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Australia must make a stand for West Papua

Australia must make a stand for West Papua

by Charlie Hill-Smith

As YouTube evidence of Indonesian soldiers burning the genitals of the West Papuan Tunaliwor Kiwo received its 50,000th viewer, the Indonesian military (TNI) was exposed holding a cynical mock trial to try to cover up systemic violence.

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Julia Gillard was red-faced. When in Indonesia with Barack Obama last month, she had praised President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's quick response and the coming trial. Soldiers from another, lesser ''abuse case'' were then paraded and given soft sentences, while Kiwo's torturers remain on active duty.

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Despite the Australian embassy in Jakarta telling Indonesian officials of Australia's "unhappiness with the military's investigation", the blatant contempt shown for Gillard and her officials creates little confidence.

Gillard bit her tongue again this week. ''The President of Indonesia,'' she said, ''has made it absolutely clear he wants to see any wrongdoers brought to justice on this matter.''

Where's the solidarity that lifted East Timor out of the geopolitical rubbish bin and into the minds of mainstream Aussies? In 1999 East Timor held a United Nations referendum, due in part to international and Australian pressure, and the Indonesian military tortured, raped and scorched its way back to Java.

In that year in West Papua I discovered the best kept secret in the Asia-Pacific region. Hiking among the highland farms of the Dani people, I heard stories of dispossession, detention, torture and murder. Yale University suggests that since the Indonesian military invaded in 1962-63, it has killed 400,000 West Papuans yet few Australians know anything about these killing fields.

I had lived and travelled on and off in Indonesia for 15 years but never heard even a whisper from West Papua. I departed shocked by the locals' stories and with a growing suspicion that we were being lied to. The Australian government has always known what's happening there but has chosen placation over human dignity and moral leadership.

Back in Australia, it was as if this province of 2.6 million had been erased. Why the silence? Where are the churches, students and humanitarian groups who fought for East Timor? Where are the unions who boycotted the Dutch in Indonesia and the regime in South Africa? Where are the conservatives who beat their chests after John Howard ''saved East Timor''?

History offers a clue. When General Suharto took power in Indonesia in 1965-66, he opened the floodgates to Western resource companies. Every Australian government since Menzies kowtowed to this murderous bully, partially to ward off the feared disintegration of this 18,000-island republic, but mainly to gain access to Indonesia's vast natural resources.

The first Western company to do business with Suharto was the Freeport goldmine in West Papua. Partly owned by Australia's Rio Tinto, it is the largest gold and copper mine in the world and Indonesia's biggest taxpayer. Yet West Papuans live in poverty, experiencing the worst health, education and development levels in Indonesia.

Freeport's $4 billion profit last year didn't come easily. Dr Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University says the local Amungme people ''have been kicked out, they've been given a token payment and if they've protested, they've been shot''.

None of this would have been possible without Freeport's paid protection from the TNI, which gets two-thirds of its military budget from its own private businesses. This conflict of interest is at the heart of the military's ongoing human rights abuses. How can it serve the country while serving itself? West Papua has necessarily become a resource cash cow, a military fiefdom 3000 kilometres from Jakarta, full of tribally divided, uneducated farmers, sitting atop a new El Dorado.

Despite journalists still being banned, West Papua is no longer the secret it was in 1999. Gillard should not be placated by Indonesia's mock trial of torturers nor train them, in the form of Kopassus. We should work with Jakarta to reform the military and open up West Papua to international scrutiny. It's time for Australia to step up for our tortured and murdered neighbours to the north.

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Charlie Hill-Smith is the writer-director of Strange Birds in Paradise - A West Papuan Story, which is nominated for four AFI Awards including best documentary.

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