West Papuan activists are testing Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s statements in relation to his asylum-seeker boat turnback policy, that he has “total respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia’s territorial integrity”. So far, they are having little luck.

As Abbott was preparing to leave for Bali, three West Papuan activists scaled the wall of the Australian consulate-general in Bali. The activists delivered a letter seeking the release of political prisoners jailed in Indonesia and free access to the long restricted region by the international media.

The letter also said: “We seek refuge and plead for our safety.” Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told the ABC that the men did not seek asylum for themselves, and left voluntarily within hours, and had gone into hiding.

Last week, seven West Papuans travelling by boat from Papua New Guinea to Australia seeking asylum and were returned to PNG. The legality of sending the asylum-seekers back remains in question.

Last month, the pro-West Papuan independence “Freedom Flotilla” met with West Papuan activists off-shore of the island split between the Indonesian republic and PNG. It had been told it would meet force if it tried to land at Indonesia’s most south-easterly port of Merauke.

The upsurge in West Papuan activism follows attempts by the Indonesian government to find a solution to the West Papua problem while at the same time conducting a crackdown in the territory.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s proposal is to create what is referred to as “Special Autonomy Plus”, a new take on the “Special Autonomy” status granted to the province of Papua in 2001. Not only has there been little about the “autonomy” that is “special”, within two years the province had been divided in two, contravening its new status.

The recent “Plus” proposal is intended to allow the more-or-less democratically elected Papua provincial government to engage more closely with the separatist Free Papua Organisation (OPM). Pro-human rights activists say the provincial government does not have power to conduct negotiations. Further, any benign intentions the provincial government might have are undermined by the Indonesian police and military’s continuing “security” approach to West Papuan activism.

As activists further note, any negotiations need to be with the national, not provincial, government. They also say that such negotiations must be conducted outside Indonesia to ensure the safety of participants, and be internationally mediated to guarantee their outcome.

With less than one year left in Yudhoyono’s term as president, his two-term limit ends in September 2014, both sides have now run out of time to have such negotiations ratified by Indonesia’s legislature. But, as Yudhoyono knows, the parliament would in any case be very unlikely to accept such a negotiated settlement.

West Papuan activists therefore believe their only option now is to try to raise the issue internationally. In doing so, however, they have run up against Australia’s well established policy of supporting West Papua’s continued incorporation within Indonesia.

The West Papuan activists have also run up against Australia’s tougher position of supporting Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”, hence, their “voluntary” agreement to leave Australia’s consulate-general in Bali, just ahead of the arrival of Indonesian police.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

Peter Fray

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