“Insignificant rats.” These were the words used by Indonesia’s Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu in January this year to describe low-ranking Australian soldiers training elite Indonesian Kostrad troops at a military base in Perth, who had uttered the great unmentionable — an independent West Papua.
“The point is to keep a good relationship between the countries. Don’t let insignificant rats disrupt the relationship between countries. That’s not good,” Minister Ryacudu told media amid the fallout in Jakarta.
The Australian Defence Force lieutenants had likely mentioned it in the context of possible planning scenarios and in keeping with a military approach to examine all situations and contingency plans. But the mere mention of this forbidden territory was enough for Indonesia to halt all military communication with Australia for a time.
Why the sensitivity and what the hell is going on there to warrant this latest upheaval between the two countries? Truth is, the West Papuan struggle has bedevilled the relationship — and will continue to. Indonesia still tries to hide what observers have a called a “slow-motion genocide” of the indigenous West Papuans, as it induces poor migrants from densely crowded Java and Sumatra to ‘transmigrate’ to West Papua, similar to what the Han Chinese are doing in Tibet. As mainly Christian and animist Melanesians, West Papuans are Pacific islanders with little connection to the rest of Muslim Indonesia, which annexed West Papua through a fraudulent “Act of Free Choice” in 1969 overseen by the United Nations (UN).
It was, in fact, the UN’s very first decolonisation mission, and it was a farce. The UN, with US connivance, allowed 1,024 hand-picked Papuans to vote for integration with Indonesia, on behalf of a population approaching one million. Most Papuans were expecting independence, as the Dutch had promised them, by 1970.
The story of West Papua is a long and sorry one, and until now perhaps the great untold story of our region. It was one that drew me in many years ago as I was covering other conflicts in Australia’s neighbourhood, in places like Bougainville, the Solomons and East Timor. During WWII these islands were the scenes of vital battles in the defence of Australia, and we relied on the “fuzzy wuzzy angels” not just at Kokoda, but also across Melanesia, including West Papua. Its capital was called Hollandia before today’s Jayapura, and its strategic value can be suggested by the fact that after US General MacArthur had directed the Pacific War from his HQ in Brisbane, his next headquarters in the island-hopping campaign against Japan was in Hollandia.
The basic lesson for Australia out of WWII was that anyone who wants to fuck with us, fucks with New Guinea first. We still need to pay attention here.
I did three trips with OPM guerillas (Organisasi Papua Merdeka — Free Papua Movement) in their Southern Command (Fly river), Northern Command (Bewani mountains) and Central Command (Nduga highlands) during the 1990s and 2000s. Incredible trips, trekking with highland guerillas and avoiding Indonesian National Armed forces (TNI) patrols, in one of the most remote places on Earth. It is an ecosystem second only in size and biodiversity to the Amazon basin. It is the only place I’ve been in 30 years of reporting, ranging from Afghanistan to Fiji, that is so remote I had to explain what a camera actually was.
In the mountains above Freeport I danced a war dance in the rain and felt incredulous at the gulf between a space-age mining project grinding gold over the mountain below and being with some of the last Stone Age people on Earth. Here they wear penis gourds and ass grass, live in huts and survive off their gardens. They share in no fruits from mining, but suffer encroachment by the mine and atrocities from the Indonesian military. Some tribes here did not even know they were part of Indonesia until a full 10 years after the annexation.
They were some of the most incredible experiences of my life, and the Papuans’ vulnerability haunts me still. They told me they preferred to fight and die and live on as ghosts than surrender to Indonesia.
If this is all sounding a bit personal you might be right: I’ve lost a few friends there over the years, including my mate, filmmaker Mark Worth, who died in mysterious circumstances in 2004. It shits me that I can’t visit his grave in Jayapura or investigate his death after getting banned from Indonesia myself in 2002.
After landing in Jakarta from LA to interview Indonesia’s most famous writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, I was held at the airport for four hours and interrogated by military intelligence before they frogmarched me onto a Qantas plane and deported me. I was labelled a “terrorist” (GPK, or “security disturbance person”) on the front page of a daily newspaper because I had dared to report on the hidden wars of Maluku and West Papua.
Do you know what was particularly infuriating? Flying out after the interrogation, tired and strung out, I was asked by a Qantas hostie if I wanted a drink, so I replied yes, double whisky and soda thanks. She returned five minutes later and said, “Sorry, Captain’s orders — because you have been deported we cannot serve you alcohol.” Oh, the indignity! I tried to explain that I am no criminal but have been deported for political reasons but she smiled sweetly and moved on. I was about to go ballistic but calmed myself, took two sleeping pills and knocked myself out lest I create another international incident.
Australians these days think globally, not regionally, as we once did. We are pretty complacent about what goes on in the immediate neighbourhood, but recent peacekeeping operations in the region should reveal the underlying strategic truths of our ‘hood’.
As Mark Worth, a great raconteur who was born in PNG, used to implore: “Wake up Australia and look at the bloody map.” His documentary Land of the Morning Star remains the best introduction to a conflict that has taken more than 200,000 lives on Australia’s doorstep, wilfully ignored by successive governments in Canberra.
West Papua remains the territory that dares not speak its name.
It is the only place I’ve been in 30 years of reporting, that is so remote I had to explain what a camera actually was
While our politicians talk about human rights abuses across the world from a safe distance, there is little concern for our immediate neighbours in West Papua, suffering in the most significant conflict of our region, mostly off the radar.
Right now there is much talk about the rise of China and how its ascendency will affect Australian security, but this is a new thing. Since the 1960s, Australia’s literal frontline has always been the PNG-West Papua border, which Indonesian soldiers regularly cross with impunity since it is 800 kilometres long and mostly unpatrolled.
Back in the 1960s, after President Sukarno invaded West Papua and called it Irian Jaya, he began calling PNG “East Irian” and Australia “South Irian”. At the time it was Liberal government policy under Robert Menzies to support the Dutch in their preparations for an independent West New Guinea, just as Australia was preparing PNG for independence by 1975.
Today, Indonesia continues to ban foreign media and NGOs from operating there, in an attempt to keep it dark. But the explosion of social media and growing solidarity from across the Pacific has made this a situation where Australia looks seriously out of step with its Pacific neighbours, usually succumbing to Indonesian pressure and no longer defending the Pacific as it had done before.
While Australia and Indonesia were busy patching up their latest blue, Vanuatu led a delegation of seven Pacific nations to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, asking for a UN investigation into the situation in West Papua.
When I cast a gaze across the whole Asia-Pacific region, it is amazing to realise how open all these countries have become despite various conflicts and regimes. Yet there are two glaring exceptions. One is North Korea. The other is West Papua. That should tell you something.
Look at the map: New Guinea island, the largest tropical island in the world, hovering above Australia like a giant prehistoric bird. The head of the cassowary is West Papua and for some time I have come to believe that the battle for New Guinea is double or nothing — either West Papua gets independence to keep it and Papua New Guinea part of Melanesia, or the whole island of New Guinea will become subsumed by Indonesia. Which is, unsurprisingly, keen to hold onto the land and fabulous resources, including the world’s biggest gold mine in the Amungme mountains, run by US company Freeport McMoRan.
The generals in Jakarta want to keep Indonesia unified and keep their fiefdom in West Papua, where they can profit from timber, prostitution and drugs away from public scrutiny. Indonesia might have become a democracy after the fall of Suharto, but there is no democracy in West Papua. Just a jungle war fought between bow and arrow tribal warriors and the Indonesian military, land theft, and the highest poverty and HIV rates in all Indonesia.
Not long after Indonesia cut defence ties over the great unmentionable of West Papua, it was revealed that Indonesia’s TNI were training militants from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a gang that uses Islam as a cover for its various extortion rackets. Seems it is outrageous when Australia even mentions a free West Papua, but okay for Indonesia’s military to be training Islamic combatants.
I once found myself in a Jakarta nightclub in the late 1990s, awash in girls and ecstasy (the drug trade in Jakarta’s clubs is usually supplied between rival police and military dealers), when suddenly an FPI gang burst in, harassing the girls and patrons, beating up people and shaking down the club owners who obviously hadn’t paid their protection money on time. It became a tense situation where several well-known Australian correspondents and I had to run into the women’s toilets and climb out a back window to escape.
Today there are jihadi cells operating across Indonesia, including West Papua, where they claim they will help the TNI defend the “sovereignty of Indonesia.” There are fears of a surge in ISIS-related terrorism ahead, as their caliphate falls in the Middle East. We face another East Timor scenario where pro-Jakarta militias terrorise the local Papuans to prevent support for the growing independence movement. One day, Australia may be forced to act there.
Unless Indonesia radically changes its brutal policy in West Papua, growing international diplomacy and outrage may outmanoeuvre Jakarta and West Papua could well follow East Timor to become independent. History is ultimately with them. China is a wild card — what would Australia do if China began supporting the West Papuan guerillas, the OPM? Before we rush to make enemies of China, it is ironic to think that with the US retreating into isolationism, who is to say that China might not emerge as an ally to help defend the Papuans — and Australia — from Indonesian aggression and Islamic terrorism?
We are in a topsy-turvy world where alliances are fluid and Australia’s best (only?) option is to be clear-eyed about our interests and be prepared to defend our immediate neighbours — and thus ourselves. In doing so, we remind a new generation of Australians that in all the questions about national identity, we are a Pacific nation first and foremost. If only we had leaders who could say so.