“The West Papuans have become the victims of Australia’s regional foreign policy arrangements that prop up the anti-refugee policies of Operation Sovereign Borders.”
Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Coalition.
Fifty-two years ago on this day, the Morning Star flag otherwise known and Bintang Kejora, was first raised in West Papua, (formerly known as West New Guinea and to Indonesia, Irian Jaya), marking the unofficial independence of the small province as the impending end of Dutch rule loomed. The promise of independence was short lived, with the international community stepping into an evolving turf war between Indonesia and the Dutch over sovereignty of the region. Less than a year later on 1 October, 1962, the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) assumed control of the province, administering it for transition from Dutch to Indonesian rule. The UNTEA was formed as an outcome of the New York Agreement, ratified by the UN General Assembly as resolution 1752, which also made provision for the West Papuans to themselves make an Act of Free Choice regarding their allegiance and sovereignty at a date after 1 May 1963, the date on which Indonesia assumed sovereignty of the region.
The signatories to the New York Agreement, the Republic of Indonesia, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United Nations, were bound under the terms of the treaty to ensure that the people of West New Guinea were afforded the right to self-determination. This is an important point, as the Indonesians argued until that time that the region of West New Guinea had already conducted an act of self-determination with the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence in 1945. The very agreement of the Indonesians to an Act of Free Choice by the people of West Papua themselves implies acknowledgement of a lack of consultation with all parties in the establishment of the new Indonesian nation.
The crux of the issues around autonomy of West New Guinea lies around the choice given to the people of the region, who were not consulted by the Indonesians, the Dutch or the United Nations regarding their wishes as to sovereignty. The ultimate promise of the Act of Free Choice agreed to by all parties, without consultation with the Papuans themselves, was designed to give the people of West New Guinea this voice, the final say on their future governance. And whilst the people of the region were treated like pawns on a chess board, they were entitled to expect that the international community would follow through with all aspects of the New York Agreement with candour. Alas, the political path is never straight and sometimes the interests of side issues and players are given higher priority than those at the heart of a dispute, with transparency and accountability becoming the causalities. So it was from July to August of 1969, when the Indonesian Government finally held the promised Act of Free Choice under the supervision of the United Nations. Accounts of the process by Reuters journalist Hugh Lunn and men selected at the time indicated that the “choice” was marred blackmail and intimidation. Of the entire population of 800,000 West Papuans entitled to vote, only 1,025 men were afforded the act of making a “choice”, underscored by threats of harm to families and having their tongues cut out. Despite suspicions of the United States at the time, the vote was upheld by the United Nations as resolution 2,504. Of those nations present, 84 voted in favour of the resolution and 30 African states abstained; there were no dissenting votes. The Netherlands accepted the vote as complying with the requirements of the 1962 New York Agreements, and so the indigenous people of West New Guinea were abandoned by the international community.
This morning as the traditional indigenous owners of West Papua gather as patriots to remember their heritage and stolen self-determination, the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) awaits to stifle freedom in Port Moresby, Australia steadfastly in support. The activist Benny Wenda and Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, both invited to PNG by former minister of parliament and current governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, have been advised that they will be breaching the terms of their vistor’s entry visa if they participate in political activities in the country. Immigration officials and police have been waiting outside Mr. Wenda’s hotel. Having reviewed the website of the High Commission for the Independent State of PNG and the application for visa including the information sheet, I can find no mention of limitation of peaceful political activities or of the consequences for participating in local demonstrations that are otherwise lawful. Where exactly is information regarding the limitations about attending a lawful demonstration spelled out to the visitor to PNG?
Moving aside from the idiosyncrasies of red-tape, there is a larger problem here, namely that of Indonesia pressuring the PNG Government into doing its work in oppressing freedom of speech and association, rather like Campbell Newman and Queensland. Both PNG and Australia have become afraid of Indonesia, who threatens to cut trade and cooperation in the constant battle to seal the porous state borders of both nations that are the substance of the asylum seeker debate in the Asia-Pacific region. With the current scandal about spying by Australia on Indonesia and the threat of non-cooperation to curtail refugee transfers, the Australian Government is behaving with a timidity that is hard to understand given that the Indonesians admitted to a similar spying scandal in reverse in 2004. Pot calling the kettle black, don’t you think? Indonesia would do well to cease with bully tactics and treat its neighbours with the same respect that it demands for itself.
Australia wants to be included as an international player in the world political scene, having assumed a seat on the United Nations Security Council and yet, we seem to have shifted from tugging the forlock to out colonial British forebears, to bowing to a new Indonesian master. This neighbouring government is quick to remind Australia about its requirement not to interfere in issues of Indonesian sovereignty, and yet the Indonesians themselves see no hypocrisy in dictating to Australia about ethics. Are we to be little more than the miners and farmers of Indonesia, or the military outpost of America? This country long ago relegated its own aboriginal people to historical and economic obscurity under British rule, has allowed the same to happen to the West Papuans under the auspices of United Nations and now seems to be bowing to a new Asia-Pacific pressure that will rob this country of its own ability to speak out against injustice both locally and internationally. In recent times we have been sluggish to support our own activist from Greenpeace in Russia and refuse to accept genuine asylees from West Papua who feared for their lives when returned to their Indonesian overseers. I wonder what the response of the Australian government will be if PNG follow through with their threats and arrest Benny Wenda and Jennifer Robinson today?