By Izzy Brown, as told to Zelda Grimshaw
"They make great trucks. That's what my father says whenever I ask him: "What do they make? Who do they sell them to?" "Only to the good guys," is his standard answer, and the topic changes quickly. But what he calls "trucks", most people call "tanks". And I am always led to wonder, "What kind of 'good guy' drives a tank?"
My father works for Thales, one of the richest weapons corporations in the world. Before heading up security for Thales he worked for Asio, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
On a rainy summer's day in January I learnt that Thales sells weaponised vehicles to Indonesia's special forces, Kopassus. The same Kopassus that have been accused of terrorising, torturing and murdering the people of West Papua.
My partner is a West Papuan refugee. Half of our children's family live in West Papua, terrified of Indonesian soldiers, ready to run when Kopassus troops roll into their villages. I was suddenly painfully aware that my father is paid by a company that sells weapons that may be used against his own grandchildren's family.
I had always suspected that my father's employer and my partner's journey might be connected in some way but I had never imagined how horribly entangled their stories were.
Lober, my partner and father of three of my children, landed in Cape York, Australia on 17 January 2006 in an outrigger canoe with 42 other refugees from West Papua. All were detained on Christmas Island before being granted asylum. Indonesia took offence at Australia's acceptance of them and targeted their families. Lober's mother was arrested in retribution. Friends and family members of these Papuans in exile have been arrested, tortured and killed. Like most refugees from war zones, the West Papuan 43 carry a burden of trauma that includes survivor guilt: why am I safe when others are dying?
Indonesia invaded then-Dutch West Papua in 1962. In 1969, with the backing of the UN, Indonesia's dictator Suharto claimed West Papua as a province of Indonesia. Successive Australian administrations, eager to appease Indonesia, have remained silent on human rights abuses in Timor-Leste, Aceh, Maluku, Jakarta and West Papua. The rare exceptions to the policy of appeasement – such as sending peacekeepers to Timor-Leste in 1999 and accepting the 43 West Papuan refugees in 2006 – have resulted in diplomatic standoffs and the cessation of military cooperation.
To resolve these pesky human rights issues, Australia and Indonesia signed the Lombok treaty in 2006. This pact preserves military and diplomatic cooperation with the promise that there will be no interference or comment on the "internal" affairs, or "sovereignty", of the other state. The Lombok treaty is effectively a gag order.
Australia's Special Air Service is involved in military training with Kopassus in Perth and the Australian federal police trains Indonesia's anti-terror squad D88 at an Australian-funded institute called JCLEC (the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation).
Kopassus and D88 are the most feared of all Indonesian security forces and have been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings across the archipelago. According to Amnesty International, more than 30 Papuans have been murdered by Indonesian forces in the past two years. Amnesty also alleges that between 2010 and 2018, Indonesia's police and military were responsible for at least 95 unlawful killings in Papua, including targeted slayings of activists, a claim the Indonesian army's spokesman in Papua province, Col. Muhammad Aidi, rejected as "untrue and baseless."
Australia's military support and defence exports to Indonesia directly contribute to the suffering of communities in West Papua, and cause great anguish to the West Papuans who now call Australia home. Every West Papuan-Australian I meet is scarred by the "low-intensity conflict" that has raged over access to Papua's natural resources since 1962.
Some of the older men who travelled on the canoe with Lober spend their days walking and walking and walking. Sometimes Lober walks all night. Where are they going? What are they looking for? When I ask, the response is always the same: just walking, jalan jalan.
Thales rates high in both global exports and reach, with operations in 56 countries and defence revenue of US$9.25bn in 2019. Thales Australia's big-ticket export item is the Bushmaster weaponised vehicle, including guns and ordnance. In 2013 Thales sold three Bushmaster vehicles to Kopassus in a A$2.7m deal brokered by the then Australian military sales office. In October 2016, Australian and Indonesian defence industry officials signed an agreement to produce the Sanca, a weaponised vehicle based on the Bushmaster.
While in West Papua in 2013 I met dozens of activists, students and political prisoners. Their call for peace, justice and freedom from Indonesian rule was unanimous. The women's stories really hit home: "Why do I have children just to watch them die at the hands of Indonesia?" I heard this question across Papua from mothers who had suffered the worst grief of all: burying their children.
Now three of my own children have West Papuan heritage, and their grandfather is working for the company that sells the weapons to the army that causes so many mothers grief.
If it's true that change begins at home, I hope my father will be ready. My four kids often spend time with their Australian grandparents. My father is a popular visitor. He is funny and fabulous and impossible to dislike, though I don't like what the company he works for sells.
One day his grandchildren will understand how implicated the company he works for is in the violence in their father's land. Will he be ready, I wonder, for the day they understand and the questions they will ask?