Australia–Indonesia relations: Don’t mention Papua
2 Oct 2019|

In November 2018, the Australian activist group Juice Media produced one of its satirical ‘Honest Government Ads’ promoting tourism in West Papua. The video is highly critical of Indonesia’s repressive and exploitative policies in West Papua and the Australian government’s support for and complicity with Indonesian policies.

During the current crisis in Papua, the Juice Media video was repurposed anonymously to voice Indonesian concerns about Australia’s intentions in Papua. The video was posted on YouTube and retitled in Indonesian as ‘A provocative advertisement from Australia: Be careful Australia is ready to annex Papua; Guard the unity of Indonesia. The rebadged video circulated widely in Indonesia until it was blocked on YouTube.

The video and how it was repurposed provide insights into the complexity and sensitivity of how the intractable conflict in Papua influences Australia’s relations with Indonesia. The video cites the Australian government’s support of Indonesia’s sovereignty and the training of military and police, as well as Rio Tinto’s former involvement in the Freeport gold and copper mine.

Although Australia has provided consistent support for Indonesian sovereignty, Australia’s acceptance of 43 Papuan asylum seekers in 2006 led to the withdrawal of the Indonesian ambassador from Canberra and showed how the conflict in Papua could destabilise the bilateral relationship. The asylum-seeker crisis was smoothed over with the Lombok Treaty, in which each party agreed not to support or participate in activities that constitute a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other party, including separatism. Both parties also agreed that they would not permit their territories to be used for such activities.

The Lombok Treaty notwithstanding, the continued activities of Papuan pro-independence groups in Australia remains an irritant in bilateral relations. Even the training of Indonesian military officers in Australia has created tensions related to Papua. In early 2017, General Gatot Nurmantyo, then Indonesia’s armed forces commander, announced the suspension of defence cooperation amid claims that an army training course held in Perth had included an assignment about whether Papua, as a Melanesian society, should be independent.

The conflict in Papua has persisted since Indonesia assumed the administration of the territory in 1963. Pro-independence demonstrations and incidents of racism aren’t new. However, the demonstrations of the past month represent a significant shift in the dynamics of the conflict. They provide further evidence supporting the argument of Indonesian Institute of Sciences researchers in 2017 that there’s a better organised, and more numerous, younger generation of pro-independence activists who are more closely coordinated with the leaders in exile.

The racism expressed towards Papuan student in Java—they were called monkeys, dogs and pigs—has served to unite Papuans, because it resonates with the experience of so many Papuans. The racism has been weaponised in support of a referendum and independence, as reflected in some of the slogans deployed in the demonstrations: ‘Liberate Monkeys from Indonesia’, ‘Racism will only end with a Referendum’.

The geographic spread and persistence of the demonstrations, the scale of the violence, and the loss of life and destruction of infrastructure are significant in themselves. But they also speak to the place of Papuans and Papua in Indonesia. The racist slurs that triggered the recent violence were directed at Papuan students in Surabaya and elsewhere by members of the security forces and nationalist groups. These same security forces and nationalist groups, while strongly supporting Papua’s status as an integral part of Indonesia, clearly do not consider the students fellow Indonesians. Hundreds of Papuan students have returned to Papua from their studies in other provinces fearing for their safety.

The violence and killings in Wamena on 23 September were also triggered by a reported racist slur of a student. In what Amnesty International described as ‘one of the bloodiest days in the past 20 years in Papua, claiming at least 24 lives within 24 hours’, the violence in Wamena involved conflict between Papuans and Indonesian settlers.

The police chief, Tito Karnavian, announced that more police would be deployed to Wamena to protect the Indonesian settler community. The Jakarta Post reported the exodus of thousands of Wamena residents, with Indonesian settlers leaving for Jayapura and Timika and Papuans going to surrounding regions in the highlands.

This inter-communal conflict in Wamena is also a reflection of political and economic tensions. One of the major factors fuelling Papuan nationalism and support for independence is the demographic transformation of Papua under Indonesian rule. Indonesian settlers made up nearly 34% of the population in 2010, while Papuans remained marginalised in the urban economy.

After the initial demonstrations in Papua, but before the recent inter-communal conflict in Wamena, Caryo Pamungkas, a Papua specialist with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, expressed his concerns about the possibility of horizontal conflict between Papuans and Indonesian settlers.

The sensitivity of the Papua conflict in Australia’s relations with Indonesia reflects the long shadow of Australia’s role in the separation of Timor-Leste—a factor well understood by the political and military elites in Jakarta. In an earlier era, there was also Australia’s 12-year-long support of the Netherlands against Indonesia’s claim that Papua was part of Indonesia.

In the light of the experience with Timor-Leste, the oft-repeated statements of Australia’s recognition of Indonesian sovereignty in Papua, as written in the Lombok Treaty, are not taken at face value in Jakarta. The unspoken response is that this was what Australia said about Timor Leste, until it mattered.

After several weeks of the current crisis, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne had to be asked at a doorstop interview before she expressed her concerns about the reports of violence and urged restraint on both sides.

Of all Indonesia’s neighbours, Australia has the greatest interest in a peaceful resolution of the Papua conflict. The current crisis shows that the established Indonesian policy framework, with its heavy reliance on military force, has produced no evidence of reducing Papuan support for independence.

It is in Australia’s national interest to encourage Indonesia to develop a policy framework that offers some prospect of a peaceful resolution. This would entail acceptance by Papuans that they are part of Indonesia as well as acceptance by other Indonesians that Papuans are fellow Indonesians.