Monday, April 03, 2006

Gets facts right and focus on the real problem

In asking the question, is Papua in danger of becoming another East Timor, Ahmad Qisa'i does little more than highlight a number of misunderstandings about East Timor, Papua and Australia ( The Jakarta Post, March 29, page 7).

To start, the Australian government did not change its policy regarding East Timor in the late 1990s or following the fall of Soeharto. That change only came after the East Timorese voted for independence.

This is not to say that prior Australian policy was morally correct -- in supporting Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, it had been complicit in the many crimes against the East Timorese people committed by Indonesian forces. But that policy did not change until, by Indonesia's own agreement, East Timor chose to separate from Indonesia, and in light of TNI and its proxy militia destroying most of East Timor's infrastructure and murdering a further 1,400 of its people.

It is also worth noting that the UN-sponsored intervention in East Timor included a number of other countries, including New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan and others, and had the strong support of the United States. That is, the post-ballot intervention under the auspices of the UN involved many countries, not just Australia.

That is now history, and if some Indonesians choose not to let it go then they will only remind others of how badly Indonesian forces behaved from the moment they invaded East Timor in 1975 until their departure in 1999.

But Papua is not East Timor, and the circumstances of the events of 1999 and now are very different. Just as Australia accepts all other people requesting asylum who can demonstrate a legitimate case of fleeing actual or potential harm, the decision by Australia to accept 42 of 43 Papuan asylum seekers was not a political decision by the government. It was an administrative decision by an independent body. This operates under the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, which Indonesia also follows.

In highlighting this case, Qisa'i succeeds only in raising the question; why were the Papuan asylum seekers granted asylum? The answer is because there is a long and well documented history of human rights abuses by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and police in Papua against indigenous people, and these asylum seekers were able to show that they had been and were again likely to be victims of such abuses.

There was no "pretext of harassment"; there was well documented abuse. Indonesian government promises that the asylum seekers would not face prosecution if they returned meant little when the TNI and police continue to act outside government purview in Papua. I am sure the government did not condone the murder of Theys Eluay either, but it still happened.

Australia's administrative decision to accept the asylum seekers makes no comment one way or the other on any sympathy that might be felt for Papuans in Australia. The Australian government continues to reaffirm its commitment to the sovereign unity of Indonesia, as it should under conventional diplomatic protocol, and Qisa'i would struggle to find any evidence that official and indeed unofficial policy in any way differed from that.

In so far as many private Australian citizens are concerned over human rights abuses in Papua, this is their legitimate right to do so. Australia is a free country in which its citizens can hold whatever political views they like about domestic or international issues.

To be concerned over human rights abuses wherever they occur is to recognize the universal value of human rights rather than to be concerned about the specific and sometimes narrowly conceived interests of those who wield power in a particular country. That is, universal human rights expresses concern based on the general quality of being human, not on the specific quality of being Indonesian, or Australian, or Papuan.

Like some others in Indonesia, Qisa'i is concerned about Australia's "insensitivity" towards Indonesia over Papua. One might better ask what about insensitivity towards the indigenous people of Papua who are, after all, the primary victims in this sorry mess.

In so far as Papua represents a "delicate problem", the way Papuans are treated in their own land is a long way from delicate. Perhaps a refusal to acknowledge the truth of what has been happening in Papua does raise the tricky question of how to reconcile contradictions between perspective and fact. But sometimes we just have to face facts, and "sensitivity" has to adjust to reality, or else we just end up deluding ourselves.

But perhaps Qisa'i is correct when he says the Indonesian government should act positively to avoid Papua breaking away from Indonesia. To that end, the government should give very serious consideration to fully and properly implementing genuine autonomy as a way of placating the legitimate grievances of the Papuans.

For this, it must be prepared to talk openly and honestly with Papuan leaders, who do exist and who have a common, united view, despite some views in Jakarta that this is not the case. It must listen to them, and find a settlement based on negotiation and agreement, not imposition.

The government of Indonesia did reach a reasonable outcome to the conflict in Aceh. Everyone who cares about peace and the future of Indonesia as a united country hopes this is now honored in the required legislation. Perhaps a similar outcome is also possible in Papua.

The administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has demonstrated with Aceh that unity and peace can only be achieved through shared civic values, in which all Indonesian citizens are treated with equality, respect and dignity.

Perhaps, then, those "nationalists" who are concerned about the future of Papua should focus their attention on the real problem, which is not in Australia, but in Papua. Perhaps, then, this problem could be resolved.

By Damien Kingsbury, Melbourne. He was adviser to the Free Aceh Movement in the resolution of the Aceh conflict and he is director of International and Community Development at Deakin University, Melbourne.

This is a response to my Op-Ed on the Papuan dilema published in The Jakarta Post on 29 March 2006. This response was published in the same paper on 4 April 2006 and can be accessed through the following address:

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