Wednesday, April 05, 2006

42 protection visas – or 42,000?

As Australian-Indonesian relations tremble under the weight of those 42 refugees from West Papua, it's worth putting this latest brouhaha with our tetchy neighbors to the north in some perspective. And the latest edition of The Monthly landed in my box today with a nice dose of balance.

Human rights lawyer Mark Aarons' article, Truth, Death & Diplomacy in East Timor, reminds us just how entrenched are the forces of disinformation.

He reminds us that in March, Australia's Ambassador to the US, former ASIO boss Dennis Richardson, gave a speech attacking those calling for a proper act of self-determination for West Papua. "Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia, and always has been. As far as Australia is concerned, Papua is an integral part of Indonesia," he declared.

So Indonesia has always had sovereignty over West Papua, right?

Wrong. West Papua had not been part of Indonesia at all for the 20 years after it came into existence in 1949. It was only integrated into Indonesia as part of a sham vote in 1969. Writes Aarons: "The US believed that 90% of West Papuans were against integration, yet the international community, including Australia, not only accepted this sham act of self-determination, but has ever since turned a blind eye to the history of Indonesian mass killings, torture and arbitrary detentions in the territory."

His conclusion: "We should not fear separatist tendencies in the archipelago any more than Europe needed to fear the break-up of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union". Just as the Russian-dominated Soviet Union collapsed into constituent states when the authoritarian stranglehold was released, so will the Javanese-dominated Indonesia.

The inevitable shifting sands of the Indonesia archipelago is a dissolution that will cause significant indegestion in our region – but isn't it time we stopped massaging the truth to justify holding together an artificial conglomerate?

Sure, there will be fallout that will make the 42 West Papuans in their boat look like a picnic party. Although not nearly the 42,000 predicted on Lateline last night by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a former advisor to Indonesia preisdent BJ Habibie. That has got politicians on both sides of the ocean very scared. And, as usual, Kevin Rudd is more scared than most, claiming excitedly: "There's a grave danger that we begin to see the Australian-Indonesian relationship spiral out of control."

But building a strong relationship with our neighbors depends on honesty on both sides, not just jumping to attention at the hint of a new crisis. While Indonesian politicians are whipping up a local frenzy comparing West Papua to East Timor, don't forget it was Indonesia that invited Australian troops in to Dili back in 1999.

West Papua and Aceh are two examples of a people who yearn for the kind of freedom that took East Timor 30 years and hundreds of thousands of lives to achieve. Re-writing history and trying to bury the problem did nothing for the Indonesian-Australia relationship back then.

We should encourage an increasingly open and democratic Indonesia. But a repeat of that kind of political appeasement can do nothing but delay the inevitability of history. And history will judge us just as harshly as it judged successive Australian governments who collaborated with Soeharto.


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