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Once again, Australia is silent about violence on its doorstep

We must act urgently to protect West Papuans from Indonesian brutality.

In West Papua, it’s appeasement, violence and business as usual for Indonesia. There is a vast difference between promises made to the people of West Papua and what actually happens.

President Yudhoyono once pledged to solve the Papuan issue in a ”dignified, just and peaceful” manner.

During 2011 he made similar guarantees to heads of state such as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Yet violence remains entrenched in the province and is worsening. Rather than drawing down its military in the region, Jakarta is now increasing its estimated 30,000-strong presence. In mid-December, defence spokesman Colonel Sigit Priyono announced the deployment of troops now in Java, Aceh and Kalimantan.

Response to the conflict from foreign governments including Australia, the country nearest to West Papua with the exception of PNG, is to remain silent, echoing the 1999 reaction to the violence spreading in East Timor.

With operations currently centred in the highland area of Paniai, security forces are killing West Papuans accused of ”separatism”. On December 12, police attacked a site in Eduda, believed to be the headquarters of a local cell of the OPM (Independent Papua Organisation) and 14 were killed.

Human rights monitors report a ”military siege involving horrendous destruction and violence”, including torching of villages and chapels, deaths and forced evacuations.

Last week soldiers on a ”routine patrol” shot dead a suspected OPM member, Lindiron Tabuni, the son of Goliat Tabuni, leader of Puncak Jaya district’s OPM group.

Clearly, lethal force is used as the first resort against West Papuans, branded as ”treasonous” and ”terrorists”. Indonesian authority is viewed by West Papuans as repressive and neo-colonial, lacking in concern for their welfare.

Lindiron Tabuni’s targeted killing is significant as he is from a large clan scattered in small subsistence farming hamlets. The Tabuni clan’s bow-and-arrow resistance to the modern, well-armed Indonesian security apparatus, regarded as brutal invaders, enjoys support. Tabuni’s death will likely invite a response that will lead to further retaliation.

The shootout is the latest incident of violence in a bloody start to the year, despite a promise from the President to church leaders on December 16 that he would ”command the chief of police and the armed forces (TNI) to stop the violence in Paniai”.

Indonesia’s pledges appease foreign governments who are compelled to stand up for human rights, but who are also pursuing their own national and commercial interests.

Jayapura chief of police Imam Setiawan typified a mindset when he referred to peaceful advocates of independence: ”Whoever supports separatism or subversion activity . . . I’m ready to die and finish them,” he said. ”This is my duty.”

Djoko Suyanto, Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, has supported the use of force. Defence commission chairman Mahfudz Siddiq said, following a peaceful protest rally in the capital, Jayapura, in October at which six were murdered, that security forces ”should have been firmer”.

After 50 years of Indonesian rule, clearly the status quo is not working.

There is a responsibility on the part of the international community to try to protect non-combatants in this undeclared war between Indonesia and the people it governs, given that it was the UN that ceded control of Papua to Indonesia following its annexation in the 1960s.

If Jakarta felt serious about peace and resolution of the conflict, it would end the ”security approach” to West Papuan grievances.

The province remains Indonesia’s only designated ”zone of military operations”. This seems a contradiction. The region is proudly promoted as a province important to Indonesia’s ”territorial integrity”, where the citizenry voted to integrate with Indonesia in 1969 and are delighted with the arrangement.

The fact that the 1969 vote was a coerced, stage-managed farce orchestrated by a mass-murderer is conveniently glossed over by diplomats. There has been discontent ever since.

General Suharto and his successors built fortunes from West Papuan rainforest timber concessions and mineral resource wealth, operating a network of enterprises of no benefit to the local population. The security forces justify their presence, and benefit financially, from a continuation of hostilities.

Our Melanesian friends of the critical Pacific War years were quickly forgotten when General MacArthur and the Allied forces left their headquarters in Hollandia (Jayapura). Their post-colonial plight remains a stain on the national and international collective conscience.

West Papuan political prisoners make up a disproportionate percentage of Indonesia’s jail population, some serving 10 to 15-year terms for possessing or raising the outlawed ”Morning Star” flag, bestowed by the departing Dutch in 1961 but banned under Suharto until today.

A history of neglect has seen West Papua fall behind on all human development indices. It has the country’s highest poverty and the lowest standards on all health indicators, the highest infant and maternal mortality rates and highest national HIV/AIDS infection rate found in the general community.

It has the lowest education standards as measured by school attendance, trained teachers, infrastructure and availability of resources.

While the conflict persists, advancement in wellbeing will continue to elude the bulk of the indigenous population. With limited or no access to development agencies, the people will stay poor and illiterate, dying from preventable illnesses. Mistrust, violence, intimidation and psychological abuse will continue, ad infinitum, as West Papuans are pushed further aside.

Realpolitik has determined their modern history to be a tragic one. West Papuans have to date only dreamed of, and prayed for, a better fate.

An international, third-party-facilitated dialogue is now imperative. It is the least they should be offered.

John Wing is a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and author of the report Genocide in West Papua?

This article first appeared in The Age, 18/10/12