In the past, some Australians looked to the vast country of Indonesia to our north and saw only East Timor. Many such people, especially those in parts of the left and the Christian social justice lobby, now see only Papua. The reasons, they say, are obvious: there is a history of severe human rights abuse and Australia can do something.
No fair observer could deny that human rights problems have been, and continue to be, very great in Papua, despite some improvements since the fall of Suharto. Of course, supporting human rights there is still a legitimate cause. But advocates of the Papua cause need to ensure they are not also influenced by unexamined fears and prejudices.
After all, if a concern for human rights is the main motivation, why the paucity of interest in the human rights of the other 240 million or so people in Indonesia? When, for example, in March 2004 five protesting farmers were killed in Ruteng, Flores, the story didn’t rate in any major Australian newspaper. When tens of thousands of Indonesian workers protested for their rights in April, it caused hardly a blip in Australia, even though exploited Indonesian workers make many of the shoes and clothes that Australians wear.
One explanation for Papua’s appeal is that people in the west are often most interested in human rights in the context of independence struggles. Yet the romanticisation of independence struggles is not the whole explanation. The Indonesian army committed arguably worse abuses when fighting separatists in Aceh, with little concern from Australians. The Acehnese were Muslims and, to outsiders, ethnically similar to most other Indonesians.
Secondly, over the past few decades the deep-seated hostility held by many Australians toward Indonesia has replaced a generalised fear of Asia. This is mixed with Islamophobia, especially since the Bali bombings. Some supporters of the Papuan cause play that card, emphasising that Christian Papuans are threatened by Muslim Indonesians.
Many Australian commentators add that Papuans should be independent simply because they are so ethnically or racially different from other Indonesians. Presumably, such people would be repelled by suggestions that different ethnic groups cannot co-exist in Australia, yet are unable to imagine that Melanesians and Southeast Asians can do so in Indonesia. Indonesia was founded on a multicultural ideal. Indonesian nationalists fought the racist exclusivism of Dutch colonialism while we were still in the grip of White Australia. Moreover, Papuans are not so dissimilar ethnically and religiously from their nearest neighbours in eastern Indonesia. Many Australians see only the difference between Java and Papua, and have no idea about what eastern Indonesians look like or the prevalence of Christianity in eastern Indonesia.
Finally, some Australians believe Papua is part of our natural sphere of influence and it is our duty to protect its inhabitants. These attitudes should make us reflect, given our colonial history in the region. The white man’s burden is already being reprised in the Solomons and PNG.
To repeat: none of the above is to deny that human rights problems are severe in Papua. However, Australian sympathisers need to reflect upon what motivates them, take care with their language and ensure that their concern for human rights in Papua does not prevent them from viewing other Indonesians, too, as human beings.
Edward Aspinall (firstname.lastname@example.org) works at the Australian National University and is chairperson of the IRIP Board. A longer version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Heraldon 27 April 2006.