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Australia’s West Papua bind

It seems that no matter how cordial Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is or how much it is desired to be so, perennial issues continue that call aspects of that relationship into question. Critically, the gap between how Australia official engages with Indonesia and how that engagement is more widely viewed within Australia continues to test the relationship.




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This has again been illustrated with the continuing human rights problems experienced in West Papua, which have been the subject of a two-part ABC 7:30 Report story. That story highlighted the role of the Indonesian police anti-terrorist squad, Special Detachment 88 (‘Detasemen Khusus 88’, usually abbreviated as Den 88), which receives support from the Australian Federal Police.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, said that official representation to the Indonesian government had been made about specific issues concerning Den 88’s activities in West Papua. But, as with foreign ministers before him, he has been caught between having to balance Australia’s often tricky relationship with its largest near neighbour with widely accepted fundamental values that inform Australian public life.

Den 88 was established in 2003 following the Bali bombing in which 88 Australians were killed. As well as Australian support, Den 88 is also supported by the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and is mostly trained by former US special forces members, under the CIA, at Megamendung, 50 kiloemtres south of Jakarta.

Part of the rationale for establishing Den 88 was that, at a time of growing Islamist terrorism in Indonesia, Indonesia’s key counter-terrorism unit, the army’s Kopassus (Special Forces) Group 5 (renamed Duty Unit 81 Counter Terrorism) had itself been deeply implicated in widespread human rights abuses and the employment of terrorist tactics. With Indonesia’s democratisation and a reduction of army control, it was regarded as more appropriate to ‘civilianise’ domestic counter-terrorism by handing it to the police.

However, Indonesia’s police, only removed from military control in 2000, has continued to have a paramilitary function. In regions such as West Papua it also continues to operate within the military chain of command. There is much evidence to implicate Den 88 in a string of serious human rights violations, including murder, torture and kidnapping.

Importantly, too, while Indonesia has undergone a process of democratisation and its conflicts elsewhere have been effectively resolved, West Papua remains quarantined from most of those changes. In this respect, the history of impunity by the army and police continues largely unaffected in West Papua.

The underlying problem has been that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono used up much political capital on the Aceh peace settlement and has since been stymied over West Papua. Military reform, and effectively reform of the police, has also stopped. Both continue to reflect many of the repressive characteristics of Indonesia’s pre-democratic period.

West Papua remains the most important source of significant ‘off-line’ income for both the army and the police, through legal business as well as ‘grey’ and illegal activities. As a result, they are both deeply reluctant to see the West Papua conflict resolved; repression and reaction in West Papua continue to serve the financial interests of the army and the police.

President Yudhoyono’s limited attempt at a political settlement in West Papua have been without any of the politically expensive concessions that were granted to help resolve the Aceh issue. West Papuan activists have, unsurprisingly, rejected such efforts as insincere.

That the West Papuan activists’ language is often couched in terms of ‘liberation’ and that the Morning Star flag continues as their primary symbol is seen as a provocation by Indonesian nationalists. This is all the justification the army, and the police, require to act in ways that would no longer be tolerated anywhere else in Indonesia.

Within Jakarta, the resource-rich West Papua is seen as a problem that does not require real efforts to fix while it continues to be hugely financially profitable to the Indonesia state. Similarly, knowing that even a reformist leader such as President Yudhoyono has little scope for movement in West Papua, Indonesia’s international friends, such as Australia and the US, continue to demure on the issue.

The problem is, however, that this diplomatically real politik position continues to be confronted by widely held competing views outside Indonesia. Until enough of Indonesia’s friends act strongly enough in concert to assist President Yudhoyono and other reformists to re-start the country’s reform process, organisations such as the US and Australian-supported Den 88 will continue to be implicated in serious human rights abuses which most Australians deeply oppose.               


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