The Australian government has come under pressure over its role in funding Indonesian counter-terrorism unit Detachment 88, after ABC’s 7.30 highlighted the unit’s role in repressing independence activists in occupied West Papua.
Detachment 88 has been implicated in several killings and the torture of Papuan activists. A prominent recent case was its alleged involvement in the assassination of West Papuan National Committee (KNPB) leader Mako Tabuni in June.
Several other activists have been killed and others arrested since a new crackdown began in May. Security forces have sought to blame the KNPB for a mysterious wave of random shootings as an excuse for the crackdown. The KNPB has no history of violence and many activists believe the perpetrators are linked to the security forces.
Detachment 88 was also allegedly involved in an attack on Papuan students at Cenderawasih University in Abepura on August 26, which left at least one student dead, West Papua Media said on August 28. Many others were badly injured in the raid where about 35 people were arrested, some of whom were later allegedly tortured.
Detachment 88 was set up under an agreement between Indonesia and the Australian government after the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali. Australia has provided tens of millions of dollars to fund equipment, training and facilities and the Australian Federal Police have conducted special training seminars for the unit’s members.
Detachment 88 is known to have operated in West Papua for several years. It is also accused of atrocities in the Maluku region during a 2010 crackdown on activists calling for independence there.
Australia and the US also have links to Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus commando unit, implicated in a huge number of human rights abuses.
In an interview with 7.30 on August 28, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr gave a response typical of Western officials, making excuses for Indonesia at the same time as downplaying Australia’s complicity in the crimes.
He tried to distance Australia from the actions of Detachment 88, saying Australia provided “human rights” training in its seminars. Carr tacitly admitted there was no accountability from Australia over how Detachment 88 acted.
Carr called for an inquiry into the death of Tabuni, but suggested the funding would continue as it was “in Australia's interest”.
Carr also defended the Indonesian government. He said Indonesian officials had been “responsive” when Australian diplomats raised human rights concerns, ignoring the fact that this talk had coincided with continuing human rights abuses.
New KNPB leader Victor Yeimo told 7.30 he blamed Australia and the US for the repression: “You give money for Indonesia to kill people in West Papua. You are the perpetrators ... you are the actors of violence in West Papua.
“Australian government ― also American government ― they are actors of violence in West Papua because they fund them, they train them, and then with the gun they kill people. They kill us like animals.”
As if to prove Yeimo’s point, Truth-out.org reported on August 29 that a deal was close to being made on the sale to Indonesia of eight Boeing Apache helicopters by the US. An official US Department of Defense Arms Sales Notification dated August 27 also said Indonesia had bought $25 million worth of missiles.
Australia and the US prefer to keep quiet the situation in West Papua. Indonesia ― the West’s long-time ally ― enables the exploitation of the area’s vast natural resources on behalf of Western corporations and Indonesia’s ruling class based in Jakarta.
This is done via a system of brutal repression against anyone suspected of supporting independence. The huge military and police presence is supported by a network of spies and informants, forming a virtual police state.
A big government-promoted migration program of Javanese Indonesians into West Papua has squeezed many Papuans out of their economy and diluted Papuan culture.
Efforts by Indonesia to placate the independence movement with its “Special Autonomy” system for the region have been rejected as a failure, with big rallies over the past few years calling for it to be scrapped.
Despite the resource wealth, Papuans have the lowest standard of living in Indonesia, which, combined with constant brutality by security forces, has fuelled calls for a referendum on independence.
Most West Papuans consider themselves a people under foreign occupation.
West Papua was colonised by Indonesia in 1963, after former colonial ruler the Netherlands relinquished control of the area. The takeover was legitimised by a fraudulent referendum in 1969 known as the “act of free choice”, organised by Indonesia. This “free choice” involved about 1000 Papuans handpicked by Indonesia being forced to vote for integration.
Since then, Papuans have campaigned for independence. This has occurred mainly through peaceful means, but has also included a low-intensity armed struggle led by the Free Papua Movement’s armed wing, the National Liberation Army (TPN).
A leaked report released in August last year from Kopassus showed the small number of Papuan fighters were divided into many small groups and were poorly armed. Some groups only had traditional spears as weapons. The report said the armed groups were not a significant threat.
However, Indonesia routinely uses the existence of the TPN to justify its huge military presence and its attacks on the broader independence movement.
With the mainstream media’s attention now on this long-ignored situation, the pressure is rising for Australia to take break its military ties with Indonesia.
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale told 7.30 on August 29, “there's a very strong argument that we should be withdrawing our support of those operations immediately”.
“If we're in fact fuelling that conflict, the onus is on us to ensure that we stop doing that and we get much better accountability in terms of our relationship with the Indonesians.”