Stability in Melanesia should be our priority: The Australian 01/5/06 Opinion
Hanua Lohia Posted May 1, 2006 2:08 PM
Ben Bohane: Stability in Melanesia should be our priority
Let us focus on our neighbourhood rather than on Iraq or Afghanistan
May 01, 2006
THE crisis with Indonesia over Papua and riots in the Solomon Islands are another reminder, if one was needed, that the stability of our Melanesian neighbourhood is ultimately our core security concern, not Iraq or Afghanistan.
At a time when our troops are deployed in the Middle East and we are spending billions of dollars on sophisticated electronic surveillance and fighting materiel, it seems we are not putting a premium on one of the oldest and most important factors of defence: human intelligence gathering in our nearest region. How else to describe a situation where our authorities appear to have little clue about the extent of the illegal trade in guns, drugs and people across the two borders most important to Australian and Pacific security?
Our northern border in the Torres Strait is wide open, and a completely unpatrolled 800km border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia means that - according to some in PNG Defence Force intelligence and the Free Papua Movement (OPM) - criminal and jihadi groups are crossing over at will. From my many trips to these areas, it is striking that there appear to be no James Bonds paddling in dugout canoes and talking to the grassroots about issues central to our security.
Having wilfully ignored the Papuan struggle for decades and maintained a policy of not talking to OPM rebels, are we setting ourselves up for a serious intelligence failure?
Meanwhile, by making it so hard for our nearest neighbours in Melanesia to work in or even visit Australia, we are creating unemployment pressure cookers in the capital cities of the Pacific that will explode, as Honiara has just done.
The problem is not that we have a pro-Jakarta lobby within the departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade, but that we do not have a pro-Melanesian lobby to balance it. Part of the problem lies within the culture of DFAT and Defence, where top postings are still considered to be Washington, London and Brussels when we really need our best brains in Jakarta, Port Moresby and Port Vila.
Prime Minister John Howard glories in the Gallipoli sacrifice for empire, but not in the far more important battles of Milne Bay and Kokoda, where we successfully defended Australia and the Pacific, earning our place in the region. Similarly, Labor has learned nothing from East Timor.
For too long the struggle in Papua has been viewed through Jakarta shadow plays and not enough from a dugout canoe Pacific perspective. We have managed a rather curious own goal in the process: lost credibility among our Pacific neighbours for not sticking up for the Papuans, and yet no amount of assurances from Canberra seem to convince Jakarta that we do not harbour secret designs on Papua.
Now that the Papuan genie is out of the kava bowl, Canberra is alone in a corner because it is left with few options and few allies. For years successive Australian governments have not only maintained the line on Indonesian sovereignty but gone further, pressuring Pacific countries to keep the issue off the agenda at annual meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the venue where this issue should have been comprehensively addressed many years ago.
Instead, we now have a capable Australian, Greg Urwin, as secretary general of the forum secretariat, but the forum has become totally irrelevant on this core Pacific security issue because it has been swept under the tapa mat for so long. Vanuatu has broken this code of silence and more Pacific countries are likely to follow.
History tells us that the whole island of New Guinea has always been central to our security, the lesson of World War II being that anyone who wants to mess with us messes with New Guinea first. Look at the map. It's not rocket science.
Apart from the well-known battles we fought in PNG, it is worth noting that top-end towns such as Broome and Wyndam were bombed from air bases in present-day Timika in Papua. Now security analysts such as Rohan Gunaratna, who have studied the al-Qa'ida network, claim that Australia and Papua are covered by the same operational cell, known as Mantiqi 4. Our security is again linked to Papua.
The Howard Government can have the best relations in the world with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but the reality is that the Indonesian military controls Papua, and it has its own vested interests.
Democracy may have come to Indonesia, but the corresponding truth is that the army is arguably more powerful now than it was before, even under Suharto. We can no longer rely on Jakarta's assurances about its policy on Papua; its promised autonomy package has not been implemented, the killing of indigenous people continues (the Yale School of Law in the US has labelled it genocide) and the province remains out of bounds for foreign observers, including journalists.
Indonesia needs to understand that as much as this territory is a touchstone for its nationalists, it is also a visceral issue for generations of Australians who fought in New Guinea, helped administer PNG until independence and feel ashamed about the betrayal of the Papuans. It resonates deeply among expatriate communities living in the Pacific as well as former Kiaps (patrol officers) and in some Defence circles.
This cannot be dismissed as a pinko-leftie issue because it was the Menzies government that originally supported Papuan independence from the 1950s until 1962, when a young general called Suharto launched Operation Mandala.
If the Indonesian military is today allowing jihadi groups to flourish and move into the Pacific from bases in Papua, then all bets should be off. If Australia is to take the heat off itself and potentially give the Indonesians a face-saving option, the Papua issue needs to be addressed within the Pacific community or taken back to the UN, which is ultimately responsible for this tragedy (along with the US). An anecdote suggests now is the time for the UN to revisit this dark chapter in its history.
When a meeting of the UN General Assembly came to vote on ratification of the Act of Free Choice in 1969, handing Papua to Indonesia, 15 African nations known as the Brazzaville Group rejected it on the basis that it was not one-man, one-vote. The Indonesians had allowed 1025 hand-picked men to vote on behalf of at least 800,000 people. Leading the Brazzaville Group was Ghana, and in its delegation was a young diplomat called Kofi Annan. It was the UN's first decolonisation mission, it was a farce, and Annan described it as such. Now, almost 40 years later, will Annan rediscover those principles?
Whether the Papuan struggle is legally right or not is irrelevant; for Melanesians there is no more important issue than land, and they will fight to the death for it. More than 100,000 have done so already.
Australia will never be secure in Asia until we are secure in the Pacific, another World War II lesson we appear to have forgotten in the rush to embrace the booming economies of Asia. Selling out the Papuans in the 1960s was morally flawed. Now it is strategically flawed.
Ben Bohane is a photojournalist who has specialised in Melanesian conflict and religion for more than a decade. He lives in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and is an author of Follow the Morning Star (Prowling Tiger Press).