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Development in Papua can bridge misunderstandings

By John Wing - posted Wednesday, 17 May 2006

A great deal of heat has been generated by the recent granting of temporary protection visas to 42 Papuans by the Australian Immigration Department. The hostility in Indonesia has been unwelcome and unnecessary, but perhaps understandable.

For years the Australian Government has been an unquestioning neighbour of Indonesia's, aware of a tragic history of human rights abuses in Papua as well as East Timor, yet choosing to remain largely silent over the Indonesian military's brutality and bad practices.

The Howard Government had evidently been following this pattern whereby reports of abuse in Papua and military impunity were routinely ignored and almost accepted in the interests of maintaining a close relationship with Jakarta.


Yet the same government gave asylum to a group claiming persecution by Indonesia. This seemed contradictory and confusing.

Australia saw a need for temporary protection for those who spoke out against a flawed government and system. Under international law we were compelled to provide sanctuary. It was an expression of goodwill towards our Papuan neighbours, not an expression of ill will towards our Indonesian neighbours. That is a differentiation yet to be accepted in some quarters, but, for their own reasons, some only see what they want to see.

Our immediate concern is with the well-being of all our neighbours and friends, not taking the side of one against the other. Part of the problem is that, despite being part of Indonesia since the 1960s, many Papuans feel they have no voice, no way to dialogue with Jakarta, unable to express their objections or articulate their fears, dreams and hopes for their own future. Their distinct identity and history are not acknowledged. In Papua the denial of development is seen as one of the greatest of injustices, and it is a cause of current conflict and smouldering dissatisfaction.

Australia has been a major contributor in development assistance to Indonesia for decades - in health, education and agriculture projects across many parts of the archipelago, even in Papua; but we would like to help much more.

On this issue, along with many others, Indonesia and Australia share much in common. Under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono much-needed advances in health, living standards and new ideas for governance in Papua can start to be addressed, but there must be a sense of urgency.

Australia stands ready to help with our resources and capabilities. Now is the time for the invigoration of international funding to be directed where it is most needed. International expertise is necessary if Papua is to counter the scourges of disease and underdevelopment. Malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, HIV-AIDS and a range of other life-threatening yet preventable illnesses still account for many lives which would otherwise be available for Papua's development. That Papua now has Indonesia's highest HIV prevalence is unforgivable - clearly, ignoring the impact of HIV-infected sex workers in the AIDS pandemic poses an unacceptable risk. Avian flu and animal viruses are now also threatening.


We have developed effective, internationally recognised HIV prevention programs and strategies and are world leaders in the training of health workers. The corporate and government sectors are eager to invest in environmentally sustainable projects which are sensitive to local needs and to encourage the development of small business and human capital. For this there must be a climate free of intimidation caused by the involvement of unnecessary players, mainly military.

Education and technical skills remain lacking. Australia would be happy to fund scholarships for indigenous students. We have the technology to provide environmentally appropriate electrification for basic lighting in every dwelling in even the most remote village so that every child can read at night; refrigeration for every clinic to preserve valuable vaccines; equipment for schools which are poorly resourced, and more.

I recently had the pleasure to meet Laode Ida, the Deputy Speaker of Indonesia's Regional Representative Council. Despite the current tension in Jakarta directed towards Australia, his demeanour was friendly and warm, our discussion was without animosity or demands among equal and respectful neighbours.

For two hours we discussed some of the problems facing Papua and found we shared many concerns, including the international community's concern over the role of Indonesian security forces in areas which are hungry for development but hampered by their presence.

His compassion for Indonesia's Papuan brothers and sisters was real and not tainted by nationalism or jingoism. He is intelligent and articulate. He is the modern face of the youthful, forward-looking Indonesia, wishing to break with past ways of handling dissent and disillusionment.

Development co-operation on many levels at this moment is a win-win for all sides and provides a window of opportunity. Between Australia and Indonesia there is still much goodwill on both sides. While remaining a concerned friend of our Melanesian brothers, Australia can be Indonesia's good friend, if they will let us.

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First published in The Jakarta Post on May 15, 2006.

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About the Author

John Wing is a development anthropologist and consultant and currently a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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