The recent announcement by Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon that Australia will co-produce weapons with Indonesia would seem to indicate that, after decades of difficulties, there are no longer major outstanding issues between Australia and Indonesia. However, as with previous bilateral defence arrangements, it may be that real problems have at best been swept under the carpet.

While Mr Fitzgibbon has been cuddling up to Indonesia’s defence minister, Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia’s military (TNI) and paramilitary police have been cracking down on activists in West Papua. For the “crime” of raising the West Papuan “Morning Star’ flag, one person was shot dead at Wamena and at least 18 people have been arrested near Timika, the town nearest the massive Freeport gold and copper mine in an area that has been the site of much local unrest.

Flag raising ceremonies have been linked to a more general claim for greater respect for human rights in West Papua, including the establishment of genuine autonomy for the now divided province. However, in response to the crackdown, there have also been a number of bombings, claimed by one of the Free Papua Movement’s more militant factions as intended to close down the mine.

In signing the new defence deal, Mr Fitzgibbons said: “Australia and Indonesia are pursuing cooperation in key areas that will enhance TNI’s capabilities and support the increasingly important role of the Indonesian Department of Defence.”

Indonesia is moving, if all too slowly, towards greater democratisation and wider reform, and good bilateral relations are important. However, there remain serious human rights problems in Indonesia, in particular in West Papua. Like East Timor, these problems have and will continue to surface, threatening the bilateral relationship.

Indonesia’s defence establishment is overwhelmingly the cause of Indonesia’s human rights abuses. Australia’s continued insistence, then, on pursuing closer relations with it is starting to look like a compulsive fetish gone horribly wrong.

Peter Fray

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