This piece was first published by New Matilda.
The ‘Freedom Flotilla to West Papua’ is the latest example in a long tradition of Australians taking a stand for democracy and justice in Indonesia.
Although successive Australian governments have been overly eager to align themselves with the more regressive elements of the Indonesian political landscape, ordinary Australians have stood up time and time again for democracy and human rights in our region.
Following the defeat of the Japanese at the end of World War II, Indonesia proclaimed independence, but four more years of fighting was required to defeat Dutch attempts to regain control of their former colony. During this crucial period, many within the Australian community supported the Indonesian cause. For example, a boycott led by the Australian Waterside Workers' Federation and supported by 30 other Australian trade unions, immobilised 559 ships that were meant to supply the Dutch effort.
Then, just as now, Australia’s political leaders were reluctant to embrace their constituents’ solidarity with our northern neighbours struggling for democracy and justice, but eventually the Chifley Labor government took up the matter at the UN. Indonesia’s foreign minister, Dr Subandrio, would later describe Australia as the “midwife” (pdf) of the Indonesian Republic.
Since then however, when it comes to our relationship with Indonesia, there has been a clear contrast between the actions of Australian governments and the wishes of the Australian people.
While Australian governments supported US attempts to break up Indonesia by backing rebellions and later became leading apologists for the brutal dictatorship of General Suharto, various Australian academics, trade unionists, students and human rights defenders took a different path.
Australians who spoke out against the illegal invasion and occupation of East Timor were long dismissed and marginalised by various Australian politicians. Likewise, those keen to highlight the ongoing human rights violations in Indonesia’s troubled West Papua province, find little support in Canberra.
So it’s not surprising that the Australian activists on board the Freedom Flotilla – that last Friday sailed into Indonesian waters to hold a ceremony highlighting the cultural links between Indigenous Australia and Melanesian Papua and of course, to raise awareness about the ongoing human rights abuses in Papua – were not holding their breath for support from Australia’s incoming Foreign Minister.
Asked about the Flotilla before the election, Julie Bishop said Indonesia was “entitled to use whatever means it wishes” to protect its sovereignty. Unfortunately, when it comes to silencing political expression in West Papua, the Indonesian military is known for using whatever means it wishes — torture and political assassinations, to name a few.
Earlier this month, Indonesian authorities once again demonstrated how little tolerance they have for free speech in Papua by arresting four community leaders who dared to raise the banned Morning Star flag following a prayer meeting held in support of the flotilla. They face 20 years in prison for this crime.
It’s often reported that Indonesians are suspicious that many Australians support independence for West Papua. These fears are likely to be well founded – a Newspoll in 2006 (pdf) revealed that over 75 per cent of Australians support the people of West Papua’s right to self-determination, including the option of independence. Regardless of such findings, successive foreign ministers have clamoured to assure Indonesia’s political class that there is not an ounce of support within the ranks of the Australian government for any such discussion.
For the record, the Human Rights Law Centre does not have a position on the topic of Papuan independence – our concern is the well documented human rights abuses that continue to occur a stone’s throw from Australia’s shores and what Australia could do to help address them. But even putting the topic of independence to one side, it is clear that Australia’s usual head in the sand approach of refusing to even discuss human rights problems publically with Indonesia is not sustainable.
As a Foreign Minister promising to deliver a more Jakarta-centred approach to foreign policy, Julie Bishop should take steps to better align Australia with the mainstream Indonesian voices that recognise that the human rights problems in West Papua won't be solved by military force.
She could start by challenging Indonesia’s effective media ban and pushing for Australian journalists to be allowed to travel to and report freely from West Papua. Media access is such a simple and reasonable request, yet its impact would be profound.
Further, a complete review of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia’s military and security forces would ensure we are in no way aiding or abetting human rights abuses, directly or indirectly, through our support of Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88.
Australian citizens have been taking the lead and standing for democracy, human rights and justice in our region for some time. It’s time we had a government that stood with us.
Tom Clarke is the Human Rights Law Centre's Director of Communications. He is on Twitter @tomhrlc