This morning’s Australian reports a remarkable outburst
by Australia’s ambassador to the United States, Dennis
Richardson. Speaking at a US-Indonesia business lunch, Richardson
proponents of self-determination for Indonesian-controlled West Papua,
accusing them of being out of touch with reality in “cling[ing] to an
Indonesia that no longer exists”.

“Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always
has been. As far as Australia is concerned, Papua is an integral part
of Indonesia,” he said, according to The Australian, in “response to
an audience member expressing concern about Papua.”

The ambassador must be assumed to speak with the voice of the
Howard government, but these comments show not just an ignorance of
history but a complete failure to understand the dynamics of issues
like West Papua. Democracy doesn’t stop movements for decolonisation;
if anything,
it accelerates them. Examples from just the last 15 years include
Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and of course East
Timor. A democratic empire is still an empire, but one that is
less likely to fight to the death to hold on to hostile populations.

A much more perceptive analysis was given last month by Hugh White:
“It would be tough for any Government in Canberra to put concerns for
the bilateral relationship with Jakarta ahead of growing public support
for Papuan independence. That would look like going back to the bad old
days that both sides of Australian politics have now repudiated, when
the foreign policy elites ignored public sentiment and appeased Jakarta
over East Timor.”

West Papua actually poses an ideal opportunity for Howard. He came
late to the cause of East Timor, but his supporters nonetheless seem
genuinely proud of the role he played there. West Papua has the
advantage that it was never a distinctively left-wing cause. Whereas
the main independence forces in East Timor were initially the
communists, fighting a right-wing dictatorship in Jakarta, with West
Papua it was a leftist Indonesian government that annexed the territory
(under cover of a sham UN process) in the 1960s.

Since then, all sides in Australian politics have largely ignored
their cause. If we want to make amends for that, we could start by
telling our man in Washington to pull his head in.