Free West Papua not viable

Bookmark and Share | John Roskam
Australian Financial Review 21st April, 2006

Claims that our relations with Indonesia are at a crisis because of Australia's decision to provide temporary asylum to 42 West Papuans are wrong. A more accurate description of the state of the relationship was provided by Prime Minister John Howard a few days ago when he said the situation was difficult but not insurmountable.

Given the history of the two countries, it is an achievement that for most of the past 50 years the relationship has been so cordial. Throughout the 1950s Australia feared that Indonesia would turn communist, and we'd be facing a hostile power on our doorstep. In the 1960s we sent troops overseas to help Malaysia repel Indonesian attempts to crush Malaysian independence. In the 1970s and the 1980s there was the problem of East Timor.

Australia's current situation with Indonesia is complicated by the fact that there are two separate interests that have been combined into one single problem. On the one hand there is the humanitarian concern for the rights of the West Papuans claiming refuge in this country. On the other hand there are Australia's foreign policy and security considerations.

By providing asylum to separatists, the Australian government is viewed by Indonesia as giving at least tacit support to the political objectives of those seeking asylum. Australian ministers can claim that the administration of the refugee program is disconnected from issues of foreign policy, but it is completely naive to imagine that Indonesians would regard the actions of Department of Immigration officials in any way differently from the way they have. What is at stake are questions not only about Australia's national interest, but also about the human rights of those left behind in West Papua.

The history of European colonialism in the Pacific can't be changed. Once there might have been an opportunity for a single country to be formed on the island of New Guinea, but that chance passed decades ago.

Whether we like it or not the future of the island will be bedevilled by an arbitrary line drawn in the 19th century that separated the Dutch possessions in the western half of the island from those of the Germans and the British in the eastern half. The process that incorporated West Papua into Indonesia in 1969 might have been corrupt, but it can't be undone.

It is in Australia's national interest for West Papua to be part of Indonesia. Despite its natural resources, it would stand little chance of survival as an independent nation. Its economic, political and social infrastructure is undeveloped and it would have every chance of becoming a failed state. The Solomon Islands provide a daily demonstration of what West Papua could become. The churches and non-government organisations campaigning for independence have the right to express their opinions, but they wouldn't be the people taking responsibility if an independent West Papua failed.

Transmigration from other parts of Indonesia into West Papua over the past half century has produced massive demographic change. Native Melanesians are predominantly Christian, but of a total population of 2.5 million in the province there are now 1 million non-Melanesian Indonesians, most of whom are Muslim. The future of the non-Melanesian population in an independent West Papua would be uncertain and the potential for ethnic conflict enormous. Quite correctly, both the Liberal and Labor parties support Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.

The reality is that West Papua is not viable on its own, and Indonesia will not cede it independence, as occurred with East Timor. The best way to improve the economic and humanitarian conditions for all of the West Papuan population is for the Indonesian government to continue its moves towards the granting of a degree of local autonomy for the province in the same way as was provided to Aceh.

In as much as there is a role for Australia in these developments it must be to continue to support the establishment of democracy in Indonesia; from this will come improvements for the benefit of West Papua.

In a strictly legal sense the granting of temporary asylum to the West Papuan arrivals might have been the correct course of action. However, in the short term at least, it has damaged Australia's ability to assist in the process of political reform in Indonesia.

Relations between Australia and Indonesia have always been difficult - and there is no reason to think that this will change soon.