It is now 2 months since 43 asylum seekers from West Papua arrived in Far North Queensland. They were whisked away to our nation’s most remote, expensive and rudimentary detention centre on Christmas Island, and still await news on the result of their claims.
The changes announced by the Prime Minster last June require an initial decision on an application within 3 months, so there should be news on the claims soon. (Although if they don’t meet the 3 month deadline, the only consequence is they have to provide a report saying why). While the asylum seekers on Christmas Island wait (I’ll write more on their situation soon), there’s been a variety of information in the media and elsewhere about the situation in West Papua.
Courier-Mail reporter Graham Lloyd has just returned from the PNG/West Papua border. He says “refugees from West Papua are warning of a fresh explosion of violence across the border. They want Australia to help and they want the international community to monitor what is happening in their homeland.” See his blog for more details and/or to leave comment (This blog is one of the new ones that have appeared on the revamped Courier-Mail website – something else I will write more on soon)
Following is an assortment of other pieces of information:
– In late January, Imron Cotan, the secretary-general of Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, told media the refugees will not be punished if they returned home. “There will be no prosecutions if they return home, back to Indonesia.” Of course, there is a difference between guaranteeing they won’t be prosecuted, and guaranteeing they won’t be harmed.
– ALP shadow Minister, Bob Sercombe, released a statement in late January proposing a joint parliamentary delegation. I was with him on a delegation to Jakarta and Aceh in mid-2005. He suggested then to President Yudhoyono that a joint parliamentary visit to West Papua would be helpful. His statement said “Such a visit would involve Australian and Indonesian parliamentarians, and possibly also Papua New Guinean parliamentarians. It would promote transparency and dialogue on the West Papua issue. The visit would be premised on respect for Indonesia’s territorial integrity, but also the need to ensure universal human rights standards are protected and promoted. Parliamentarians would gain a greater understanding of the realities in West Papua, and the visit could serve as a catalyst for solutions on the ground”. Of course Bob his now lost Labor Party endorsement for the next election, so I don’t know how much weight is being given to his proposal.
– One welcome sign on a broader level was statements made in February by Indonesian President Yudhoyono, telling the country’s new military commander at his swearing in ceremony “to continue reforms in the armed forces and keep soldiers away from politics”. “There are many elections nowadays…and to deal with those a neutral identity must be maintained. (The military) should be free from practical politics because that is the goal of the reforms,” said Yudhoyono.
– There have been various warnings from Indonesian Ministers, such as Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda, that “relations with Australia would be disrupted if the Papuans were granted asylum.” I met this Minister last year on the delegation I mentioned above, and I must say I found him quite impressive and quite open. Given the local political factors, while it’s not desirable that statements like this are made, it isn’t particularly surprising. However, the blunt admission by Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono that “there have been incidents of some brutality and torture and rape involving some of our troops” doesn’t give much comfort, regardless of his protest, that “there has been a tendency to blanket all of this into a notion that all of these efforts are systematic and institutional.” Nor does it suggest that the central government is in much position to guarantee the safety of the asylum seekers if they were to be returned.
I find it very hard to believe that these asylum seekers won’t all end up being granted protection in Australia – whether at the initial decision or after appeals down the track. I’d also suggest that, while the Indonesian would express unhappiness about it, it would suit them far better than the public outrage that would undoubtedly occur if there was a serious attempt by Australia to force them to return to West Papua.
However, it is worth remembering that Australia has a less than perfect history when it comes to helping refugees who have fled from West Papua in the 60s and 70s. I gave a speech in the Senate about this a few weeks ago which details some of this chequered history.
Some other background material on the situation and history of oppression in West Papua which readers may find useful:
– a detailed report prepared by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, released in August 2005 (warning – link goes to large pdf file)
– A detailed report in The Guardian last year on the publication of a study commissioned by the Dutch government into the history of West Papua, written by Dr Pieter Drooglever of the Institute of Netherlands History.
How close Dr Drooglever got to the truth can be guessed by the reaction in both the Hague and Jakarta. Dutch foreign minister Ben Bot refused to formally receive the report – it had been commissioned by his predecessor in 2000 – and reportedly described it as “superfluous”. An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman, Yuri Thamrin, viewed the study as “an academic work” but of no “significant substance”. “
Last week, the military announced that a new division of some 10,000-15,000 troops of the elite strategic reserves would be created specifically to be based in West Papua. Foreign journalists and most researchers and aid workers are banned from Papua but, ironically, tourists are not.
Dr Drooglever believes the military, which has to find some 60% of its own budget, has such a heavy presence there for ulterior motives. “There’s a lot of money available in the territory and the troops go where the money is,” he told Guardian Unlimited
The author himself believes Papuans will have to set their sights lower than independence. “I think they will have to be happy when an administration is set up that’s not dominated by the military,”
INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is eager to halt the low-level insurgency in Papua after ending a decades-long separatist conflict in Aceh, at the other extremity of the sprawling archipelago nation.
Full details of violent incidents in jungle-clad Papua, which is off-limits to foreign media, rarely emerge and it can be difficult to confirm who is behind them.
“The problem with Papua is: who has the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of Papuans with the government?” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an analyst with the Habibie Center think tank. GAM (the Free Aceh Movement) has a clear leadership hierarchy, but Papuan separatists are fragmented,” she said, referring to Aceh’s rebels, who inked a peace pact with Jakarta last August after a nearly three-decade-long conflict that killed 15,000.
and while all this is going on, a reminder of the find last month of an “astonishing mist-shrouded “lost world” of previously unknown and rare animals and plants high in the mountain rainforests of New Guinea, uncovered by an international team of scientists“.