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Reader riposte: Papua's rebels

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COMMENTS

5 March 2013 13:52

George Darroch, who wrote his MPhil thesis on foreign support for the Free Papua Movement at the ANU, writes:

Your reader, Andrew Johnson, makes no attempt to address the points made by Gary Hogan.

Hogan, a military insider, makes an important statement. An increase in OPM violence pushes Australia towards the TNI. In a contest of interests, Jakarta will always win. So the rebels have to make this a contest of values — and violence isn't compelling internationally.

Papuan rebels are currently engaged in a two-track strategy. The first is a domestic campaign, in which a bed of grievance and hurt sustain militant rhetoric among local audiences, and low-level guerrilla warfare in strongholds.

The second approach is a movement to engage foreign politicians. This campaign has solidified around the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) and the International Lawyers for West Papua (ILWP), led by Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson. West Papua sympathetic activists present the Indonesian Government in terms which make it synonymous with military abuses and little else (certainly not the largely Papuan civilian administration which rules Papua). This is contrasted against a largely blameless and 'peaceful' Papuan resistance. Playing to MPs' desire to protect human rights is a well-tested strategy — who doesn't want to prevent rights abuses?

The OPM rebels are not significantly concerned about reprisals on the civilian population, as they expect these will feed into domestic pain and increase their power, and into international campaigns which present Papuans as powerless victims (there is occasional discussion about inciting a 'mega Santa Cruz', referring to the 1991 Dili massacre. This is highly unlikely for many reasons). The major problem the Papuan rebels have is that they are sufficiently convinced of the rightness of their violent struggle that they're shielded from questions about strategy. Their overseas supporters feed back simple messages and present international state support as imminent and inevitable.

To the extent that Indonesian state officials are able to separate the OPM from both their chosen narratives, the campaigns are likely to be ineffectual or even counterproductive. The local campaign generates strong support in some quarters, but it is also viewed negatively by many and press coverage is mixed. When members of parliament discover or are presented with information that contradicts what they've been told by West Papua activists, their support often declines or drops off entirely. This is the case in Australia and elsewhere. Among those whose sympathies towards the Free Papua movement were weak or non-existent, the campaigns deepen existing relationships with Indonesia. Hogan's article is just one strong piece of evidence that this is so.