The Problem With Panic Merchants
just never learn.
the same people who told us that East Timor should not and would not become
independent, now comes the argument that the people of West Papua should also be
denied the right to determine their political arrangements.
to Jakarta loyalists in Australia who reflexively fear any changes to our
neighbour's territorial boundaries, "the break-up of Indonesia is not in
the region's interests" (Paul Dibb) and any support for it would constitute
"perhaps the single most foolish proposition possible for an Australian
strategic thinker to propound" (Greg Sheridan). Following tensions over
East Timor, a "new potential clash" between Canberra and Jakarta could
arise if the future of West Papua was in dispute (Peter Hartcher). Violence and
mayhem, it is claimed, would inevitably accompany the dissolution of the
Javanese empire - a feature of life which is apparently unknown in the outer
provinces of the Republic of Indonesia today.
is both naïve and untrue.
territorial boundaries of states are rarely immutable. Some states and
territories reunite after a trial separation (Vietnam, Germany, Yemen, Hong Kong
and soon Macau and Korea). Others fragment, sometimes peacefully
(Czechoslovakia), occasionally co-operatively (USSR) and too frequently
violently (Ethiopia, Yugoslavia). Though followed by 25 years of struggle
against a brutal occupation and international indifference, East Timor may be
the only example of secession ultimately decided by a genuinely democratic vote.
separatist movements are political protests against being governed in common
with others (Tibet, Philippines, Aceh, West Papua, Chechnya). These sub-national
revolts often imbricate with ethnic, cultural and religious divisions, which
were either constructed out of the colonial experience (Rwanda, Solomon Islands)
or not reflected in post-colonial state structures (Bougainville, Fiji).
Sub-national economic development in specially designated zones (South China)
and breakaway territories (Taiwan) are also powerful centrifugal forces which
can intensify national fragility.
states fragment when they no longer command the authority and loyalty which they
possessed or once claimed to possess. It is now common for minority groups to
argue that their identities and interests are excluded from the dominant images
of nationhood propounded by the state: they no longer feel part of the common
they start looking for new political structures which more faithfully
acknowledge their ethnicity and satisfy their political and economic interests.
is essentially what is happening at the western and eastern extremities of the
Indonesian archipelago. Although both Aceh and West Papua can boast of
nationalist movements which predate Indonesia's formation fifty years ago, in
their current form both the Free Aceh movement and OPM are manifestations of
Jakarta's greed and brutality. For decades Acehnese and Papuans have been
excluded from the common national project directed from Java, wanted only for
their natural rather than their human resources.
the case of West Papua, uneven nationalist sentiment and disorganised military
resistance has been bolstered by economic exploitation, transmigration and a
fraudulent plebiscite conducted, much to its discredit, under United Nations
auspices in 1969.
therefore, has no-one but itself to blame for the recent decision of the Papuan
Peoples Congress to declare that West Papua is no longer part of Indonesia. It
is a reflection of how the indigenous people of the territory have been
mistreated over four decades.
President Wahid believes that the Congress was unrepresentative and that most
people in the territory wish to remain citizens of the Republic, he has nothing
to fear from a genuine act of self-determination - except perhaps his own grip
on the presidential office. Despite his reforms of the armed forces, there are
grave doubts that Wahid could carry enough senior military officers with him in
such a concession. Nor could he rely on any support from the foreign investment
community, particularly the mining sector. In the meantime, the Javanese elite
will still see no irony in their defence of the sanctity of boundaries
established by the perfidious Dutch.
the anxieties of panic merchants in the Australian media, neither Indonesia nor
Melanesia is disintegrating. A redefinition of Indonesia's boundaries would
almost certainly end with independence for Aceh and West Papua and not
ineluctably lead to the Balkanisation of archipelago. In the event that this
transpires, simmering tensions should calm, releasing President Wahid to
concentrate on more central economic concerns.
Prime Minister John Howard's attempt to appease Indonesian nationalists by
publicly supporting the country's existing territorial integrity before his
first meeting with the Indonesian president in Tokyo backfired. It failed to
both assuage elite paranoia in Jakarta about Canberra's regional designs and
prevent President Wahid from again postponing his visit to Australia. It makes
little sense for Canberra to respond to unpredictable events to our north by
mistakenly equating stability and order with the preservation of a status quo
that has now passed. Silence on the issue is a wiser policy.
the social bond which unites and integrates people into the same political
community has irrevocably broken, neither violence nor offers of limited
autonomy can restore trust and a sense of belonging. Even if the Jakarta lobby
is determined to be, Australia's strategic planners need not be caught on the
wrong side of history again.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies