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Could West Papua be Abbott’s East Timor?

June 24, 2013

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Could West Papua be Abbott’s East Timor?

By ABC’s Tracee Hutchison

Posted Mon Jun 24, 2013 8:45am AEST

PHOTO: West Papua is creating tension beyond its borders as it fights for independence. (Reuters)

Australia was instrumental in supporting East Timor’s fight for independence in the 1990s. What role would an Australian Coalition government have in the move towards West Papuan independence, asks Tracee Hutchison.

When former prime minister John Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer began working toward East Timor’s independence in 1999, history now tells us that they did so, initially, without letting on to the Indonesian government.

As the Australian government continued to publically support Jakarta’s territorial claim over the resource-rich Indonesian province, privately the actions of Howard and Downer set in motion the makings of a new nation.

John Howard’s leadership overseeing the UN-sponsored independence referendum and Australia’s peacekeeping role in the fledgling nation remains, as he wrote in his biography Lazarus Rising, one of his proudest achievements and won him international acclaim. (Perhaps everywhere except Indonesia, where the issue of Timor Leste remains contentious).

But Australia’s spiritual investment in East Timor was already considerable by the time the country voted overwhelmingly to break free from Indonesian rule. The killing of five Australian newsmen at Balibo in 1975 and the wave of Timorese refugees who made Australia home in the wake of the Indonesian occupation meant many Australians knew Timor’s story well.

And it helped that the country had a Mandela-like leader who led Fretilin’s resistance from his jail cell, one who also happened to fall in love with his Australian go-between in the process – and another who traversed the world stage as leader-in-exile, a Nobel peace laureate in the making.

Fast-forward 11 years after Xanana Gusmao was sworn in as the country’s first president and the prospect of another Timor-like territorial tug of war with Indonesia at its epicentre is getting some tentative traction in the region. This time it is the Indonesian restive province of West Papua that is creating tension beyond its borders.

While Australian political leaders spent another week focused on a power struggle over who would lead the country, heads of state from Pacific island nations were grappling with a power struggle over a West Papuan application for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an intergovernmental organisation made up of the four Melanesian states; Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The West Papuan National Coalition for Liberation had proposed that, as ethnic Melanesians, Papuans had a right to representation.

At first blush it’s not the stuff of headlines and in Australia it didn’t make any. After all, the MSG’s core business of promoting regional trade and political consultation within a ‘Melanesian framework’ isn’t going to be of much consequence to too many people in Australia.

But the mere fact the MSG made Papua’s application for inclusion in the group an agenda item is significant in itself. And one that won’t have gone unnoticed in Jakarta. Nor would the group’s joint communiqué – released without any fanfare late on Friday night – that alleged human rights abuse in the Indonesian province need to be addressed as part of ongoing engagement and dialogue with Indonesia.

These may well prove to be benign manoeuvrings, but at least one Melanesian leader has warned that history would judge them poorly if the bloc displayed a lack of leadership on the West Papua issue. Vanuatu’s prime minister Moana Carcasses – a strong supporter of Papuan independence – told fellow MSG leaders that the group’s "failure to take decisive action" on Papua would be "exposed by future generations".

While the application is still being considered, the prospect of West Papuan membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group poses a vexing dilemma for regional geopolitics. In the lead-up to last week’s meeting of the MSG PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill slipped up to Jakarta for a meeting with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono vowing to raise human rights abuses in West Papua in their discussions. Publically, SBY and O’Neill issued a joint statement on those talks that the two nations would "work together" on their shared border issues. Again, the mere fact the issue was raised at this level is not insignificant.

Australia supports Indonesia’s territorial governance over West Papua and neither side of politics would meet with high-profile West Papuan independence campaigner Benny Wenda when he undertook his self-described ‘Freedom Tour’ through Australia, New Zealand, PNG and Vanuatu earlier this year. Benda lives in exile in London and counts Julian Assange’s Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson among his supporters.

But while Australia currently keeps the Papuan cause at arms-length, it hasn’t always been that way. Australia, somewhat controversially, accepted a group of West Papuan asylum seekers as genuine refugees back in 2006. The group of 43 – community leaders and their families among them – had fled in fear after violence broke out when the West Papuan flag, the Morning Star, was raised in direct defiance of Indonesian law in the province. The incident caused a bitter diplomatic spat between Jakarta and Canberra. Australia, by acknowledging the group would face persecution if they returned home, had directly challenged Indonesia’s sovereignty and governing policy in West Papua. John Howard was Australian prime minister and SBY was Indonesia’s president.

In more recent years, the Liberal/National Coalition has mirrored the Rudd/Gillard position on Papua. Both sides of Australian politics understand Jakarta’s influence and strategic importance as a regional powerhouse and both have been massaging the relationship through the prism of regional security and economic development.

Despite a steady flow of allegations of human rights abuses in West Papua since the country’s ‘Act of Free Choice’ elections in 1969, the issue of West Papuan independence remains firmly off the Australian-Indonesian bilateral political agenda. It is a curious twist of history and fate that Australia fell in love with East Timor’s quest for independence from Indonesian but West Papua, with its not dissimilar circumstance, has been something of a silent witness.

In three months time, if the polls are accurate, Australia will have a new prime minister and a new foreign minister. Tony Abbott is a proud protégé of John Howard and Julie Bishop, should she stay in the foreign affairs portfolio, has invested a great deal travelling and talking to regional leaders in the Pacific. Bishop, in particular, would understand the acute sensitivities of the Papua question in the Melanesian context.

When John Howard was elected prime minister in 1996 an independent East Timor was unthinkable but it proved to be his greatest, and most unlikely, foreign policy triumph. Could an equally unthinkable destiny await West Papua under the stewardship of an Abbott-led Australian Government?

The momentum for change may well be starting to rumble across the Pacific.

Tracee Hutchison broadcasts across Australia/Asia/Pacific for ABC News Radio and Radio Australia. View her full profile here.

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