Is Papua the next East Timor? Part II
13 May 2013|
East Timorese Defence Force personnel were on parade on 20th August to celebrate the 34th anniversary of Falintil Day.

In my previous post, I explained how separatist attempts throughout Indonesia’s history have led to Indonesian sensitivities over Papuan separatism today. We take every opportunity to earnestly reassure the Indonesian side of our unwavering support for Indonesian territorial sovereignty, as enshrined in the Lombok Treaty. For their part, the Indonesians pretend to believe us. Of course, they don’t. Why should they? After all, we were the only nation on the planet in 1975 to recognise Indonesian sway over East Timor, a mantra we intoned for more than 20 years, until we were forced to change our tune.

Indonesians see an inherent disconnect between our stated support for Indonesian rule over Papua and our actions, like the granting of asylum to 43 Papuans in 2006, which was enough to see a furious Jakarta recall its ambassador to Canberra. There are sophisticated and educated members of the ruling elite in Jakarta who genuinely believe the bizarre fiction that agents of influence from Australian government agencies are engaged in a covert campaign to destabilise Indonesian rule in Papua.

Incidents like the 2008 detention, trial and jailing by Indonesian officials of five middle-aged Queenslanders who arrived unannounced in Merauke by plane without visas do nothing to dispel such fantasies. Indonesian distrust is also fed by developments like the launch last year in Canberra of the Australia-Pacific chapter of International Parliamentarians for West Papua. Travel to Papua by Australian officials is carefully controlled and closely monitored. For foreign media, Papua is mostly a no-go zone.

Papua isn’t Indonesia’s issue alone. It’s difficult to imagine anything that could do more to knock the current trajectory in Australia-Indonesia relations off its positive path than a catastrophic failure by Jakarta to deal successfully with Papua. Our vital national interest hinges on the quality of leadership, competence of administration and effectiveness of policies in Papua, all of which lie beyond our control. And current indicators aren’t promising.

Leaders of both nations have publicly stated a mutual desire for a strategic partnership. This kind of relationship can only be realised if founded on trust and candour. The only way to influence a solution to the Papua problem is for both sides to air the issues and articulate possible approaches, as strategic partners with a shared stake in the outcome should.

For the record, I don’t subscribe to the deterministic model currently in vogue, which predicts that Papua will, sooner or later, go the way of East Timor. Some key differences between the two cases make comparisons misleading.

First, money matters. In 2011, extractive industries made up 16% of Indonesian GDP and more than 40% of Indonesian exports. The mineral and oil wealth of Papua, current and potential, is a significant proportion of this, especially the huge USA-owned Freeport-McMoRan copper and gold mine at Grasberg. It’s unlikely the USA would play the same peacebroker role in Papua that it did in East Timor, where there was little American capital investment on the line.

Second, the fragmented OPM is nowhere near the organised and unified force that FALINTIL was. The Papuan diaspora lacks the numbers and the clout of its East Timorese equivalent, let alone a Jose Ramos-Horta figure, lobbying world leaders and winning a Nobel Peace Prize into the bargain.

Third, local demographics add further complexity to the issue. Unlike East Timor, where the majority population remained indigenous, decades of transmigration into Papua from other corners of the archipelago have seen indigenous Papuan numbers recently surpassed by non-Melanesian residents. Ironically, a genuine Act of Free Choice today would probably return the same result as that engineered by the Indonesian military in 1969—amalgamation with Indonesia. Not that Jakarta is about to take the same gamble it did in 1999 in East Timor to test that theory.

Finally, the central and ongoing role played by Australia in East Timorese nationhood should be enough to dampen even our most enthusiastic official support for Papuan independence. A hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis of Australia’s involvement in East Timor over the last 13 years should have strategists and taxpayers alike balking at any more of the same—even if it did seem like a good idea at the time.

In assisting the Indonesian side, we should do more than skirt around the elephant in the room, hoping Jakarta will apply the salutary lessons of its disastrous 24 years in East Timor to avoid a similar outcome in Papua. We should feel comfortable and confident enough to raise the issue, promote discussion and explore options for an acceptable and sustainable solution. Genuine strategic partners can do that. Especially when mutual interests hang in the balance.

Gary Hogan is a former Professor of Grand Strategy at the US National Defense University. He was the first foreigner to graduate from Indonesia’s Institute of National Governance (Lemhannas) and was Australia’s Defence Attaché to Indonesia 2009 to 2012. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.