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Academic discusses possible tensions with Indonesia over West Papuan asylum seekers.

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Sunday, 29 January 2006



PETER MARES: When 43 West Papuan asylum seekers were discovered in north Queensland this month you could almost hear the collective groan in Canberra. This was the last thing the federal government wanted as it attempted to negotiate a new security treaty with Jakarta.


For the federal government this is a no-win situation. To send the asylum seekers back to Indonesia would promote a storm of domestic protest and international condemnation for breaching the 1951 Refugee Convention. On the other hand, if the asylum seekers are found to be refugees and granted residence here then Indonesians, or at least some Indonesians, this is yet more evidence of Australia’s malevolent intentions towards our northern neighbour. The Indonesian government has already warned that granting protection to the West Papuans could disturb bilateral relations.


Now, it’s not like this situation hasn’t arisen before. In fact, there have been numerous instances very much like this over more than four decades. Dr Richard Chauvel is Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Victoria University and a specialist on East Indonesia and Australia-Indonesia relations.


Richard, thanks for joining us. First of all let’s start by clarifying some terminology here. I’ve been, in my introduction, saying West Papua which of course has also been known in the past as Irian Jaya and which I think now has been split into two separate provinces known as Papua and West Irian Jaya, just to confuse things further. But essentially we’re talking about the western half of the island of New Guinea and associated islands.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: That’s correct, Peter. The name of the territory in a way reflects the political contestation which has surrounded it since the end of the Second World War. West Papua and West Papuans is the preferred name identified by West Papuans themselves. Indonesia has preferred various versions of Irian(?), be it West Irian, Irian Jaya and now, with Megawati’s division of the province into two in the beginning of 2003, we now have a province, as you said, of West Irian Jaya.


PETER MARES: And this is essentially Dutch territory that was not included in the original Indonesian Republic in 1949 but became part of Indonesia in the 1960s with UN support, let’s say, or UN blessing.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: I think from the Indonesian point of view it was part of the proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia from August 1945 ….




RICHARD CHAUVEL: … onwards, and that that is the bone of contention with the Dutch until the issue was resolved in 1962. That dispute may seem rather distant history now, but I think it is very relevant in the sense that for a very critical period of Indonesian political development, namely the revolution and the first decade or so of Independence, West Papuans weren’t effectively part of Indonesia. And that, put on top of religious, ethnic, cultural differences, I think has made the subsequent relationships between West Papuans and central governments in Jakarta all the more difficult.


PETER MARES: So when did Australia first have to deal with asylum seekers from West Papua?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: The first time, in fact, was in the 1940s but not actually ethnic West Papuans. There was an interesting, fascinating story about a bloke called Segaro(?). who was a detainee in the Dutch detention concentration camp before the war.


PETER MARES: So he was an Indonesian nationalist?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: He was an Indonesian nationalist, in all probability an Indonesian communist, who was brought to Australia during the war so he didn’t fall into the Japanese hands. And, as a communist, he was prepared to work with the Dutch government in exile under Van Mook and got on well with some of the officials of that government, was taken back to Hollandia, in those days, and made the head of a training college for Papuan officials. And from that position he organised three coups against the Dutch, all of them that failed, the last two of which were organised from inside a Dutch prison from which he eventually escaped to PNG and then to Australia.


But if we think about it in terms of West Papuan asylum seekers, that really began with the Indonesia takeover of the administration in 1962-63.


PETER MARES: And then, of course, these asylum seekers were going to what’s now Papua New Guinea but which was then, of course Australian territory?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: That’s exactly it. So they weren’t refugees coming directly to mainland Australia but to PNG. I think they can come into two categories. One was a group of people who, under an arrangement with the departing Dutch authorities, it was agreed that Australia would give a home to a group of second, third level political activists, people who had worked as bureaucrats and professionals with the Dutch.


PETER MARES: Sort of educated elite?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: An educated elite. And the arrangement was that they would be given residence in PNG, supported financially by the Dutch government with the proviso that they didn’t … political activities related to Irian Jaya.


PETER MARES: And then there were others, villagers crossing, who lived in the border area crossing to and fro?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes. There was always a lot of cross-border traffic.


PETER MARES: In fact I think the border wasn’t even demarcated for a long time.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes, this is it. The border wasn’t … well, the Dutch were in control of West New Guinea, the border wasn’t important. There were all sorts of ad hoc agreements between the two colonial administration of who would look after this village irrespective of where that village lay, viz-a-viz the supposed border. As soon as Indonesia took over that border became important and it was fairly quickly demarcated and so on.


When you read the reports of the then Department of Territories, from their posts along the border, yes there were just ordinary border crossings of villagers who lived on both sides but there was a fair number of the people who were interviewed who were clearly political activists and opponents of the Indonesian regime.


PETER MARES: Let’s jump to 1969 when there was the so-called active free choice in West Papua. Many people call it the act of no choice, but it was a UN-sanctioned operation to essentially, in the end, approve West Papua joining Indonesia. Now, tell us what happened to two men, Clement …  and Wilhem Zhong…  in 1969.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: These two were younger prominent members of the Papuan elite that had been supported and encouraged by the Dutch regime from the late 1950s through to 1962 with the New York agreement. Their attempt to get to Australia, really an attempt to get to the UN to participate in the debates about the act of free choice, was an endeavour partly organised by the exiled leaders in Holland to make sure that there were credible Papuan voices who had on-the-ground experience of what was going on in West Papua, to be present at the UN debate.


PETER MARES: But they never made it to New York?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: They never made it to New York.


PETER MARES: And why not?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: They sat it out in Manus Island, very much at the request of the Indonesian government.


PETER MARES: A request carried out by the Australian authorities?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes, indeed. So the provision of necessary travel documents and so on were not forthcoming by the Australian authorities.


PETER MARES: And Manus Island has a long history of  the places in ….




PETER MARES: Look, we’ve had other arrivals, too. In the mid-80s there were massive crossings across the border in the Papua New Guinea, but at that time too we had some asylum seekers, I think in ’85, arriving directly from West Papua in the Torres Strait. Now it’s worth, I think, quoting the response from Chris Hurford who was the Labor government’s Immigration Minister at the time. He said the West Papuans shouldn’t be allowed to stay because this would:


… open the floodgates to others coming to Australia illegally …


and secondly:


We regard Indonesia as a friendly neighbour and we certainly don’t want too many dissidents from Indonesia in this country. There are plenty of other places in the world where they can go.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: I think that very neatly sums up the sorts of dilemmas that the government in Canberra today is having to work its ….


PETER MARES: It would be the same kinds of conversations going but not quite so publicly?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes, not quite so publicly. But the Australian government is faced by a critical dilemma. It’s the same dilemma that it faced in 1995 with refugees from Timor, so what Chris Hurford was saying about opening the gates was echoed by Ali Alatas in 1995 viz-a-viz the Timorese refugees.


PETER MARES: Warning Australia that ….


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes, warning Australia. And obviously somebody in Indonesian foreign affairs in the last couple of days has opened the Ali Alatas file and picked out exactly the same phrase.


PETER MARES: The same choice of words.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes. And really I think the fascinating coincidence, or series of events of … we are now, just as in 1995 in the process of negotiating a security pact which the way the government in Canberra seems to be responding, seeing this as a difficulty in relations. In some ways, perhaps it might be more useful for Canberra bureaucrats to see it as an opportunity to discuss what always has been, and is likely to remain, a very difficult issue and one in which ….


PETER MARES: Well, the bottom line is, isn’t it, that we’re going to keep seeing arrivals from West Papua and perhaps other parts of Indonesia, as long as those provinces, and particularly West Papua, are so troubled ….




PETER MARES: … and where there’s obvious military and police brutality towards villagers and that sort of thing.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Indeed. And while I don’t think there’s any direct relationship at all between the departure of the boat from Merauke, landing in Cape York a few days before the killing of one Papuan and the wounding of a couple of others in Penei(?).


PETER MARES: In a similar region?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: In the western end of the central highlands. These two incidents reflect in different ways the nature of political tensions and political instability in West Papua, and one would suggest that it’s in the Australian government’s interests to find ways of encouraging Indonesia to find a peaceful resolution for those conflicts.


PETER MARES: Rather than sort of turning a blind eye and hoping that they’ll solve themselves?


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes. I think history tells us that they’re not going to go away, recent history, not least since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became President, tells us that Papua remained a very difficult policy issue for Jakarta.


PETER MARES: And Canberra.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: And for Canberra, but not least for Jakarta. It involves making compromises which go to the heart of national interests, the military’s interests as well as ideological nationalist interests if a way and means is going to be found for Papuan ideals and interests to be incorporated within the Indonesian state.


PETER MARES: If we look back at this history of Australia’s response to various waves or various groups of Indonesia asylum seekers, it seems that Amanda Vanstone’s response to the latest arrivals is perhaps honourable by comparison—I mean leaving aside the issue of detention and Christmas Island and how they’re actually being treated. At least she has said that the applications will be treated on their merit without taking into account whether we’ll upset friends and allies. If she’s going to carry that through then that would stand her historically apart from what’s gone on in the past.


RICHARD CHAUVEL: Yes, indeed. I think in all the previous instances, be they Papuan refugees or Timorese or Ambonese, the political calculations are very much in the context of the bilateral relationship with Jakarta. I think they’ve been dominant in Canberra’s weighing up of how to deal with it. And as you mentioned in your opening remarks, they’re confronted with a no-win situation in the short term. But I think that there are longer-term reasons why careful consideration of those claims and taking the risks that might incur short-term Jakarta displeasure, if that can be part of a process in which Australia can play some part in a resolution of difficulties in Papua, I think that’s a positive outcome.


PETER MARES: Richard, thank you very much for joining us.




PETER MARES: Dr Richard Chauvel, a specialist on eastern Indonesia and Associate Professor at Victoria University in Melbourne.