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Arma virumque cano

Categories: Arc of instability, Asia-Pacific, PNG, Refugee Policy, Refugees, West Papua

by: Bakchos
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The more classically minded among Blak and Black’s readers will recognise the title of this post as being the opening words of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, “… sing of arms and of a man.”

Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coasts of Troy, exiled by fate, came to Italy and Lavine shores; much buffeted on sea and land by violence from above, through cruel Juno’s unforgiving wrath, and much enduring in war also, till he should build a city and bring his gods to Latium; whence came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the lofty walls of Rome.

The Aeneid translated by H. R. Fairclough, The Loeb Classical Library, 1916

The Aeneid apart from being the bane of my existence in high school, where I was ‘forced’ to learn the intricacies of its language at the end of Brother Duffy’s strap, serves another and more profound purpose. The Aeneid is a tale about the travels and travails of a band of refugees from Troy expelled from their country because of a war over which they had no say in or control over (three goddesses had a contest, Paris was the judge and the rest is ‘history’). The first six books of The Aeneid deal with the wanderings of the ‘man’ and his companions in search of sanctuary. A sanctuary they found in Latium.

Driven by the same forces of fate, rapine and invasion that forced Aeneas and his comrades to become refugees three millennia ago, in January 2006 forty-three Papuans sought political asylum in Australia. The outrigger canoe in which they landed on the other side of the Torres Strait flew the West Papuan Morning Star flag (Bintang Kejora) and carried a banner pleading for freedom, peace and justice. The banner also asserted that the Indonesian military was committing genocide in West Papua. The quest for asylum was a political act designed to attract Australian and international attention to the struggle for West Papuan independence.

The Indonesian Government applied considerable pressure on Australia to return the Papuans to the land of their torment. So much pressure did the Indonesian Government apply that in a press conference on 7 April, 2006 then Australian Prime Minister Howard was forced to explain Australia’s position.


One of the concerns that has been raised by the Indonesians is that as a close ally and friend that some special arrangements should have been considered in processing those 43. Would you envisage any future change to processing of unauthorised arrivals from West Papua in the light of that concern?


We would not change our processes in relation to a particular expression of concern. We are in the wake of what has happened looking at the processes but we will continue to abide by our international obligations. This is a difficult issue. It is very important that we keep to our international obligations. It is also very important that we preserve a good relationship with Indonesia which I believe will remain the case despite the current difficulties. I think the relationship with Indonesia is very sound, it is very strong. I repeat what I said over the last few days. We regard the people of West Papua as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia and there won’t be any equivocation on that issue and we do not encourage them to come to Australia and we do not encourage Australian non-government organisations to encourage them to come to Australia. It is not in their interests that that happen. It is in the interests of everybody that the process of openness and the new approach which President Yudhoyono oversaw a few years ago continues in West Papua and that they feel fully and completely a part of Indonesian society.

John Howard, Joint Press Conference With The Treasurer, The Hon. Peter Costello MP, Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Melbourne, 7 April 2006.

Two important things occurred as a result of this incident. The first was that Australia reiterated its position, a position it had adopted since 1962 that “West Papua… [is] fully and completely a part of Indonesian society.” The second, under pressure from Indonesia over the granting of protection visas to the aforementioned West Papuan refugees, Australia in May 2006, introduced the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill into Parliament. Ostensibly the Bill was to rectify the alleged anomaly that asylum-seekers were treated differently depending on whether or not they had been able to reach the mainland.

While the Bill might have been successful in easing diplomatic tensions with Indonesia to the extent that the new policy was designed to deal with asylum seekers coming from regions of Indonesia, it raises questions about our compliance with the Refugee Convention “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” in accordance with Article 3.

In his second reading speech, Mr Andrew Robb makes reference to the ‘incongruous’ situation of onshore arrivals being able to access merits review and the Federal Court system while unauthorised boat arrivals processed offshore are not accorded the same opportunities. This incongruity is wholly attributable to the introduction of offshore processing and would be best addressed by a review of the need for offshore processing rather than measures to deny onshore protection arrangements to all boat people who seek to arrive on the Australian mainland.

The asylum seekers caught by the current Bill are not ‘secondary movement’ refugees but refugees who did not and perhaps could not seek protection in any other country.

The proposed law thus punishes people who arrive by boat when compared with asylum seekers who have travelled entirely by plane. The current Bill may thus be a direct breach of Article 31(1) which states:

‘The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, ….’

This raises the obvious question, why does Australia feel such a need to ‘tug the forelock’ whenever Indonesia enters equation?

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia

In January 1962, when diplomatic tensions between Indonesia and The Netherlands seemed likely to spill over into military conflict, the Australian Minister of External Affairs, Sir Garfield Barwick, persuaded the Menzies Government that Australia’s interests were best served in a close and cooperative relationship with a united Indonesia. Barwick argued that it was not in Australia’s interest to support an independent West Papua as promised by the Dutch. Such a state, he contended, would be small, unviable, indefensible and the focus of Indonesian antagonism.

The rationale behind Barwick’s strategic assessment of relations with Indonesia – that it was not in Australia’s interest to foster the emergence of small states in the eastern archipelago – informed the policy decisions of the Whitlam and Fraser government about East Timor in the mid-1970s. Barwick’s rationale also underpinned the Howard government’s declarations of Australia’s support for Indonesia’s sovereignty in West Papua during the current crisis that unfolded amidst the arrival of the 43 Papuan asylum seekers in January 2006.

West Papuan resistance to Indonesian rule commenced shortly after Indonesia assumed control over the administration in 1963. The Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM) was established in 1964 and the first major revolt around Manokwari took place in 1965. The OPM’s armed resistance was local and sporadic, but persistent. OPM never threatened Indonesian control of the territory, but Indonesia has not been able to eliminate it or the aspirations for independence that the OPM represented for many more West Papuans than those who joined its armed struggle.

When the Suharto government came to power in Indonesia in 1966, it wanted to restore Indonesia’s standing in the international community. One of the ways of achieving this was to fulfill Indonesia’s obligations under the New York Agreement and permit the West Papuans to determine whether they wanted to remain in Indonesia. Given the strength of Papuan resistance and the significant deterioration in material conditions since the Dutch left, the Suharto government faced a dilemma: how to hold an ” Act of Free Choice“. That produced the only acceptable result for Indonesia – a unanimous vote of the West Papuan people in favour of joining Indonesia – and to do so in such a way so that the result appeared to be the credible and legitimate expression of the will of the Papuan people. Pieter Drooglever author of Act of Free Choice: The Papuans of Western New Guinea and the limitations of the right to self-determination noted that:

“In the opinion of the Western observers and the Papuans who have spoken out about this, the Act of Free Choice ended up as a sham, where a press-ganged electorate [of 1025 selected Papuans] acting under a great deal of pressure appeared to have unanimously declared itself in favour of Indonesia.”

The Australian Government might have been embarrassed and uncomfortable with the manner in which Indonesia conducted the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”, but the outcome – West Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia – was consistent with the strategic decision it had made in 1962, a strategic decision that is still favored in Canberra to this day.

In fact according to the Australian Council for International Development’s (“ACFID”) Garth Luke:

“Melanesia and East Timor are now widely perceived in official and academic circles as an ‘arc of instability’ within which economic development has also largely stalled.”

Garth Luke, no date. ‘Australian Aid: A Mixed Bag’, Australian Council for International Development

In 2007 Chauvet, Collier and Hoeffler estimated the total cost of failing states at around USD$276 billion annually in lost GDP, with Pacific island nations accounting for US$36 billion of that.[1]

The Failed States Index defines a failed state as:

“.. one in which the government does not have effective control of its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force.”

In the 2011 Index some 177 sovereign states are ranked on their vulnerability to collapse according to 12 indicators, among them conflict, corruption, demographic pressures, poverty and inequality. The rankings are headed by Somalia and dominated by countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Timor-Leste was perceived to be the most vulnerable state among West Papua’s neighbours, although its 23rd place ranking reflects an improvement in its domestic security situation since 2008. The Solomon Islands was ranked 49, Papua New Guinea 54, Indonesia 64 and Fiji 68.

It’s this fear of having failed states on Australia’s doorstep, along with the consequences of that reality, should it occur, that drives Australia’s obsession with maintaining a unified Indonesian state. The reality of sovereign state failure for Australia came in the form on Tim Spicer’s Sandline International. In 1997, Nick Van den Bergh led an Executive Outcomes military team into Papua New Guinea (“PNG”), as sub-contractors under the prime contract of Sandline International. This operation was to capture the Panguna gold mine operated by British/Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The massive copper and gold mine on the Papua New Guinean island territory of Bougainville had been closed by the independence-minded Bougainville Revolutionary Army in 1989.

For USD$36 million Sandline would provide 44 Special Forces personnel, mainly British, South African and Australian to fight alongside PNG Defence Force personnel. Not only was Sandline to receive USD$36 million, but in a series of meetings between Deputy PNG Prime Minister Haiveta, Tim Spicer, and several other figures, Sandline explored the possibility of buying out CRA’s stake in Bougainville Copper Limited, the owner of the Panguna mine, which was at the heart of the Bougainville conflict.

Traditionally, the ultimate symbol of the sovereignty of a nation is its ability to monopolize the means of violence, i.e. raise, maintain and use military forces. If a venerable state contracts this symbol of sovereignty to the private sector, particularly a Private Military Company whose employees include the so called elite of the former South African Defence Force (“SADF”) – including former commanders and members of the Koevoet counter-insurgency unit (a police unit that cooperated closely with the SADF in northern Namibia), 32 (Buffalo) Battalion, 1 to 5 Special Forces Reconnaissance regiments, 44 Parachute Brigade, the offensive intelligence units of the Civilian Co-operation Bureau (CCB), former Directorate of Covert Collection (DCC) – as well as Special Branch detectives and top-ranking officers of the former South African Police (SAP), and then offers the contractors a permanent base, this has the potential to raise concerns with that state’s neighbours. It was on the back of the Sandline incident that the Australian Federal Police (“AFP”) formed the International Deployment Group (“IDG”).

Papuan refugees: cruel Juno’s unforgiving wrath

Indigenous West Papuans are a Melanesian people in common with Pacific neighbours PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji and are thus racially and ethnically distinct from the vast majority of the Indonesian population. Indeed, New Guinea as a whole (East and West) is home to almost 1,000 indigenous languages with a reported 267 on the Indonesian side, representing around one-sixth of the world’s ethnicities. This diversity in culture has resulted from factors including mountainous terrain, dense rainforests, steep valleys, impenetrable marshland and large distances, which have combined to create isolated communities speaking different languages and developing different cultures. Different, but nonetheless Melanesian, not Indonesian.

The Papuans exodus across the border into PNG began within weeks of Indonesia assuming administrative control in 1963. There are approximately 13,500 West Papuans living in exile in PNG. It should be noted that not all Papuan flight from Indonesian security operations and political tensions has been manifested as flight across the border into PNG. Where Indonesian security operations have been conducted at some distance from the border, internal displacement is what generally follows.

Most of the Papuan political refugees who fled to PNG in the 1960s have not returned to West Papua and many involved in the large scale exodus of the mid 1980s remain in refugee camps in PNG. The most senior of the West Papuan politicians of the last years of the Netherlands administration, Nicolaas Jouwe, Markus Kaiseipo and Herman Womiswor left with the Dutch and lobbied for international support for West Papuan independence from a secure base in The Netherlands.

They were followed in 1969 by Clemens Runawery and Willem Zonggonau, who made an abortive attempt to present the West Papuan case to the United Nations. The flight into exile of pro-independence leaders reflects not only the restrictions on political activities in West Papua but also the importance of the international community in how Papuans think of their struggle for independence. This reflects the role the United Nations played in brokering the 1962 New York Agreement, its subsequent supervision of the Act of Free Choice in 1969 and contemporary Papuan demands that the UN re-examine its acceptance of the results of the Act of Free Choice. Willem Zonggonau died in Sydney in October 2006

Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998 following widespread public protest after the Indonesian economic collapse, there has been a resurgence of West Papuan nationalism. Along with this resurgence in Papuan nationalism has come more pressing demands for greater accountability from foreign extraction and resource companies operating in Papua.

Control over Papua’s natural resources is a core issue confronting both the indigenous Papuan’s and the Indonesian migrants. Leaked US Embassy cables reveal the private concerns of American officials over the Indonesian military’s role in West Papua. An October 2007 US Embassy cable quoting an Indonesian foreign affairs official stated that, “The Indonesian military (TNI) has far more troops in Papua than it is willing to admit to, chiefly to protect and facilitate TNI’s interests in illegal logging operations.” An earlier cable from 2006 cites a PNG government official as saying that the TNI is “involved in both illegal logging and drug smuggling in PNG.”


[1] Lisa Chauvet, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, 2007. ‘Paradise Lost The Costs of State Failure in the Pacific’, UNU-WIDER Research Paper 16

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  1. Bakchos Glass an eccentric, but seemingly well received post!

  2. Interesting analysis. I guess that the AFP would be stretched to the max if they had to garrisson a large number of failed states in the Indo. arcapalego. Hell they might even try and recruit you!!! How’s that for a joke.

  3. Bakchos cuz what the hell are you talking about? Man if we let the AFP go to 100 failed states inagine how much corruption they could get up to then! So what is the connection between the AFP, failed states and what they did to that Martens bloke? How many logging contracts does the AFP have in PNG and the Solomon Island? Now that is something worth investigating.

  4. Good point you make Bakchos Glass refugees have been arouns since the beginning of recorded history. In fact it’s probably refugees who have helped civilization spread around the world in the early days of human development. Refugees like all forms of immigration should be embraced, it broadens out experiences.

  5. Bakchos Glass you have raised a number of interesting and important points in this post. I forgot that PNG turned to mercenaries in an attempt to wrest control of Panguna back from the BRA. I can see the governments point about not wanting a whole pile of failed states on our door steps. As you point out the dudes who were working for Sandline aren’t the nicest. Problem is that our people the AFP in particular have a tendency to fill the gaps, and the gaps are corruption and other criminal activity. It all comes back to who polices the police.

  6. Anne Shiny via Facebook says:

    Bill Wheatley, you made me choke on my morning Earl Grey with laughter by that comment! I’ll say nothing more on that point!

    Mick, I’d be asking what happened to Marten’s flying doctor service after he was screwed over and lost everything?

  7. Anne his comment made me chock as well. Though he might add some integrity to that organization, something it desperately needs.

  8. Tabitha Van Vechten that understanding escapes me as well. The problem in Australia is that under John Howard’s Prime Ministership Australia reverted to a xenaphobic and paranoid era of fear and oppression, an era which witnessed huge increases in organisations like the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, ASIS all designed to fan the flames if hatred, fear and oppression.

  9. Tabitha Van Vechten I urge you to take note of what Sharon Coc said. The real genesis of this current era of fear and xenaphobia can be easily traced back to Howard and his re-election campaigns that were based on fear of everything including our own shadows. I’m starting a new group, womed opposed to racism, hope you will give some though to joining.

  10. Tabitha and Sharon Coc I support what Jenifer Trees has argued. Howard was a xenophobe and a racist. He has left a legacy that will take a long time to pass. Former AFP Commissioner Mick Kealty is part of that legacy. The compensation we are going to have to pay Martens, Moti and others is also part of that legacy. Personally I believe that the Bali Bombing would not have occurred or at let’s was prompted in part because of Howard’s xenophobia. Lets all look to a new dawn.

  11. Yes we are all refugees, why do those of us who got here first think we have a right to deny others? Indonesia might be bigger and potentially more powerful than Australia, but does that really mean that we should let them trample on other people’s rights?

  12. Mahmud Ahsan via Facebook says:

    Tamara Ann Wooden We are all refugees on the celestial plane of God’s creation. We are all his children, life is a learning experience. How one can learn when they live in fear of their neighbour, I don’t know.

  13. Just because seperation from Indonesia would be problamatic from a law and order perspective is no justification to keep people in servitude. A truly civilized world would find a way to work around the law and order issues.

  14. Genelyn says:

    Hi Puk Puk (Crocodile in Pigin. John and wife Lilian are long-time friends and own a great loocrdice farm in Central Queensland if you’re passing through),Good to hear from you and ta for taking the time to comment on my Blog. I suspect that whatever awaits me in Sydney -ie the night spots around Mardi Gras for example would be far more confronting than anything I’ve ever seen in PNG.Ta for the kind words. As you know, it’s not that difficult to capture such images in PNG .though, that won’t be the case in the not-too-distant future. We are both lucky to have seen so much of it before it all disappears. Next time you’re in Brisbane .Lukim yu.

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