Australian Minister’s Comments on Papuan Independence Show Disconnect Down Under

September 05, 2012

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr surprised many Indonesians with his latest statement that his country categorically rejected Papuan independence and that public opinion in Australia was “in support of Indonesian sovereignty” over Papua and West Papua.

Why he said that remains a question. Had he not recognized Indonesian sovereignty over Papua and West Papua all these long years?

Indonesians only know that public opinion in Australia has gone far up to a level of supporting independence for Papua. To them, it’s a double standard.

Carr probably had reasons to fear that if Australia keeps supporting separatist movements and pressing its neighbor on human rights in Papua, Australia-Indonesia relations could be damaged and result in a great loss for Australia as Indonesia is now becoming a stronger and more democratic nation. With a $1 trillion economy in the making, Indonesia could even overtake Australia economically in time.

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Australia in 2005, he warmly thanked then Australian Prime Minister John Howard for Australia’s aid after the tsunami, but also gently reminded him not to think of Indonesia only as a weak country needing help, but as a country of great potential strength.

But Australians have hardly noticed or been aware. Australia’s view of Indonesia has been dominated by lesser issues such as illegal fishing, asylum-seeking and situations in East Timor and Papua. Even today, ask any Australian on the street, and he or she will say Australia is for the independence of Papua. Indonesia and Australia people-to-people relations are still culturally far apart.

The Australian press has no access to cover the real happenings in Papua, as the Indonesian authorities have never allowed Australian journalists in. At the same time, Indonesian security suspects espionage and foreign meddling from undercover journalists. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has yet to assign an official to speak at the National Press Club in Canberra to explain the happenings in Papua.

Canberra has called for an Indonesian inquiry into the killing of a Papuan independence leader but could not say whether Australian-trained counter-terrorism police were involved in the death.

Carr said Australia had pressed the country on the death of Mako Tabuni, a leader in Papua’s fight for independence from Jakarta allegedly killed by Indonesia’s elite police squad and whom authorities regard as a fugitive.

Australian media reported he was gunned down by plainclothes officers from Detachment 88, a counter-terrorism squad formed after the 2002 Bali bombings and partly trained and supported by Australia.

But Carr could not confirm whether Detachment 88 had been involved in Tabuni’s death. He said Australia had called for a full and open investigation into the shooting in the context of Australia recognizing Indonesian sovereignty over Papua.

Why? Had Australia not recognized Indonesian sovereignty before? Are Papua and West Papua not part of Indonesia? The Australian Federal Police meanwhile was not aware, nor had been informed, that Detachment 88 is specifically targeting pro-independence leaders in Papua and West Papua.

Indonesian politicians meanwhile have seen unfairness in Carr’s statement regarding Detachment 88. They said that Australia must be careful making such statements because they could be seen as having double standards.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto said that Tabuni resisted arrest while Tubagus Hasanuddin of the opposition PDI-P party said that the Australian foreign minister’s remarks are not good. Instead, he should have asked for clarification from the Indonesian government.

Australia-Indonesia relations must be guided by a more far-sighted understanding of the role Indonesia could play in Australia’s long-term future. Australia’s strategic relationship with Indonesia is important. Indonesia is the only neighbor with the strategic weight to work with Australia on security. The country’s strength is a great strategic asset for Australia.

This is why Australia-Indonesia relations are so important on a greater scale, based on mutual understanding, economic cooperation and boosting quality people-to-people relations, which are on the decline. Less enthusiasm is seen among Australians to learn about Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia used to be taught in Australian universities but has declined sharply, according to an Indonesian teaching Bahasa there. Meanwhile, mutual exchanges have also declined in number.

As a developing country, Indonesia’s human rights record might not impress its neighbor, but human rights should never be used as means to press others for certain interests such as supporting independence movements in provinces which Indonesia has sovereignty over.

Yanto Soegiarto is managing editor of Globe Asia magazine, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.

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