Late last year, a security cooperation agreement between Australia and the Republic of Indonesia was signed on the Indonesian island of Lombok. As with all international agreements, this one, which has already picked up the colloquial title of the Lombok Agreement, is being examined by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.
The Committee is still receiving submissions. You can read the ones which have been made public to date by clicking here. The Committee will be holding a hearing into the Agreement this coming Monday in Canberra. I am a member of 7 policy and legislative Committees, as well as participating in various others from time to time, so I don’t get to focus as much as I would like on some inquiries, but this one is one I am aiming to look at closely.
The history of human rights abuses in Indonesia, and the history of the campaign for self-determination of the East Timorese have led to some degree of antagonism towards Indonesia in Australia. In some cases, this means an instinctive knee-jerk anti-Indonesian response anytime there is any activity or an issue in Indonesia that causes concern. While the reaction may be understandable, it does not always lead to well thought through responses on individual issues. It can also have the impact of obscuring some of the very significant advances that have been made in Indonesia by its astonishingly rapidly move towards democracy. To shift from an era of military dictatorship to what is, in most respects, a functional parliamentary democracy in such a short time is a task that I do not think many Australians fully appreciate – especially given that Indonesia covers such a large area and has a massive, ethnically diverse and mostly fairly poor population.
I often feel torn between being highly critical of continuing human rights problems in parts of Indonesia and wanting to acknowledge and encourage the significant advances that have been made in the face of some very difficult challenges. In the couple of times that I have been there, the people I have met with, including members of parliament and government ministers, have been quite open about those challenges.
The problem for Australia is how we continue to promote the advances of democracy while condemning the failures in human rights, particularly as one inhibits the progression of the other. One issue that does present a dilemma with treaties like this is the central inclusion of a continuing engagement and capacity building with the Indonesian military through exchanges, exercises and education. Whilst there have been some significant advances in civil society and in democracy in Indonesia in recent years, a key obstacle remains in parts of the Indonesian military. While it may be a bit un-diplomatic to say this, it is a simple fact.
We need to walk an incredibly fine tightrope between broader engagement—which I am all in favour of— while not facilitating a strengthening of some of the elements of Indonesian power structures that are a barrier to further progress.
This is particularly so in regards to West Papua, where a combination of a very large wealth generating resource base and a determination to stamp on any push for self-determination by Indigenous Papuans has led to a continuing pattern of very serious human rights abuses by some within the Indonesia military.
There is enormous sensitivity in Indonesia towards the issue of West Papua. A recent example is this story from New Zealand, where a planned performance at the Asia-Pacific Festival of a piece entitled Papua Merdeka (Free Papua) by Australian composer Martin Welsey-Smith was dropped from the program after pressure from the Indonesia Embassy. I am aware of examples of straightforward visitor visa applications from West Papuans being rejected by the Australian government, and it hard to believe that diplomatic relations are not influencing some of those decisions – particularly given the extraordinary attack made by the previous Immigration Minister against so-called ‘Papuan separatists’ last year. I recall speaking at a conference on West Papua in Melbourne in 2003 where major pressure was applied by the Indonesian Embassy towards RMIT, which forced the Institute to withdraw some of the help it was providing in the hosting of the conference.
Any mention of human rights abuses is often seen as being the same as promoting independence for West Papua, which in turn is sometimes seen as risking the break-up of the entire Indonesian state. I occasionally feel this has led to a blind spot amongst some Indonesians rather similar to that of many Australians when it comes to mention of the atrocities and human rights abuses inflicted on Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people. As this article by Denise Leith says, “Today the Suharto dictatorship is long gone and a former military general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a reformist president of a functioning democracy where press freedoms abound. That is, until the word Papua is mentioned.”
This sensitivity has meant it is very difficult to get clear news about what is happening on the ground in West Papua. Independent observers are often not allowed in, and such news as does appear is usually disputed. But the evidence that has built over the years shows a persistent pattern of serious human rights abuses, with persistent killings, attacks on villages and calculated destruction of local culture. As with Australian governments’ actions towards our own Indigenous peoples over the years, it is sometimes hard to avoid having the word ‘genocide’ spring to mind when examining the cumulative impacts and the willingness to ignore the evidence of what has been done.
Speaking out about such serious abuses whilst also encouraging stronger ties with the democratic arms of the Indonesian government is difficult balance. I’ll be interested in looking at whether this new security agreement facilitates that or not.