As long as West Papua simmers, relations will be strained

April 8, 2006

THE Australian Government's latest responses to the problems of West Papua and asylum seekers contain an ugly echo of previous times when the underlying causes of human suffering were ignored for reasons of brutal political expediency. A diplomatic row with Indonesia over the granting of protection visas to 42 West Papuans has led the Government to harden its line on anyone else who might be about to make the passage south across the straits. When a missing West Papuan family on a boat bound for Australia was reported to have turned up in Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister John Howard made clear his relief - not at the fact that they were safe, but that they were PNG's problem. "That's a good thing in the context of the relationship between Australian and Indonesia," he said.

Mr Howard yesterday confirmed that a review had begun of the processes for assessing claims by Papuans. Australia may give Indonesia the chance to reply to claims of persecution by asylum seekers.

Also, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson has called for joint naval patrols with Indonesia to stop the flow of asylum seekers. Bear in mind that the Immigration Department has determined that the West Papuans who did reach Australia had well-founded fears of persecution by the Indonesian military. Australia was legally obliged to grant them asylum under the Convention for the Protection of Refugees. Now the Government is signalling that it intends to shut the door on others fleeing persecution, a legally and morally dubious position. It will use the Australian Navy to help the Indonesian Navy round up and return any West Papuans, regardless of the risks of persecution. As with the shameful treatment of refugees aboard the Tampa, the navy risks being compromised again. At worst, a joint naval blockade invites a repeat of the SIEV-X sinking, a tragedy involving the loss of 353 lives for which Australia's responsibility has never been fully addressed.

It would be a mistake to imagine that turning away the West Papuans to appease Indonesia will solve the problem by pretending there isn't a problem. Of course, Australian involvement in East Timor's battle for independence has made Indonesia acutely sensitive to any suggestion that West Papua might follow a similar course. Mr Howard stressed that West Papua was part of Indonesia, its history was "quite different" from that of East Timor and Australia "will not support any kind of independence movement". He has gone out of his way to reassure Indonesia on issues of sovereignty.

Indonesia cannot expect more of Australia. It has no right to seek to interfere, as it has, in determinations on applications for asylum in Australia. Nor is Indonesia entitled to hold the Government to account for support within Australia for West Papuan separatists - particularly when the leading supporters named are members of the Labor Party, Democrats and Greens.

Indonesia is, as Mr Howard observed yesterday, still making the transition to democracy. It shows. Many of its politicians fail to understand the proper role of government in political debate and administrative process. Mr Howard is probably right in assessing much of what is being said in Indonesia as intended for "domestic political consumption". A corollary of that is that Australia should not be talked into abandoning its obligations to asylum seekers, nor should it look the other way when human rights are abused or blame the victims of abuse. Mr Howard warned West Papuans that if they pursued independence, "you are going to end up with a lot more - human rights abuses and deprivation of liberty than would otherwise be the case". What of Indonesia's responsibilities? Its laudable democratic transition will not be complete without a just political settlement in West Papua.

Australia must encourage Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to take up the offer of West Papua's first directly elected Governor, Barnabas Suebu, to discuss an autonomy arrangement similar to one achieved after decades of conflict in Aceh province. Australians, for their part, should not underestimate the difficulties confronting Dr Yudhoyono. These include the assertion of civil authority over a military that is reluctant to accept its loss of political power. None of this excuses military repression of West Papuans or the Howard Government's willingness to blame them for seeking asylum rather than tackle the causes of this all-too-awkward refugee problem.


Back to