Calls are mounting on Australia to use whatever influence it can muster and urge Indonesia to end the violence in its troubled West Papua province. Jakarta’s heavy hand threatened to overshadow a visit by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who is holding talks with his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard in Darwin this week.
About 10 people have been killed, many more injured, including a German tourist, in the past six weeks.
West Papuan activists have been jailed and one shot dead for raising a West Papuan separatist flag while Indonesian soldiers are being branded as trigger-happy and accused of antagonizing relations with pro-independent locals.
Perhaps the worst cases of bullying in recent times happened in Wamena where more than 85 homes were torched when troops opened fire on locals after a soldier was stabbed to death. It was widely believed the soldier had accidentally knocked down a child while riding a motorbike.
Jakarta annexed the former Dutch colony in 1969 and granted the resource-rich province more autonomy in 2001 but its military presence has been a constant sore point with up to 14,000 troops stationed in the area where the likes of FreeportMcMoRan and BP hold massive mining interests.
The copper and gold mines have become a widely resented symbol for resistance leaders behind the Free Papua Movement (FPM) and their followers who believe their country has been hijacked by outsiders who give little back to the local community.
But finding out exactly what is happening in the region is close to impossible due to an Indonesian ban on media coverage from the province which the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) says must be lifted.
The HRLC wants Gillard to press Yudhoyono into lifting the ban and enter into a process of constructive dialogue that will find an end to the festering unrest. Police claim that a separatist youth group known as the National Committee for West Papua (KNBP) is behind the latest violence.
It’s a charge that the KNBP, whose vice chairman Mako Tabuni was shot and killed on June 14, rejects and it says police were carrying out attacks on unarmed members simply to blacken the group’s name.
Uncorroborated reports say Tabuni was shot in the back of the head by Detachment 88, an anti-terrorism task force set-up in conjunction with Australia and the United States to flush out Islamic terrorists in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing by Jamaah Islamiyah.
Its presence, if true, in West Papua and its reliance on Australia for funding is a worrying sign.
Claims and counterclaims will likely come to a head this weekend when the FPM commemorates its 47th anniversary with calls to raise the Morning Star flag, a move which will irritate authorities and illicit a nasty response which will be justified by claims that police were simply acting in the national interests.
It’s a scenario that could be avoided if Gillard can entice the Indonesians to exercise some restraint in a land whose people have little in common with big business interests or the political machinations of Jakarta.