West Papua: Our Questionable Aid: Maire Leadbeater Criticises New Zealand's Approach to the Provision of Aid to Indonesia, and Calls for Respect for the Wishes of the West Papuan People

Article excerpt

New Zealand is a trusted friend and supporter of Indonesia. There is much benefit to be gained from people-to-people ties, cultural and educational links, and from most trade ties. But there are strong reasons to oppose the aid that is given to the most repressive forces in Indonesian society--the police and the military.

In explanation, first some historical context and then a more detailed case example looking at West Papua, the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island of New Guinea. This analysis draws on Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade documentation, some of it heavily censored, obtained under the Official Information Act.

During the time of Suharto's authoritarian regime in Indonesia, the general knew he could count on us. 'Good relations' were established around the time of Suharto's ascension in 1966--a period marred by the bloody purge of up to half a million 'dissidents' and 'communists', one of last century's largest massacres. (1) New Zealand backed the highly contested annexations of both West Papua in 1969 and East Timor in 1975.

I have extensively documented this history in the case of East Timor, showing how New Zealand supported Indonesia in the United Nations and in other forums. (2) New Zealand also helped the Indonesian military with officer training from 1973 on. Defence ties were only suspended after the worst of the 1999 post-referendum violence in East Timor, and quietly resumed again in 2007.

Indonesia is now twelve years on from the dark days of the Suharto dictatorship, and in some ways the democratic gains are remarkable. But there are worrying hangovers--books and films are still banned, especially if they deal with black chapters in Indonesia's history, such as the invasion of East Timor. Corruption is still endemic and has a grave impact on every of level of the administration, including the justice system.

The biggest roadblock to further democratic reform is the entrenched power of the military, Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI). The military has never faced up to its role in supporting Suharto's tyranny and its officers remain unaccountable for their crimes against humanity. Credible charges of horrendous East Timor crimes have proved no barrier to advancement, as in the case of Syafrie Syamsuddin, who was recently appointed a deputy minister of defence. He is an East Timor Kopassus veteran alleged to have been the key commander of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, and one of the masterminds of the bloody campaign of vengeance wreaked on the Timorese when they voted for independence. (3)


Despite 2004 legislation which required the TNI to quit its business network, the military still draws on off-budget funding from innumerable legal and illegal business interests.

Most of the time New Zealand's relations with Indonesia do not get onto the public radar. But in the 1990s, as news began to spread about atrocities in East Timor, MFAT had to perfect a public relations strategy to account for the pro-Indonesia policy position.

Key components

Key components of this strategy are the promotion of 'quiet diplomacy' and 'constructive engagement' usually through aid. In bilateral meetings behind closed doors New Zealand ministers raise human rights concerns with their Indonesian counterparts. These exchanges can be pointed, but frequently they amount to little more than ritual expressions that require minimal response from the Indonesian side. At its worst, this 'quiet diplomacy' is a blatant exercise in collusion. Just before Indonesia invaded East Timor, our diplomats told their Indonesian counterparts that the government had a 'private and public position on the problem'. The 'private position' was support for integration while the 'public' position was to respect the wishes of the Timorese people.

The dramatic end of Indonesian rule over East Timor shook the foundations of our government's pro-Indonesia policies. …