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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 13, 2006
Diplomatic dog days ahead
By Bill Guerin

JAKARTA - Is Papua about to become another East Timor? Jakarta is rife with allegations that Australia implicitly backs Papuan irredentist ambitions, just as many Australians favored independence for East Timor a decade ago. Many of the Jakarta elite have never forgiven Canberra's peacekeeping role in the province's breakaway from Jakarta after the 1999 referendum.

The waters around East Timor are rich in natural-gas reserves, and since independence Jakarta has wrangled with Canberra over drilling rights. So the fact that Papua is one of Indonesia's and perhaps the world's most resource-rich territories fuels Indonesia's suspicions about Australia's possible commercial ambitions for

the territory. Add to that Australian anxieties over Islamic terrorism from Indonesia and other irritants, and one can see how bilateral ties have reached a nadir.

Australia infuriated Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jakarta's political elite and a large cross-section of the population with its decision late last month to grant political asylum to 42 Papuans who had floated on a small boat to Australia's shores in January. They had claimed they were fleeing state-sponsored genocide in Indonesia's easternmost province.

Yudhoyono had in January telephoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard soon after the Papuans arrived to ask that they be sent home and personally guaranteed their safety upon their return. His attempt at hotline diplomacy failed to persuade Howard - even though Canberra has in recent years taken a hardline stance on unauthorized arrivals from Indonesian asylum seekers. "It's true the president rang the prime minister to ask him not to give them these visas, so there's a bit of a face issue here," said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Among those granted visas were well-known pro-independence activist Herman Wainggai, who in the past spent time in an Indonesian jail on treason charges. His uncle, Tom Wainggai, also a leading independence activist, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after raising a Papuan flag in 1988. He died eight years later in a Jakarta prison amid unsubstantiated claims that he was poisoned and denied medical treatment. His case has long been a rallying point for Papuan separatists.

Jakarta is not buying Canberra's argument that the decision to grant the visas was a lower-level administrative decision made independently by immigration authorities and not a political decision made at the highest level. They assume that such a diplomatically touchy issue could only be made by the prime minister himself. So it added insult to injury by causing Yudhoyono to lose face. Partly for this reason, he recently recalled Indonesia's ambassador to Australia.

Cartoonists in both countries vied to see who could reach a new low. One published in Indonesia depicted Australia's prime minister and foreign minister as copulating dingoes lusting after Papua. An Australian newspaper hit back with a cartoon portraying Indonesia's president and a Papuan as fornicating dogs. The episodes demonstrated just how far the two countries' popular perceptions of each other have deteriorated. And it appears the two neighbors could be in for some diplomatic dog days ahead.

Entrenched suspicions
Australia's sometimes heavy-handed tactics against suspected Muslim terror suspects have raised Indonesian criticism of religious-based discrimination, while Australians are acutely aware that they are in the sights of certain Indonesian terror groups, which in recent years have bombed tourist spots popular with Australians as well as their embassy in Jakarta. Howard's brash claim after September 11, 2001, that he reserved the right to strike preemptively against terrorists who threatened Australia's national security was seen as an implicit threat to Indonesia.

Indonesians view the decision to grant the Papuan asylum-seekers visas as proof that Australia gives credence to the still-unsubstantiated allegations that Indonesian security forces are currently committing serious human-rights abuses in Papua. The much more widely substantiated atrocities committed in East Timor turned Australian public opinion strongly in favor of independence.

By comparison, Papua's independence movement remains weak and lacks the compelling historical narrative or the moral imperatives that gave life to East Timor's successful drive in 1999. There is one similarity, however: Indonesia currently bars foreign journalists and human-rights groups from accessing the remote territory, so independent verification of conflicting claims is difficult.

Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has conceded that there were unfortunate incidents of Indonesian troops raping and torturing the local population in the past. But Yudhoyono, speaking last week in Merauke, the spot from where the wanderers set sail for Australia, has strongly denied allegations that the 11,000 or so troops now stationed in Papua are currently involved in human-rights abuses.

Underscoring those assertions, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said Australia's decision to grant the asylum seekers visas justified speculation that there are "elements in Australia supporting the separatist OPM" (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free Papua Movement) - although without providing supporting evidence to back the politically charged claim.

Amid the furor, Yudhoyono is now left with few options except to take a tough line with Australia. Chest-beating nationalists have mobilized in full force around the incident and have called for a complete break in diplomatic ties with Australia. The same nationalistic elements had recently protested against resource-extracting foreign investors in the country, a rallying cry Yudhoyono had strongly opposed.

Canberra continues to struggle to determine the precise gravity of the issue. Downer said at first that it had "generated a certain amount of heat and light amongst politicians in Jakarta, and the wise thing for Australia to do was to play this calmly and see what happens". Later he described Australia's relationship with Indonesia as a "crisis".

Howard prefers to believe that much of what has been said in Jakarta is intended for "domestic political consumption", and he is careful to say nothing bad about Yudhoyono. He recently described Indonesia's first directly elected president as "one of the most capable, moderate Islamic leaders in the world", and "the best president Indonesia has ever had". He has reiterated Australia's support for Indonesia's territorial integrity - although critics in Jakarta note that Canberra made similar pronouncements related to East Timor just before its controversial military intervention there in 1999.

The backlash threatens to take a heavy economic toll on both countries. The Association of Indonesian Importers has called on its members to boycott Australian products and asked all dock workers across the country to refuse to unload goods from Australia-flagged ships. Groups of Islamic students have begun "sweeping" hotels in provincial towns looking for Australian citizens, a campaign of intimidation that will likely hit the tourism industry hard.

Both sides stand to lose from an escalating conflict. Bilateral trade has continued to expand and reached US$5.2 billion in 2005, making Indonesia Australia's 13th-biggest trading partner. Some 400 Australian enterprises have operations in Indonesia's mining, construction, banking, food-and-beverage, and transport sectors. More than 18,000 Indonesians study in Australia, and even after the terrorist bombings Bali remains a prime tourist destination for Australians.

Not another East Timor
One can make too much of the East Timor analogy, of course. East Timor's independence stemmed from then president B J Habibe's cavalier approach to the territory in the heat of a presidential election campaign. "We don't want to be bothered by East Timor's problems anymore," Habibie famously said. "If someone asks me about East Timor, my suggestion is, give them freedom. It is just and fair."

Habibie's plan, of course, met with fierce opposition, and the military was furious that it had not been consulted. The military deliberately undermined Habibie's policy by channeling money and arms to pro-Indonesian militias, which promised to wreak havoc if the Timorese voted for independence. In the aftermath of the referendum, militia violence swept across the province, with the armed forces denying any responsibility.

East Timor had long been in the international spotlight, beginning with the Indonesian invasion in 1975, shortly after Portugal abandoned its empire, and the continued official abuses committed thereafter. Papua, on the other hand, became Indonesian territory in 1969 peacefully as part of a United Nations-ratified referendum after the Dutch withdrew. Pro-independence forces now say that the pro-integration referendum was undemocratic and a sham.

Jakarta has reacted viscerally to any attempts to rewrite history. In a State of the Nation address last year, Yudhoyono noted: "There exist no manipulations of history that must be revised. The world bore witness to every negotiation on returning West Irian [as Papua was known under the Dutch], under the conduct of the Act of Free Choice. The United Nations has also recognized the outcome and, up to the present, never questioned it."

And Indonesia has warned foreign allies to steer clear of the issue. During a state visit to China last July, the president warned the US not to interfere in his country's domestic affairs, especially in relation to Papua. On the same day the US State Department issued a statement reaffirming support for the territorial integrity of Indonesia and reiterating that it does not support or condone any efforts to promote the secession of Papua from Indonesia.

As the United States gears up to forge a stronger strategic relationship with Indonesia as a counterbalance to China's growing influence in the region and for Jakarta's cooperation in the "war on terror", US interference over Papua is unlikely. However, this could change if Congress takes up the Papuans' cause: A bill now before the Senate would require the State Department to report back on Papua and, significantly, also review the 1969 Act of Free Choice.

This year has seen heightened frustrations in Papua over Jakarta's failure to implement autonomy laws and anger at foreign companies exploiting the region's resources. Jakarta insists that the 42 asylum seekers in Australia were nothing more than economic migrants. Papua's new governor, Barnabas Suebu, the first directly elected by Papuans, has contradicted that account, saying they left in response to their feelings of injustice. "The Papuan people are still poor, despite their rich natural resources," he said.

Similarly to Aceh, independence will never be considered for Papua, no matter how successfully its separatist leaders internationalize their aspirations, Indonesian officials assert. Yudhoyono, whose efforts to end the 30-year conflict in Aceh won him praise at home and abroad, last week conjured up the spirit of unity in Merauke, telling Papuans: "Let's respect the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia. We fight for it, we defend it, we nurture it in our nationalist spirit."

For now, that nationalist call has more resonance in Jakarta than in Papua.

Bill Guerin, a Jakarta correspondent for Asia Times Online since 2000, has been in Indonesia for 20 years, mostly in journalism and editorial positions. He has been published by the BBC on East Timor and specializes in business/economic and political analysis related to Indonesia.

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