever means it wishes” against the boats.
The flotilla, and the indigenous cultural ceremony that was a key part of it, were a great success that I don’t really have space to cover here. But the fallout in Papua was significant. There were a number of arrests of Papuans accused of having links to the flotilla, and seven Papuans who had been part of the cultural ceremony sought asylum in Australia, fearing for their lives. Australia, as is our current refugee policy, sent them back to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, where there are already tens of thousands of displaced West Papuans, and a pro-Indonesia government means their safety there is not guaranteed. Two weeks later the three men occupied the Australian consulate during the APEC meeting, prompting Tony Abbott’s response that I quoted earlier.
With West Papua’s independence day (traditionally an event of significant Papuan demonstrations and Indonesian repression) coming up this Sunday and the launch of an office of the Free West Papua campaign in Port Moresby this week, yesterday there were 41 arrests of Papuan demonstrators. I can’t confirm how many deaths, but there are reports that at least 20 people were killed.
You don’t need to tap anyone’s phone to find this out, but then again neither ASIS nor the Australian government has ever shown any inclination to support the people of West Papua anyway. Maybe they should ring the president’s wife.
This movement, like any other seeking genuine freedom, will have to come from the ground up: everyday people forcing freedom despite the attempts of governments and elites to resist it. Australians have a role to play too, although don’t expect the major parties to come on board any time soon. But the struggle of Papuan people for human rights is the struggle for the humanity of us all. Papua merdeka!