New Zealand broke military ties with Indonesia after the 1999 maelstrom in East Timor, when much of the country was razed to the ground because the people voted the “wrong” way in the 1999 independence referendum.
However, New Zealand quietly restored defence training ties to Indonesia in 2007 and our defence engagement has been steadily increasing, so that it now includes some decidedly questionable arms exports.
From the point of view of a long-term campaigner for the self-determination rights of the Timorese and the people of West Papua, this is outrageous.
There still hasn't been any accountability for the Indonesian military's role in the deaths of some 200,000 Timorese during twenty-four years of brutal occupation.
In West Papua, Indonesian security forces have been linked to alleged grievous human rights violations for nearly six decades, and act with impunity against those who dare to protest, however peacefully.
The Indonesian government's response to conflict — be it peaceful or armed — is to send in more troops. In March, for example, an Indonesian battleship brought 1350 new military personnel to West Papua's capital Jayapura and sent them off to the conflict hot-spots in the highlands where the Indonesian military are engaged in ongoing violent exchanges with the guerrilla forces of the pro-independence West Papua Liberation Army.
In recent months this has led to a massive displacement of villagers and a humanitarian crisis — far from the eyes of world.
However, successive New Zealand governments value their bilateral relationship with Indonesia above the rights of the Timorese or West Papuan people, and documents released under the Official Information Act confirm this.
A couple of years before the defence resumption, a New Zealand defence attaché said that "the New Zealand-Indonesia relationship resembled a 'three legged stool' with one leg (the defence aspect) missing." He stressed that the military remained "a major force in Indonesian life".
Selected Indonesian officers (of Major equivalent or higher rank) regularly attend the six-month New Zealand Defence Force Advanced Command and Staff Course (ACSC).
Indonesian officers are also invited to New Zealand to attend Bilateral Defence talks, workshops, and meetings. English language training is offered when Indonesian officers attend the ACSC.
New Zealand officers visit Indonesia to take part in study tours, conferences, and ceremonies. New Zealand's "professional leadership" training to Indonesia comes under the Mutual Assistance Programme (MAP) which is described as the "core of our defence relationship". MAP is the umbrella for military training offered to a number of Pacific and South East Asian countries.
In 2020, despite the pandemic, three Indonesian military personnel undertook training in New Zealand. One person undertook English language training, one person attended the Advanced Staff and Command course and, for the first time since 2007, a third attended the NZ Army Combat Intermediate Course.
High level engagement
New Zealand and Indonesian Defence Ministers hold annual bilateral defence talks, alternating the venue between Jakarta and Wellington. New Zealand has a Defence Attaché based in the Jakarta Embassy.
In 2016, New Zealand hosted the Indonesian naval vessel, KRI Banda Aceh, at the time of the Royal New Zealand Navy's 75th Anniversary. Prior to the Anniversary events, Indonesia took part in the ASEAN Defence Ministers meeting, plus a maritime field training Counter Terrorism Exercise: Mahi Tangaroa. In 2017 the NZ frigate Te Kaha visited Jakarta.
In 2017, the Defence Ministers of both countries signed a Joint Statement on Defence Relations, undertaking to work on strengthening the defence relations. In 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited New Zealand at the time that this country was celebrating its 60th year of diplomatic relations with Indonesia.
The bilateral relationship was upgraded to a “Comprehensive Partnership”. This placed New Zealand on equal standing with Indonesia's other “tier two” partners -- Russia and the EU -- and a step below “tier one” Strategic Partners Australia, China, Japan and the United States.
Since 2008, New Zealand has exported military aircraft parts to the Indonesian Air Force. In most years, including 2020, these parts are listed as "P3 Orion, C130 Hercules & CASA Military Aircraft: Engines, Propellers & Components including Casa Hubs and Actuators".
This information has been obtained by a series of Official Information Act requests, and the most recently obtained export listing states that the “end user” of the parts is the Indonesian Air Force. The name of the exporter has been redacted.
New Zealand also exports other “strategic goods” to Indonesia, including so-called small arms including rifles and pistols. For example, this year approval was given for the export of "Glock 43 TFS Semi Auto Pistol 9mm with Magazines" and a "GBC Rifle Cartine, Carbon Fiber Suppressor 9mm" among some 16 other similar listings.
There is nothing "small" about the impact of these lethal instruments. The values, end-users, and quantities of these items have all been withheld. Further research is required.
New Zealand's human rights advocacy for West Papua is decidedly low-key, despite claims by some academics that Indonesia is responsible for the alleged crime of genocide against the indigenous people.
Pursuing lucrative arms exports, and training of human rights violators, undermines any message our government sends. As more is known about this complicity the challenge to the government's Indonesia-first setting must grow.
The recent exposure of New Zealand's military exports to Saudi Arabia and other countries with terrible human rights records is very important. The illusion of New Zealand as a human rights upholder has been shattered, and we have work ahead to ensure that we can restore not only our reputation but the reality on which it is based.
[This article first appeared at RNZ Pacific. Marie Leadbeater is a human rights activist and author of See No Evil: New Zealand's Betrayal of the People of West Papua. She has campaigned for justice in West Papua and East Timor.]