What ye sow ye reap

Jun 21, 2024
Dani tribe Warriors. The Baliem Valley, Indonesian, New Guinea

There’s nothing profound about the Biblical quote; variations are embedded in many religions and cultures.

So it needs no prophet, seer or conman to make this prediction: After a war like the current one in Gaza has cooled, the survivors will be bent on revenge.

The ancient tragedy is underway just next door in Papua, bleeding now and for years to come as the hate goes on.

Canberra expresses its horror at the Middle East conflict 14,000 km distant and calls for peace, but looks away from what’s happening in the neighbourhood just 250 km to the north.

Last year the late NZ journalist John McBeth reported that Papua independence leader Egianus Kogoya’s determination to fight for freedom started after his father, Daniel Yudas Kagoya was killed by Indonesian troops.

Many in his group of armed partisans have become guerrillas for the same reasons.

They’re now old enough to confront those they blame for the slaughter of their parents, relatives and friends and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods; so they’ve started killing and are getting killed.

The ore-rich province with the world’s fifth largest gold mine reserves has been a simmering low-level civil war zone since Jakarta took over the western part of New Guinea from the Dutch colonists. That was in 1969 following a staged ‘referendum’ using 1,025 hand-picked voters who unanimously supported integration.

One estimate has half a million indigenous Papuans dying in the past half-century through starvation and resisting Indonesian control.

No one knows if the figure is correct as journalists are banned. Thousands of soldiers from across the archipelago are in Papua. How many is not publicised, though last year it was reported that ‘an additional 2,355 military members’ had been deployed.

The conflict shows no signs of lessening. In 2014 when President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took office he told the Australian media he intended to give Papua “special attention”.

It was benignly assumed that this meant peace talks because Jokowi was not a gung-ho militarist but a civilian, his wife Iriana had been named after the island’s old title and his visits were regular and friendly.

However his “special attention” was infrastructure, not independence: Roads, health services and education – all necessary, but secondary to the self-rule the rebels demanded. Pacifying the insurgents and listening to their emotional concerns wasn’t on the agenda.

In 2022, Jokowi started carving up the territory confusing locals and outsiders by amplifying bureaucracy and control. The four new provinces are Papua Selatan (South Papua), Papua Tengah (Central Papua), Papua Pegunungan (Mountain Papua) and Papua Barat Daya (South-West Papua).

For this story, we’ll use ‘Papua’ to cover all. The population of 4.4 million is largely Melanesian and Christian. However transmigration programmes bringing in poor farmers from Java who are mainly Muslim, has been diluting the indigenous population for decades.

Jokowi’s predecessor, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he’d “take quick and appropriate steps to deal with Papua” after violent clashes. His ‘solution’ was force. More died but little changed.

At the time the SMH reported that “(SBY’s) money and good intentions were squandered by corruption, cronyism and bureaucratic dysfunction.”

After a decade in office, Jokowi’s legacy is “a better armed, better resourced, more coordinated pro-independence insurgency,” according to a Jakarta research group the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. 

“(There are) higher civilian casualties; and the failure after a year to secure the release of a New Zealand pilot held hostage by the guerrillas.”

(Phillip Mehrtens, then 37, was seized on 7 February last year and his Cessna used for ferrying construction workers and owned by an Indonesian company was torched. It’s believed he’s still alive.)

The IPAC report said Jakarta’s approaches can be characterised as: “Get them to like us”, “Hit them without mercy”, “Divide and rule”, “Give them money”, “End their isolation” and very occasionally, “Talk to them”.

It recommends that “(Jokowi’s) successor needs to radically change course.” But that’s Prabowo Subianto a general who served in Papua before being cashiered for insubordination in 1998 and fleeing to exile in Jordan.

In his new leadership role he’s offered to send a peacekeeping force to Gaza if there’s a ceasefire.

The idea is saturated in irony: Indonesia has no relationship with Israel. All remnants of Jewish life during the Dutch era – including cemeteries – have been trashed. Most troops are Muslims, and Prabowo has allegedly committed human rights abuses on the island last century.

Veteran Australian journalist Hamish McDonald, author of Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century has written that in 1984 Prabowo “led troops from Kopassus, the army’s Special Forces Command, across the border into Papua New Guinea to search for fighters from the Free Papua Movement Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM.

“In 1996, he led a Kopassus operation to free World Wildlife Fund hostages taken by the OPM. The mission was controversial because soldiers travelled via a white helicopter previously used by Red Cross negotiators”

Indonesia is still far from winning the hearts and minds of its Papuan citizens or erasing its image as a ruthless neo-colonial power. It’s treating the OPM much as the Dutch handled the Javanese partisans during three centuries of European rule – split, discredit, threaten, arrest, kill.

That didn’t work and Indonesia is now an independent republic, largely because the Western world – including Australia, turned against the colonials and demanded change. Weapons and money were denied to a Netherlands weakened by World War II.

That’s unlikely to happen in Papua in the lifetimes of our readers. The mines are too rich and involve influential international players. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest nation with more Muslims than any other country.

Australia speaks strongly about human rights but does little; there’s a deep reluctance to advocate a break in the circle of violence in Papua and infuriate Jakarta.

Much like the situation with Jerusalem and the Gaza war.

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