Headlines in this morning’s papers announce the safe arrival on the Queensland coast of a boatload of refugees from Indonesian-occupied West Papua.

Grave fears had been held yesterday for their safety, and while no-one
would doubt the genuineness of Amanda Vanstone’s humanitarian concern
for them, they represent a political headache for her. Some in the
government might reflect in their darker moments that things would have
been simpler if they had all drowned.

The Australian has the perfect juxtaposition of stories, with the West Papuans complementing the lead story
of East Timor’s Truth and Reconciliation report. The report apparently
blames Indonesia for the deaths of up to 180,000 East Timorese during
its period of occupation from 1975 to 1999.

Quoting the report, The Australian says “widespread and
systematic executions, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual
slavery” were “officially accepted by Indonesia … The violations were
committed in execution of a systematic plan approved, conducted and
controlled by Indonesian military commanders at the highest level.”

It is a shameful blot on Australia’s record that for so long, and under
both major parties, we aided and abetted that occupation. Our more
recent assistance to independent East Timor has gone some way towards
making amends, but the case of West Papua just shows that we have
failed to learn anything from the experience.

West Papua is in fundamentally the same position that East Timor was.
Ethnically distinct from Indonesia, with a separate colonial history,
its independence was bartered away by a fraudulent UN process in the
1960s. Since then, Indonesian military repression and colonisation have
manifestly failed to quash its people’s desire for self-rule.

No-one suggests that we should go to war with our northern neighbour to
free the West Papuans. But for their sake as well as ours we should
stop conniving at Javanese imperialism. Australian governments must
insist, firmly but diplomatically, that there is ultimately no
alternative to self-determination for West Papua. Peace in the region
and democracy in Indonesia both depend on it.

We could make a start by promptly granting asylum to those refugees on Cape York.