QUARTERLY ESSAY 7 Paradise Betrayed



Bruce Grant

John Martinkus raises issues of consuming human interest and increasing diplomatic importance. His essay is rich in detail and useful references. His account of the American ambassador’s visit to Sentani in April this year, with its mix of formality at the grave of the Papuan leader Theys Eluay, murdered last year after a dinner meeting with officers of Kopassus (Indonesian Special Forces), raucous student enthusiasm, bloodcurdling war whoops, suppressed violence and the presence in everyone’s minds of the huge Freeport-McMoRan gold and copper mine, Indonesia’s largest single taxpayer, is a brilliantly suggestive cameo of the real world in which the drama of West Papua is being played out.

What remained in my mind when I had finished reading was not just the maltreatment of the Papuans he documents, but their predictable behaviour in response, in particular their devotion to a flag and the use of physical violence in their just cause. No one can blame them, any more than one could blame the East Timorese (or the Palestinians and many others) for wanting a state of their own and a flag of their own to fly as a symbol of their independence, and being prepared to fight for it. It is the way of the world, expressed in the adage tattered but still resonant, that ‘states make war and war makes states.’ But the association of military power with the sovereignty of the state is the very combination that makes the abuse of human rights, including that in West Papua, so prevalent.

The system of states that has operated in the modern world since the Westphalia treaties of 1648 is based on the control by those states of borders and a stable population. Without control of their borders and their citizens, states are subject to interference from outside by stronger states or by non-state forces. When the United Nations was formed in 1945 with the states as its members, non-interference in the internal affairs of states was one of its principles. But another of its principles was that every person had rights, which were announced in the Declaration of Human Rights three years later.

It was evident even then that the right of the sovereign state to control its citizens and the human rights of those citizens were likely to conflict. At the time that Indonesia took over West Papua (then Irian Jaya) from the Dutch, the rights of the state were superior, in world politics and in international law, to the rights of the individual. Since particularly the end of the Cold War and a revival of ethnic and religious identity, accompanied by the surge of globalisation, the clash between the rights of states and the rights of people has become epidemic. The state and its instrumentalities, the police and the armed forces, are the greatest abusers of human rights.

In 1999, in a far-reaching speech to the UN General Assembly, Kofi Annan assessed the implications, describing it as a new era of ‘two sovereignties’, the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the individual. First, he said, state sovereignty was being redefined. ‘States are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their people, and not vice versa.’ Although states were the foundation members of the UN, the fundamental freedom of each person was at the core of the UN charter and subsequent international treaties. ‘When we read the charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them.’ The world – and therefore the UN – could not stand aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights were taking place. Intervention, however, must be based on legitimate and universal principles. In a thoughtful, penetrating address, he tackled the need to redefine not just ‘sovereignty’, but ‘national interest’, ‘vital interest’ and ‘common interest’, terms that have been used glibly, as if we all understood what they meant.

At the same time, international criminal law has been developing, lately rapidly, as ad hoc tribunals are set up to deal with massive human rights violations in situations of conflict and, most recently, with the advent of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The trial of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity allegedly committed while he was Serbia’s head of state is merely the most noticeable of a number of prosecutions of agents of the state. The ICC, established this year, will for the first time provide a permanent international forum to prosecute individuals as well as states. If a soldier behaves badly in contact with the civilian population, he or she could find himself before it. For the first time recently, Serbian soldiers were convicted and gaoled for rape. This is the new reality of world politics and international law in which the West Papua issue needs to be resolved.

John Martinkus has written a gripping narrative, without an ending. He assumes at times that West Papua will, or should, end up in one way or another like East Timor. However, West Papuans in the separatist movement (OPM) face a much more difficult situation, not the least of which is the example of East Timor itself. Also, since 11 September 2001, another tattered adage – ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ – has been given a new lease of life, with states as politically different as Russia, China, India and Israel united in their determination to stamp out their particular brand of terrorism. What emerges from Martinkus’s account is that the Indonesian military is playing a more subtle game in Papua than in East Timor, framing the Papuans as the terrorists and, in one of many ironies, importing into their midst elements of Laskar Jihad, the Muslim militant organisation, to stir up trouble. They are aware, like everyone else, that the public’s mood at the moment, and the disposition of governments, is to have no sympathy with terrorism, whatever its underlying causes may be. The Bali massacre will overshadow Indonesia’s internal security problems for a while, but the West Papuan issue predates current terrorism concerns and will continue however they are met.

The cases of West Papua and East Timor, although similar in their experience of human abuse, are different in other important respects. East Timor was Portuguese, and therefore did not pass to Indonesia at independence as part of the Dutch East Indies. It is true that the Dutch withheld Papua from Indonesia, the successor state, until the 1960s, but it was part of the Dutch East Indies and its passing to Indonesia was as natural and appropriate as the artificial terms of ‘state’ and ‘nation’ allow. It is true that the UN-supervised Act of Free Choice was an unhealthy mix of pyramid selling and branch stacking, but Indonesia was not a democracy at the time and what the UN arranged was, in the circumstances, better than the alternative on offer, an Indonesian military assault. In addition to these differences, the humiliating fact of East Timor’s independence hangs over any future Indonesian government, especially its military component. When the current president’s father was president, he used to proclaim the unity of Indonesia from ‘Sabang to Merauke’, or from its western to its eastern tips. This did not include East Timor, but it certainly did include Irian Jaya, and the sensitivities of Indonesian nationalism would be aroused much more by the threatened loss of West Papua than they were by the loss of East Timor. The sensitivity of Indonesia’s budget bureaucrats would also be aroused: West Papua is rich in resources.

In Australia, the cause of East Timor’s independence was sustained by a campaign to avenge the deaths of Australian journalists at Balibo during Indonesia’s military intervention in 1975. The Australian media kept a particularly watchful eye on the situation in East Timor. In addition, East Timor’s resistance leaders had a European, even romantic, style that Australians like and which the Papuan warriors, with their authentic aboriginality, cannot replicate. Even so, many Australians (myself among them) supported Australian policy until the massacre in Santa Cruz cemetery in November 1991. After that, realising that the Indonesian military was incorrigible, many still preferred a form of autonomy for a period of perhaps five years before a vote on self-determination could be taken. As it turned out, of course, the people of East Timor were given their opportunity to be independent in quite different circumstances. The catalyst, however, was not the Santa Cruz massacre or many other violations of human rights but the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which destroyed the Suharto regime and its firm, military hold on the Indonesian archipelago and brought to office Suharto’s vice-president, who was not at his best when confronted with complex political issues, including a metastasising military.

The treatment of the Papuans, like the East Timorese before them – and like the Acehenese – could become a source of instability in the region. But Indonesia is fortunate. Unlike Yugoslavia, it is surrounded by countries that do not want to dismember it. When Slovenia and Croatia put up their hands, Germany and then most European and Western states, including Australia, were quick to recognise their independence. When the Cold War ended, Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics. Only two are left.

Indonesia is as unnatural a nation as Yugoslavia was, hastily put together as it was after the First World War. Like Yugoslavia it is on a crossroads, in its case a cross-waterways. In Asia, only India is more culturally diverse, but India has a natural unity created by mountains to the north and sea to the south. Indonesia is an archipelago of thousands of islands straddling a maritime freeway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Its outer islands are rich in resources and resent the dominance of over-populated and introspective Java, just as Serbia’s dominance was resented in Yugoslavia. Aceh has always been recalcitrant, Sumatra (led by some dissident colonels assisted by the CIA) tried to break away in the 1950s, the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) have a resistant Christian community in the south, as did East Timor and as West Papua has now.

Indonesia and Yugoslavia were both non-aligned during the Cold War. When, after Tito died, the Cold War declined and Yugoslavia’s neutrality became irrelevant, Milosevic tried to enforce Serbia’s dominance with catastrophic results, including his own removal to The Hague. Indonesia was held together during the Cold War by an understandable nationalism after centuries of Dutch colonial rule, expressed by Sukarno, and, in Suharto’s time, by economic development and military discipline. It is possible that the third president, B.J. Habibie, a technologist, would have been a moderniser, connecting the country with globalisation, but he did not stay long enough for us to find out. The fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, had a sense of the complexity of the contemporary world and the need for Indonesia to become more flexible and cosmopolitan in order to find an accommodation with it, but he did not last long enough either. Now we have Sukarno’s daughter Megawati who seems by temperament inclined to the nationalism of her father and to a degree to the support of the military, but the experience of Yugoslavia – and Milosevic – must give her pause.

She cannot rely on her father’s message of nationalism as a balm to soothe the poverty and suffering of the people, nor on Suharto’s military repression for the benefit of a plutocracy. The prospect is that the OPM will continue to accumulate arms and turn to violence as a way of keeping its claims alive, the Indonesian military will continue to use counter-terrorism to justify its presence and journalists like John Martinkus will continue to bring the depressing results to the outside world. The Indonesian government – and people – will continue to suffer from an unsavoury reputation that has dogged the republic, especially since East Timor, but before that, going back to the massive slaughter of 1965–66 and including the mysterious (petrus) killings in 1983, for which Suharto in his autobiography took responsibility, saying they were criminals, the Tandjung Priok riots in 1984, the murder of the young factory worker Marsinah in 1993, just to mention a few that happen to come quickly to mind.

Wahid’s idea of a new regional group, South-West Pacific Dialogue, is a useful beginning. The membership – Indonesia, Australia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and East Timor – was designed to offer East Timor access to the region without throwing it immediately into the larger ASEAN pond, but at its first meeting in October 2002 the main topic seems to have been West Papua. The original meeting was to be held in Papua but was moved to Jogjakarta because of the murder of schoolteachers from the Freeport mine. The rhetoric at its first meeting in Jogjakarta in October 2002 was predictable, Indonesia declaring that anything more than the limited economic autonomy proposed for West Papua was impossible and Australia declaring that it had no wish after East Timor to see Indonesia further dismembered. Their positions are understandable. Apart from the politics of Indonesian national pride, Australia has enough on its plate, both financially and militarily, with East Timor, to make uninviting the political consequences of another conflict with Indonesia. Neither East Timor nor Papua New Guinea showed any support for the OPM. A New Zealand offer of mediation was rejected by Indonesia.

Challenges, however, create opportunities. It would be a welcome break in this depressing story for President Megawati Sukarnoputri to turn the problem of West Papua into an opportunity to show that Indonesia is moving into the twenty-first century with an identity that is more sophisticated than that which, in the name of nationalism, claimed sovereignty over West Papua. If Indonesia would really like to ‘startle the world’, as Sukarno often claimed he was about to do, it can honour its promise of autonomy for West Papua by giving it political as well as economic substance. The first step would be to break the sterile tension between the Indonesian military and the OPM. One way of doing this would be to accept the need for an international presence as a buffer between the local people and the Indonesian police and armed forces. A token international police presence should be all that is necessary and the United Nations has the experience to undertake such a sensitive operation. Its civilian police activities, although small, have grown each year in the past decade (from 1,053 personnel in 1993 to 6,754, in seventeen missions, already this year). It is interesting that the United States, which is not a major contributor to UN military peace-keeping, is, with India and Jordan, active in civilian policing. Indonesia’s need for American financial and political support makes the American position important, especially as the Freeport mine, like the Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea before it, seems likely to be a target of the segregationists.

The point of international intervention would not be to foreshadow independence for West Papua but to give autonomy a fair chance to prove itself as a viable option. From Indonesia’s point of view it is an opportunity to establish internal order in the province before rather than after the next unsavoury incident occurs. International policing of internal order is a solution that is rarely considered until it is too late, when the state has lost control, law and order does not exist, human rights violations become massive and the more dramatic remedy of international military intervention has to be considered.

Pre-emptive policing takes the heroics out of conflict, which is why it is not favoured by those who are committed to the use of military force as a solution to the conflict of rights and interests. In this case, the disenchanted are the Indonesian military and the OPM. But, from the point of view of the Indonesian government – and, indeed, the Indonesian people – it is worth considering. Indonesia’s neighbours need to impress on it that they are willing to co-operate to find a solution for West Papua, but that the Indonesian state needs to loosen its military hold on the archipelago for this co-operation to be effective.


Bruce Grant is a former ambassador and government adviser, currently adjunct professor at Monash University, teaching statecraft and diplomacy. His first book, Indonesia, became a classic. His latest book is A Furious Hunger: America and the 21st Century.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 7, Paradise Betrayed. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 8, Groundswell.


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