In late March, the Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote that the Howard government had “absolutely no desire to see an independent West Papua.” He acknowledged that “human rights abuses” did occur in the Indonesian province, but “Canberra wants to give no comfort to the independence movement.” It was a typically subservient position from the Australian commentariat when relating to Indonesia. Maintaining close relations between Canberra and Jakarta was the paramount imperative, with human rights a distant second.
A new book by Clinton Fernandes, senior lecturer in strategic studies at the University of New South Wales, Reluctant Indonesians, aims to inform a weary public that the West Papua struggle is as just, rational and achievable as the victory in East Timor in 1999. He launched the book last night at Sydney’s Gleebooks with ABC Four Corners producer Peter Cronau. Speaking to a small but devoted crowd – with NSW Governor Marie Bashir seen just before the event but seemingly absent from the proceedings – Fernandes challenged the various journalists, editors and politicians who dismissed the viability of the liberation movement.
A Jakarta lobby operates in the political and media elite, determined to undermine public support for Papuan independence. These figures are “in a panic”, Fernandes said, over the recent Newspoll that found 75% of Australians believed Papuans had the right to self-determination or independence.
Fernandes is a controversial dissident – his former employer, the Australian Defence Force, tried to ban his previous book, Reluctant Saviour, on the obsequious role of the Australian government towards Timor in 1999. He argued that activists should aim for diplomatic isolation of the Indonesian military, “the real fascists through the archipelago”. “If the Nuremberg Trial rules applied”, Fernandes said, “most Indonesian generals would have been executed long ago.”
The International Crisis Group may have recently denied the severity of the human rights abuses in Papua, but Fernandes claimed that many of the footnotes in this report were questionable and arguably far too sympathetic to Jakarta’s interests.
Fernandes argued that the Papuans knew they had experienced genocide by the Indonesian state, but it was ultimately up to the people themselves to decide their future. “Papua should be demilitarised”, he argued, and an environment encouraged that allowed freedom of expression and the raising of the Morning Star flag.
During the Q&A, dedicated activists, many of whom had fought for over two decades for Timorese independence, wondered about the viability of a free Papua, what with the power of the Freeport mine in the area and a corrupt Indonesian military that only received 30% of its budget from government sources. Fernandes replied that the political mood could change quicker than anybody realised, but pressure must be maintained on the Indonesian military.
Fernandes told me that at the recent launch at of his book at the State Library of Victoria, Indonesian intelligence officers were visible in the crowd. The Papua debate still threatens the accepted wisdom of the Australia/Indonesia relationship, and the media and political elite still have much to lose if “stability” is threatened.