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Compromise worked in Aceh - why not Papua?

Pearls and Irritations - May 30, 2023

Duncan Graham – There are parallels between Indonesia's Aceh where an Ozzie surfer faced a flogging, and Papua where a Kiwi pilot is 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.

There were ten stories in a Google Alert media feed last week for 'Indonesia-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 NZ pilot Philip Mehrtens, held hostage since February 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's been pushing its cause since the 1970s.

A major story by any measure. The Indonesian military's inability to find and safely secure the Kiwi 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'd been arrested in April for allegedly going on a nude drunken rampage and bashing a local in Indonesian Aceh.

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 is 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's 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 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.

It only ended when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed 160,000 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 bent. 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's not a relative. Morality Police patrols prowl shady spots, alert to any signs of affection.

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

Kingsbury told the ABC the situation in 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's 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.

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'd be dragged into the upcoming Presidential election campaign with outraged candidates thumping lecterns claiming outside interference. That's 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 Oz 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 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 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 1945. The Hollanders 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.]

Source: https://johnmenadue.com/compromise-worked-in-aceh-why-not-papua