The West Papuan movement is going to prove an extremely prickly subject over the next decade for West Papuans, for Indonesia and Australia. It is well recognised that West Papua should by all rights be a sovereign nation. The vote conducted with UN supervision to join Indonesia was a sham, and continued attempts to portray West Papua as a province of Indonesia, shambolic.
There is no doubt as to their geographic and cultural distinctiveness. In fact Javanese on the whole consider the Papuans as “dirty” (the connotations here are both condescension on their primitiveness, and the fact they don’t wash continually as is the Muslim custom before prayer). It is not uncommon to find Papuan carvings in Java with the “head” sawed off – to ward off against “black magic.” Such superstitious and cultural beliefs run deep, even in the ranks of the political elite.
Unfortunately West Papua will never gain its independence. Not in our generation in any event. Jakarta’s determination to keep it, and Australia’s acquiescence to this agenda create an unmovable hegemony. The situation is not helped by West Papuans lack of political skills, fractious tribes, and disparate population. The independence cause is weak indeed.
Australia’s acceptance of the West Papuan status quo is simple and understandable. Australia cannot manage enfant horrible Papua New Guinea, let alone West Papua which is primitive by comparison. East Timor is a half woven basket case, throw in the routinely mutinous Fiji, flare ups in the Solomon islands, a few sinking nations in Micronesia, and voila, you have your hands full . West Papua is just “another hot turd” Australia would rather not have land on its foreign desk.
Indonesia, or more precisely, Jakarta, however covet West Papua and guard it jealously. The reasons are numerous, but in a word natural resources, and more dangerously national pride. The independence of East Timor put a shiver up Jakarta Aparatichs. They absolutely (and correctly) felt that their national integrity was being challenged and they still remain deeply wounded by the secession. B J Habibie who idiotically (from the Indonesian perspective) put the question to a referendum, even today cannot return to Indonesia.
There is a standing contract on his life. The common man in the street is conditioned to believe that Australia invaded Timor, a feeling particularly fanned in central Java, and not surprisingly this area is a hot bed of anti western terrorist sympathises. To give some perspective – how would Australia feel if the Indonesian Navy landed and occupied Norfolk island to help the residents wrest independence from Australia (as is the Islanders right)? Threatened, angry, suspicious, and hell bent not to let something like it happen again, I suspect would be the sentiment of the day.
Freeport in its own right is justification for Jakarta to keep Papua. It is a money spinner on a staggering scale. It is the world’s largest copper/ gold mine and I believe the world’s biggest mine, full stop. It is the single largest client of Caterpillar world wide. Stories in the Wall Street Journal today question whether payments for security by Freeport to the army represented corrupt tithes. But this money is a drop in the wider Freeport economy that is being skimmed all over town. I will return to the security payments later.
Moreover, BP is building in the Birds Head region of West Papua the ‘BP Tangguh LNG plant’. A massive LNG plant, that, though not yet public knowledge, is set to double in size again and dwarf the NorthWest Shelf. This is not only big money to the central government starved of funds, but is almost vitally important in keeping the greater archipelago together.
Currently due to corruption and incompetence Indonesia has rapidly declining oil and gas production. In fact it is the only OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) member that is a net importer of Oil. Only Indonesia could manage such a contradiction. Almost bankrupt and having to pay for expensive oil is bad enough, but the closure of the Arun gas plant in Aceh (natural end of life) and the aging Bontang operation in Kalimantan are not being made up with new projects such as those in Riau province.
State Owned Enterprises (SOE) such as PLN (Electricity), and Fertiliser Firms rely on subsidised gas from these fields to run. To be simplistic, no gas = no fertiliser = no food. Not enough to feed 220 million people anyway. The masses may be dirt poor, unemployed, uneducated and often sick, but they are not hungry. Now if you introduce that into the equation you do have a recipe for disaster.
Jakarta will not let West Papua go, and Australia will support that. The Papuan story is not being heard, not least of which because the region is pretty well shut down to outsiders. To visit West Papua you have to a get letter from the department of domestic affairs. To get the letter you have to get an invite from Freeport or BP Tangguh. Between them all you can be sure investigative types will not get a ticket. NAMRU I believe was recently banned from the region (having been lurking around those parts since WWII).
Jakarta would be happy to have the Papuans not exist. There have been rumours that the central government stopped the distribution of anti-malarials there, one of the biggest killers of Papuans. Recently it was found out in one province the residents were quite literally starving to death. It got reported eventually and the government was shamed into action.
Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with West Papua. In amongst all of this Jakarta is using is transmigration policy to shift Javanese to West Papua with the ultimate aim, a cynic might say, to have the West Papuans a minority in their own country. Big projects like Tangguh LNG speed up this process.
The economics win the day with the West Papuan question. I did mention national pride as well. There are those in the Jakarta elite who are unreformed New Order Nationalists (ex Soeharto types). They are not really in power, and don’t have the imprimatur of the current Government under SBY, but they are active and they are to be quite frank, killers.
Last year Indonesia’s most active human rights campaigner was murdered by them, using serving members of the state Intelligence agency (BIN). It would be as brazen as ASIO murdering someone like Bob Brown or Peter Garrett. They did it and still have not been brought to account. A murky nationalist by the name of Gueterres has been over to Papua to foment a bit of trouble. He was an instrumental protagonist in the East Timor massacres and takes orders from ultra nationalists. His presence in West Papua is a worrying clue to what direction things may go.
So the stunt by the West Papuan boat people is a clever ploy to bring attention to their cause. They may have been given some friendly advice by some people in putting together this little episode, certainly Jakarta will think so. Australia will be at pains to show it’s not ‘us’ (just some feral types) and treat these boat people in accordance with Jakarta’s wishes.
Perversely it might end up with them being kept in Australia, as Jakarta would probably think they are less harmful being feted in left wing University haunts, than stirring trouble in Jayapura.
If they do go back they have a fairly bleak future as they will be marked and stymied at every turn should they want to have something even as simple as a government job. If they continue separatist activity they will be gaoled or worse killed.
No one quite holds a grudge like a Javanese bureaucrat.