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Gordon Campbell on Richard Prosser, and West Papua

Gordon Campbell on Richard Prosser, and West Papua

Richard Prosser has been slammed for his racism by everyone except his leader. Normally, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is anxiously hyper-sensitive about what the rest of the world might think if, for instance, New Zealand is seen as ‘soft’ on asylum seekers. Not this time though. To Peters, when one of his MPs equates one of the world’s great religions with terrorism, and calls for racial profiling of Muslims (or of people who “look like” Muslims) then such views merely lack ‘balance.’ Just what is the balance, one wonders, for a term like “Wogistan”?

Language matters. In a moment of accidental black humour during Question Time this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully described his government’s policy towards Indonesia and its human rights record as being one of “constructive engagement”.

The New Zealand Government set a course of constructive engagement on these matters, including targeting extra funding to development assistance—around $5 million a year—to West Papua, and raising directly our concerns about those human rights issues with both Ministers and officials in the Indonesian Government. So in that respect I believe the member [Greens MP Catherine Delahunty] and I can agree.

Well no, not really. McCully seems completely ignorant of the origins of a term he continues to use. Yet even a cursory search about “constructive engagement” on the Web yields this highly unflattering description:

Constructive engagement was the name given to the policy of the Reagan Administration towards the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1980s. It was promoted as an alternative to the economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa demanded by the UN General Assembly and the international anti-apartheid movement.

Riiiiiggght. So McCully is actively pursuing with Indonesia the same policies that didn’t work with respect to the apartheid regime (“constructive engagement”) while rejecting the very policies of sanctions, dis-investment, and isolation that did work - and that finally induced the white rulers of South Africa to start the negotiations that culminated in majority rule. Could someone please tell our Foreign Affairs Minister about the discredited history of a term he seems so happy to use? Before he starts talking happily about the “final solution” for West Papua.

What triggered this latest burst of McCullyism was the visit to New Zealand this week by West Papua independence leader Benny Wenda. In what can only be seen as a cringe to Indonesia, McCully did his best to deter National MPs from attending a forum at Parliament on West Papua addressed by Wenda and hosted by a trio of Labour/Greens/Mana MPs. The new Speaker then refused permission for the function to be held at all on Parliament grounds. Leaving aside whether that sort of MFAT strategizing should ever be allowed to trump the democratic rights of MPs, the gesture was merely the latest episode in a shameful 30 year policy of appeasement towards Indonesia by successive New Zealand governments.

We seem to have learned nothing from the recent history of Timor. There too in the 1980s, we were willing to dump the cause of Jose Ramos Horta and the Timorese people into the dustbin of history, in order to advance our relationship with the regime in Jakarta. Regardless, Timor finally won its independence. West Papua is now seeking the same right to self-determination. Once again, we seem determined to do as little as possible - unless and until the Americans step in.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, the sorry saga of David Lange’s policy towards Timor (and Indonesia) is worth retrieving from the memory hole – if only because Murray McCully is so hellbent on making the same mistakes, when it comes to West Papua. The evidence is here:

To Foreign Affairs, East Timor was a dead issue. After a brief visit to the territory in 1984, Michael Powles, our then-ambassador in Jakarta, detected progress on the human rights and economic fronts, although his report was judged too sensitive - it contained balancing criticisms of Indonesia - to be released for media scrutiny. In December 1984, Lange told RNZ's Checkpoint that "liberty is better overall" in East Timor under Indonesia than under the Portuguese. The grateful Indonesians tabled a transcript of the Lange interview at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in February 1985, and narrowly succeeded in getting East Timor removed from the UN human rights register of concern.

Lange had exceeded the evidence, and made Powles look like a patsy. In early 1985, the Listener got limited access to the Powles report. While Powles wrote: "We were not in a position to investigate allegations of human rights violations", Lange cited a "very marked development" in the human rights situation. Powles wrote: "We were told, but could not confirm, that there had been some acquittals." Lange to Checkpoint: "People are being put on trial, given effective legal aid, and in some cases there have been acquittals."

Contrast these apologetics, an angry Horta told me at the time (Listener, May 4, 1985) with our anti-nuclear stance. While New Zealand postured about the threat posed by nuclear weapons, Horta argued, Lange was voicing no similar moral indignation on the world stage over the killings of Timorese by the Indonesian military.

By 1999, and in a subsequent interview with me, Lange was contrite:

Given his past role as an apologist, does he feel in any way responsible for his mistakes? Back then, Lange replies, New Zealand had held the prevailing world position on East Timor. "We unashamedly said it had been annexed. That was our diplomacy at the time. Then we realised the futility and stupidity of that, and completely resiled from it. But by then, I was dog tucker."

Mistakes? Well, Lange says, more people got East Timor wrong than any other issue. "It caught Fraser, it caught Whitlam, it caught the Rowling people, it caught Muldoon, it caught Lange, the whole shebang." And has New Zealand ever won anything from being conciliatory to Jakarta? "No, nothing whatsoever. You're not dealing with a society that we understand. You're talking about a society with its own moral code." We have been playing "strange diplomatic games" with Indonesia for years, Lange concluded.

And we’re still playing the same games. At the outset, the international community had promised the people of West Papua a referendum on self determination – instead, in 1969, they got a fraudulent poll carried out under blatant Indonesian intimidation. Over the past ten years, similar noises have been made about a vote on greater autonomy – but again, these gestures have not been substantive. Meanwhile, the killings of West Papuan leaders and the burning of villages (and the appropriation of the territory’s vast natural resources by foreign companies like Freeport and Rio Tinto) continues apace. At a press conference that, thanks to the Speaker, had to be held across the road from Parliament – Wenda spoke movingly about his people “dying on their richness”.

Would anything change if there was a change of government? Possibly.Yet given the complicity of successive Labour and National governments with the MFAT policy line on Indonesia, an improvement cannot be assumed. (In that respect, it was significant that Maryan Street was the only Labour MP present at Wenda’s press conference, and at the subsequent photo op on the steps of Parliament.)

Where to from here? If New Zealand is willing to preach in the South Pacific Forum about the way the regime in Fiji has trampled on democracy, it surely cannot continue to ignore the worse abuses occurring in West Papua. Timor, to repeat, is a highly relevant example. Its history demonstrates that Indonesia can ultimately come to accept that one of its colonized provinces has a right to its independence – and that both Timor and Indonesia will survive the experience. Similarly, our relationship with Indonesia will survive, if and when West Papua joins Timor at the United Nations, among the roll call of free nations.

At both the UN and within the South Pacific Forum, New Zealand should therefore be willing to do all it can to ensure that happens. As good neighbours, we have an obligation to assist West Papuans to gain their political independence and a fair share of their own resources. We should not be busily distancing ourselves from them, in order to curry favour with their oppressors. Right now, our policy is neither “constructive” nor an “engagement” – it is rank collusion. And that’s far more of an outrage than any transient, brain dead column by Richard Prosser.


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