Duncan Graham: Compromise worked in Aceh – why not West Papua?   

If the New Zealand pilot does get out alive, he deserves the media attention lavished on the Australian
If the New Zealand pilot does get out alive, he deserves the media attention lavished on the Australian. This might shift international interest from a zonked twit to the issue of Papua’s independence. Image: TPNPB

There are parallels between Indonesia’s Aceh where an Australian surfer faced a flogging, and West Papua where a New Zealand pilot may be facing death. Both provinces have fought brutal guerrilla wars for independence. One has been settled through foreign peacekeepers. The other still rages as outsiders fear intervention.

By Duncan Graham in Malang, East Java

There were ten stories in a Google Alert media feed last week forIndonesia-Australia”.

One covered illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific claiming economic losses of more than US$6 billion a year — important indeed.

Another was an update on the plight of New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens, held hostage since February 7 by the Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB-West Papua National Liberation Army).

This is the armed wing of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, (OPM Free Papua Organisation) that has been pushing its cause since the 1970s.

A major story by any measure. The Indonesian military’s inability to find and safely secure the New Zealander has the potential to cause serious diplomatic rifts and great harm to all parties.

There have been unverified reports of bombs dropped from helicopters on jungle camps where the pilot may have been held with uninvolved civilians.

The other eight stories were about Queenslander Bodhi Mani Risby-Jones who had been arrested in April for allegedly going on a nude drunken rampage and bashing a local in Indonesian Aceh.

Stupidities commonplace
Had the 23-year-old surfer been a fool in his home country the yarn would have been a yawn. Such stupidities are commonplace.

But because he chose to be a slob in the strictly Muslim province of Aceh and facing  up to five years jail plus a public flogging, his plight opened the issue of cultural differences and tourist arrogance.  Small news, but legitimate.

He has now reportedly done a $25,000 deal to buy his way out of charges and pay restitution to his victim. This shows a flexible social and legal system displaying tolerance — which is how Christians are supposed to behave.

All noteworthy, easy to grasp. But more important than the threatened execution of an innocent victim of circumstances caught in a complex dispute that needs detailed explanations to understand?

Mehrtens landed a commercial company’s plane as part of his job for Susi Air flying people and goods into isolated airstrips when he was grabbed by armed men desperate to get Jakarta to pay attention to their grievances.

Ironically, Aceh where Risby-Jones got himself into strife, had also fought for independence and won. Like West Papua, it’s resource-rich so essential for the central government’s economy.

A vicious on-off war between the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, (GAM-Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian military started in 1976 and reportedly took up to 30,000 lives across the following three decades.

Tsunami revived peace talks
It only ended when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed 160,000  people and  former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president and  revived peace talks. Other countries became involved, including the European Union and Finland where the Helsinki Agreement was signed.

Both sides bowed to a compromise. GAM leaders abandoned their demands for independence, settling for “self-government” within the Indonesian state, while soldiers were withdrawn. The bombings have stopped but at the cost of personal freedoms and angering human rights advocates.

Freed from Jakarta’s control, the province passed strict Shariah laws. These include public floggings for homosexual acts, drinking booze and being close to an opposite sex person who is not a relative. Morality Police patrols prowl shady spots, alert to any signs of affection.

Australian academic and former journalist Dr Damien Kingsbury was also instrumental in getting GAM and Jakarta to talk. He was involved with the West Papua standoff earlier this year but New Zealand is now using its own to negotiate.

Dr Kingsbury told the ABC the situation in West Papua is at a stalemate with neither Wellington nor Jakarta willing to make concessions. The Indonesian electorate has no truck for “separatists” so wants a bang-bang fix. NZ urges a softly-slowly approach.

A TPNPB spokesperson told the BBC: “The Indonesian government has to be bold and sit with us at a negotiation table and not [deploy] military and police to search for the pilot.”

The 2005 Aceh resolution means the Papua fighters have a strong model of what is possible when other countries intervene. So far it seems none have dared, fearing the wrath of nationalists who believe Western states, and particularly Australia, are trying to “Balkanise”  the “unitary state” and plunder its riches.

Theory given energy
This theory was given energy when Australia supported the 1999 East Timor referendum which led to the province splitting from Indonesia and becoming a separate nation.

Should Australia try to act as a go-between in the Papua conflict, we would be dragged into the upcoming Presidential election campaign with outraged candidates thumping lecterns claiming outside interference. That is something no one wants but sitting on hands won’t help Mehrtens.

In the meantime, Risby-Jones, whose boorish behaviour has confirmed Indonesian prejudices about Australian oafs, is expected to be deported.

Mehrtens will only get to tell his tale if the Indonesian government shows the forbearance displayed by the family of Edi Ron.  The Aceh fisherman needed 50 stitches and copped broken bones and an infected foot from his Aussie encounter, but he still shook hands.

After weeks in a cell the surfer has shown contrition and apologised. Australian ‘”proceedings of crime” laws should prevent him earning from his ordeal.

If the Kiwi pilot does get out alive, he deserves the media attention lavished on the Australian. This might shift international interest from a zonked twit to the issue of West Papua’s independence and remind diplomats that if Jakarta could bend in the far west of the archipelago,  why not in the far east?

Lest Indonesians forget:  Around 100,000 revolutionaries died during the four-year war against the returning colonial Dutch after Soekarno proclaimed independence in 1975. The Dutch only retreated after external pressure from the US and Australia.

Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia. This article was first published in Pearls & Irritations on 30 May 2023 and is republished with permission.

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