Australia-supported Indonesian militia implicated in death of West Papuan separatist leader and an example of a failed counterterrorism initiatives approach
By Brendan Davis
As the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings approaches, significant attention will be given to remembering the lives lost on October 12, 2002. However, the anniversary should also warrant proper consideration of the unintended and brutal consequences of western counterterrorism measures as serious questions regarding accountability arise. There can be no better illustration of this problem than the plight of the people of West Papua in their battle for independence against the Indonesian government.
Historically, West Papua and Indonesia were Dutch colonies and, while Indonesia gained its independence in 1949, West Papua (then known as West New Guinea) remained under the control of the Dutch. In 1961, President Sukarno mobilized the armed forces and threatened to annex West New Guinea. In the interests of appeasing the Indonesians amid fears that it may become susceptible to communist influences, the U.S. stepped in to broker a deal, whereby the Dutch would cede control of the territory to the Indonesians in exchange for assurances that the Indonesian government would recognize and facilitate West New Guineans rights to self-determination. The result: the 1969 Act of Free Choice, a concocted vote whereby a select few West New Guineans were chosen to affirm Indonesian control over the province, despite the disapproval of the majority of the West Papuan population. The United Nations, for its part, affirmed the validity of the vote.
Tabuni Shot dead By Detachment 88 and Questions arise concerning the death of separatist leader
If this narrative sounds familiar, it is probably because it was under similar circumstances that the Australian lead, U.N. mandated International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) came to the aid of East Timor in its battle for independence from Indonesia, a goal finally achieved in 2002. The East Timor success story represents a source of military pride in Australia in its commitment to upholding democratic ideals. In reality, while the Indonesian expansionist policies facilitated by the post colonial power vacuum present in Southeast Asia in the 1950s had similar implications for the people of East Timor and West Papua, the response from Australia and other west nations has been vastly different.
Unlike the East Timorese, the people of West Papua have been unable to garner foreign support in their question for self-determination. Further illustrative of this disparate treatment, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited East Timor last week for the first time since the island country gained independence, affirming the U.S. stance to support “people during their battle for independence.” These comments coincide with U.S. negotiations for the sale of eight AH 64 Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia. This transaction, seen by the Obama administration as instrumental in its efforts to double exports by 2015, will no doubt have negative implications for the people of West Papua.
Turning to the plight of the West Papuan people and the consequences of western counterterrorism initiatives, the assassination of Mako Tabuni, the chairman of the separatist National Committee for West Papua, on June 14 underscores these real concerns. Tabuni was gunned down in the capital of West Papua at the hands of Detachment 88, an Indonesian counterterrorist organization established in wake of the Bali bombings in 2002 and funded and trained by western nations, including the United States and Australia—88 symbolic in that it represents the number of Australians killed on October 12, 2002. In contrast to efforts in East Timor, not only is the Australian Government unwilling to recognize the valid separatist endeavors of the West Papuans, they are actively facilitating the training and supply of weaponry to Indonesian forces that continue to be utilized in quelling these nationalistic sentiments.
The actions of the Australian government, in the name of counterterrorism, are irresponsible and devoid of accountability in light of the questionable human rights record of the Indonesian government. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s 7:30 Report, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr was questioned on the Australian Government’s response to the death of Tabuni.
Carr danced around the question, stating that concerns had been raised to Indonesian officials on several occasions and that he hoped that an inquiry would be conducted. Carr’s strongest sentiment was reserved for the affirmation of Australia’s recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papuan territories. Australia’s counterterrorism policies are essentially a something for nothing proposition, underscoring the historical shortsightedness of western nation’s interjection in complex foreign situations in the name of national security.
Carr highlights this something for nothing stance in stating that Australia, while driving training initiatives for counterterrorist groups such as Detachment 88, is not responsible for their operations and that while these forces are trained in counterterrorism, they are not trained in counter insurgency tactics like those used to hunt down and kill Tabuni. Now that really is splitting hairs, Mr. Carr, and underscores the dangerous reality of unchecked counterterrorist initiatives in the post Bali bombing world.
Happier times in West Papua
From this, we can discern that while events such as the Bali bombings are utilized as a mandate for counterterrorist initiatives on foreign soil, Australia and other western nations shy away from accepting responsibility to establish accountability mechanisms in the likely scenario that the advanced training and weaponry provided to foreign nations will be used for foreseeable alternate purposes. The negligible actions of the Australian government in providing the Indonesian militia with such deadly means without putting in place sufficient checks on this power—that is, giving them something for nothing—is affirmed by Carr himself in acknowledging the Indonesian government’s questionable human rights record.
While October 12 will present a day for somber reflection, it should also present an opportunity for Australia and other western nations to consider the implications of shortsighted counterterrorist initiatives and the unintended consequences for communities such as those of West Papua as they continue to strive for self-determination.