Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Remaking the mistakes of East Timor

"Denying the aspirations of West Papuans ignores the grim history of Timor.

Those disheartened by the immensity of the struggle for freedom in West Papua have a new reason for thinking that East Timor provides a blueprint for the future, notwithstanding the obvious differences between the former European colonies.

Australian Government ministers and diplomats, including the infamous Jakarta lobby, seem determined to stand on the wrong side of history again. Their spectacular moral and political failures that contributed so much to East Timor's 24-year immiseration are today being repeated in policy towards Indonesia's eastern province. They have clearly learnt nothing from the tumultuous events of 1999.

Recall their earlier modus operandi. Australians who campaigned for independence and against human rights abuses in East Timor were defamed as "racist" and "anti-Indonesian" for supporting "a lost cause which raises false hopes, prolongs conflict and costs lives" (Richard Woolcott). Civilian massacres that reached genocidal proportions were only "aberrant acts", Indonesia's takeover of East Timor was "irreversible" and it was "quixotic to think otherwise" (Gareth Evans). The policy was clear: "we're not going to hock the entire Indonesian relationship on Timor" (Paul Keating).

Fast-forward to a recent US-Indonesia Society lunch in Washington, addressed by former ASIO head and now Australian ambassador to the United States Dennis Richardson. Canberra's man in Washington began his short and patronising speech by outing himself as an unapologetic member of the Jakarta lobby.

Richardson claimed the Jakarta lobby comprised "government officials, academics and some in business (who allegedly) conspire together to pervert Australia's true national interests for those of Indonesia". It is an imaginary and disingenuous charge but a convenient straw man for those who have much to be ashamed about.

There is no need for any concept of conspiracy when the interests of two parties are mistakenly thought to be coterminous. The Jakarta lobby has argued for good relations with the regime in Jakarta - especially its vicious and unaccountable military - regardless of the appalling crimes it was committing in Aceh, East Timor or West Papua. For Richardson and his ilk, however, terrorism is only ever perpetrated by Islamists and never the state, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

After claiming in his speech that Indonesia "is working hard to address issues in Papua", without supporting such an assertion, Richardson made some even more extraordinary remarks in response to questions.

First, he argued that "Papua is part of the sovereign territory of Indonesia and always has been", a claim that would have made his audience - including Indonesia's ambassador to Washington Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat - blush with embarrassment, to say nothing of any Dutch observers or Australian World War II servicemen who might recall a different history.

Next, Richardson attacked those supporting freedom in West Papua in strikingly similar tones to those used to demonise Australians for assisting the East Timorese in their struggle.

He said it was "possible to ask the question whether those whose raison d'etre was (the independence of) East Timor has now become Papua and perhaps those critics cling to an Indonesia that no longer exists. For them to accept the Indonesia of today and to actually reinforce the positive developments in Indonesia is to deny them their raison d'etre."

It is an interesting line of attack. Criticise people because their concern for human rights violations extends beyond the boundaries of one territory (East Timor) and into others (Aceh, West Papua, etc) - who could be ashamed of such a raison d'etre? - and then argue that because Indonesia is now a procedural democracy, no further claims of widespread abuses are valid.

These remarks display an ignorance of how far Indonesia still must travel before it can claim to have developed a democratic political culture. Civilian control of the military is but one of several prerequisites yet to be seriously addressed. And as Richardson well knows, it was activists who campaigned for freedom in East Timor and across the archipelago who led the call for democratic change in Indonesia while he and his diplomatic class held hands with the dictator Soeharto, thwarting the very changes he now wants to champion.

Even more concerning is Richardson's failure to either notice or care about the deterioration in conditions for the indigenous inhabitants of West Papua since Indonesia's alleged democratic transition. Where are the "positive developments" for them?

Finally, in words borrowed from a former Labor prime minister who found East Timor to be an irritant in his personal odyssey with General Soeharto, Richardson is equally adamant about the insignificance of atrocities committed against the republic's Melanesian people: "I certainly don't believe that policy approaches to Indonesia should be held hostage by the issue of Papua."

There is little chance of this happening under a Coalition government. As the 43 asylum seekers on Christmas Island have clearly demonstrated, John Howard and Alexander Downer are more committed to West Papua's retention within the Republic of Indonesia that those unfortunate enough to live in the territory seem to be.

Dr Scott Burchill is senior lecturer in international relations at the School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University."

Source: The Age (from UNOTIL Public Information Office, Daily Media Review)
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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