Saturday, March 25, 2006

East Timor Part II?

The granting of the emergency visa by the Australian Government to 42 of the 43 Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum there has re-open the memory of East Timor’s referendum. Having hailed the integration of East Timor into Indonesia as constitutional and legitimate, the Australian Government reversed its policy by 180 degrees in the wake of Suharto’s fall in the late 1990s when they approved the exercise of UN sponsored referendum there to decide the future of the ex-Portuguese colony.

The referendum resulted in an overwhelming victory of the pro-independence supporters hence the creation of an independent Timor Leste. This Australian move had angered Indonesia and the bilateral relation between the two neighbors went to a record low.

However, realizing the importance of building a better cooperation with its neighbors, successive governments in Indonesia have tried to improve the relation. And when everyone thought the relation has shown some significant improvement, the Australian government seemed to have thought of some short-term objectives. It granted visas to the Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum on the pretext of being harassed by the Indonesian Government in Papua. The decision has resulted in angry responses in Indonesia.

The House of Representatives (DPR) has unanimously agreed upon severing diplomatic relation with Australia and recommended the Indonesian Government to implement this decision immediately.

On its part, the Indonesian Government has immediately sent a diplomatic note to the Australian Government through its ambassador in Jakarta, Bill Farmer, protesting this alleged insensitive decision taken by his government. According to the Indonesian government, the decision was not in consistent with the spirit of bilateral relations shared by the two neighbors as well as Australia’s tough policy on illegal immigrant. The Indonesian Government has also recalled its ambassador to Australia, a bad signal for a diplomatic relation in international politics.

Besides, this decision has also seemed to re-confirm the alleged long time suspicion of Australia’s involvements in the continuing struggle of independence in Indonesia’s eastern most region, the West Papua. It was a popular belief in Jakarta that Australia, or Australian NGOs, has been very much involved in the freedom struggle there.

On responding to the strong reactions from Jakarta, Elizabeth O’Neil, a spokesperson in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, defended the decision saying that the Australian executive has no role in this process. This decision was taken solely by the Department of Immigration, an independent institution separate from the executive. The response also said that the visa granted to the asylum seekers is an emergency visa that is valid for three years only and renewal of the visa will need strict scrutiny and deliberation.

At the same time, it also reiterated Australia’s position on West Papua as an integral and legitimate part of Indonesia. The response from the Australian Embassy also denied any Australian involvement in the freedom movement in Papua.

Whatever the reasons given by the Australian Government to counter the angry reactions from Jakarta, the damage has already been done. It will now be very difficult for the Indonesian government to trust Australia and to belief at these explanations realizing the fact that Australia has joyously responded to the result of the UN sponsored referendum in East Timor in 1999.

On East Timor, Australia had long been the supporter of its integration with Indonesia when the Portuguese decided to abandon this colony of more than 400 years. Not willing to get its hands dirty, Australia had whole-heartedly supported the move by the then Indonesian President, General Suharto, to annexed the territory in the late 1970s. Besides, for its national security reasons in the height of Cold War era, it was better for East Timor to be ruled by an American friendly country like Indonesia than to be controlled by any Communist state. So Australia was always Indonesia’s loyal supporter on East Timor.

However, with the changing landscape in international politics and the continuing internal struggles in Indonesia in the late 1990s, Australia decided to reverse its policy on East Timor 180 degrees and fighting teeth and nails for the freedom of East Timor from Indonesia. The reversal of policy bore result when the UN sponsored referendum held in East Timor in August 1999 favored the pro-independence group thus leading to the birth of Timor Leste with full Australian support.

Now, with the simmering situation in Papua in recent weeks that has left several poor souls departed, Australia’s decision to grant visa to the Indonesian Papuans seeking political asylum there seemed to be like rubbing salt in the old wound. There is an indication of insensitiveness on the part of the Australian government towards the delicate Papuan problem.

The decision can be understood as an early warning for the Indonesian government to scrutinize and investigate the motives behind it. The Indonesian government should act immediately as to avoid the repetition of East Timor tragedy. The current government should realize that there would be no East Timor Part II in Indonesia. If the SBY government can successfully and peacefully end the conflict in Aceh, why there should be any doubt on Government’s ability to resolve the problem in Papua peacefully.

As for Australia’s insensitiveness towards the Papuan problem, the Indonesian government has to response strongly and correctly so as not to create an impression that Indonesia is just a Sick Man of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has to assert its importance in Southeast Asia for it to be counted as a powerful nation.

Published in The Jakarta Post on 29 March 2006.
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