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By Tim Hyland

MELBOURNE, Australia (December 28, 2000 – The Age/Kabar-Irian)---Australia’s foreign affairs officials are transfixed by two fears at they watch the disaster unfolding in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian province now widely known as West Papua. One is that the Indonesian military will deal with the Papuan independence movement the only way it knows how - with brute force and atrocity. The other fear is that this eruption of violence will prompt public pressure on Canberra to do something about it.

As Richard Chauvel warned on this page yesterday, the first fear may already be on the way to being realized. Hardliners in Jakarta, defying the conciliatory approach of President Abdurrahman Wahid, have reverted to the failed tactics of the Suharto era – "the security approach" of military force, arrests, and torture.

The second fear - that Australia will be pressed to respond – will be realized if the crackdown leads to widespread killings that can’t be hidden from the outside world, or if the conflict spills over into Papua New Guinea.

While there are grounds for both fears, publicly expressing them does not amount to enunciating a coherent policy. Instead, it seems we’re afraid of confronting the policy implications of the profound Papuan disenchantment with Jakarta’s rule.

Instead of a clearly defined policy, we have apocalyptic predictions from Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "The fragmentation of Indonesia will lead to a bloodbath," he said last month, "and then people will be coming to me and saying what was I going to do about it." Such a disintegration, he said, would have a devastating effect on the whole of Southeast Asia.

There are several flaws in this line. It is based on a debatable premise: it doesn’t necessarily follow that independence for the Papuans - or the Acehnese, for that matter - would lead to the break-up of Indonesia. Nor does it address the real likelihood of the military initiating a bloodbath in the mistaken belief that this is the only way of preventing national fragmentation.

In fact, the Downer argument plays into the hands of the hardliners who insist on national unity at any cost. If the consequences of Irian Jaya breaking away are so grave, then the military can argue that severe action to prevent it is justified.

And the Downer line doesn’t give us any indication of what our policy is, beyond implying that the argument over Irian Jaya begins and ends with our recognition of Indonesian sovereignty.

So far Canberra has avoided addressing a central grievance of the Papuans - that they were cheated of their right to self-determination in the bogus 1969 "act of free choice," when "representatives," hand-picked by Jakarta, were bribed and coerced into voting to join Indonesia in a process endorsed by the United Nations. Prime Minister John Howard, for instance, has sidestepped questions about the legitimacy of the vote. "I don’t express a view on it," he said when he was asked about it last month. "I’m simply pointing out to you that there was a judgment made by the United Nations." At the same time, he denied there were any parallels between East Timor and Irian Jaya.

The curious thing is, that in denying those parallels, our leaders and diplomats are relying on the same arguments to support our Papua position that they used for almost a quarter of a century to buttress their recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. Indonesia will never let Irian Jaya go, they say, as this would encourage national disintegration. There is no international support for independence, they say, and in any case Irian Jaya is not viable as an independent state. We don’t want another mendicant Melanesia nation cluttering the region. And the Papuan leadership is divided and we can’t talk to them for fear of giving "comfort" to independence-seekers.

The trouble is that while we contemplate the unthinkable in Irian Jaya, the unspeakable is already happening. Papuan leaders who advocated non-violence are locked up and face treason charges.

Human rights advocates are harassed and called in for police questioning when they report that police have tortured students to death. Militias are being formed as the military and intelligence agencies deploy the full array of dirty tricks used so effectively last year in East Timor. Independent observers are being intimidated from visiting the territory. Press restrictions are a likely next step.

Australia’s options for influencing Jakarta may be limited and our motives viewed with suspicion. But we shouldn’t circumscribe our room to maneuver with statements, such as Downer’s, which give comfort to the security hardliners.

There are some things we can do, without questioning Indonesian sovereignty or supporting independence. We should be unambiguous in our support for Wahid’s initial conciliatory approach to the Papuans and urge him to resume a dialogue. While his efforts have been clumsy and at times contradictory, Wahid’s offer of dialogue - presuming it is still on the table - is the only way forward. The alternative - a government led by his nationalistic Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, with the military again ascendant - would be a disaster.

We should call on Jakarta to release the Papuan leaders in detention in Jayapura for exercising the free speech, which Indonesian law entitles them to and which Wahid encouraged. We should condemn the barbarous treatment of detained students and the killing of people who raise the Morning Star flag.

We should talk to Papuan leaders abroad. We should share our knowledge of events in the province with our allies and neighbors.

And we should quietly seek international support for efforts to encourage Jakarta to guarantee real autonomy for the Papuans, treating them with the dignity they deserve.

Tom Hyland is foreign editor of The Age. E-mail: 

KABAR-IRIAN ("Irian News") Websites:  and 

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