A Papuan perspective

14 Mar 2007
By: 
Paul Barber, TAPOL

[Note: This edited version of the article appeared in the the Straits Times, the full version is reproduced below it]

The article 'A Matter of Perspective', published in these pages on Feb 20, accused Tapol, the London-based Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, of lacking credibility and perspective. The survivor of an attack by Indonesian police officers on a group of students in Abepura, West Papua, would view things differently. Mr Peneas Lokbere, a guest of Peace Brigades International, visited Tapol on Feb 21. He described in painful detail how, in December 2000, students were badly beaten and tortured. Two students died in police custody and another was shot dead. None of the students had been involved in criminal activities.

On the day of Mr Lokbere's visit, Human Rights Watch published a report on political prisoners in West Papua. It concluded: 'While Indonesia is certainly in a transition period, the repression detailed in this report shows that there is still much to be done in institutionalising meaningful protections for basic rights.'

Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights found that the Abepura case constituted a gross violation of human rights. Two senior police officers named by the commission were charged with crimes against humanity. But in September 2005, they were acquitted, prompting widespread dismay in West Papua. No one has yet been held to account for the Abepura abuses.

A month before the Abepura verdicts, two British-made armoured vehicles fitted with water cannons were deployed to West Papua to be used by the police for crowd-control purposes.

This brings us to the crux of the complaint against Tapol: That in criticising the deployment, Tapol missed the point that military hardware is supposed to be used in conflict areas and to put down 'internal rebellions'.

This argument reveals a disturbing lack of concern for human rights, avoids the question of whether military equipment will be used for internal repression, overlooks the highly sensitive political situation in West Papua, and misunderstands the nature of the conflict there.

In Tapol's view, there should be a strong presumption, if not prohibition, against supplying military hardware to security forces that are not subject to normal democratic controls.

The killing of five security forces personnel in Abepura last year was also a tragedy, but such incidents will not be prevented by providing the security forces with more equipment.

A determination to address the Papuans' heartfelt grievances by political means is what is required.

The writer is a research and advocacy officer for Tapol.

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A Papuan Perspective

Unedited original

A day after it was recently accused by this newspaper’s senior writer, John McBeth, of a lack of perspective and credibility, TAPOL, the London-based Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, was visited by a survivor of a brutal attack by Indonesian police officers on a group of students in West Papua.

Peneas Lokbere, a guest of Peace Brigades International, described to us in painful detail how, in December 2000, the students from Abepura were badly beaten and tortured. Some had their hair cut off and were forced to eat it mixed with blood. They had vinegar poured in their wounds.

Two students died in police custody from their injuries. Another was shot dead as the students were rounded up following an attack by unidentified persons on a police station that left a police officer and a security guard dead.

Seven other people, including Mr Lokbere’s brother, have since died from causes thought to relate to their injuries.

None of the students had been involved in any criminal activities and the survivors were released after two days.

A Swiss journalist arrested for taking photos of a Papuan pro-independence demonstration witnessed what happened in the police station:

‘…what I saw there was unspeakably shocking. About half a dozen policemen were swinging their clubs at bodies that were lying on the floor and, oddly enough, did not cry out; at most, only soft groans issued from them...blood sprayed the walls all the way up to the ceiling’.

On the same day as Mr Lokbere’s visit to TAPOL, Human Rights Watch published a report on political prisoners in West Papua. It concluded: “While Indonesia is certainly in a transition period, the repression detailed in this report show that there is still much to be done in institutionalising meaningful protections for basic rights in the country”.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, Komnas HAM, found that the Abepura case constituted a gross violation of human rights and identified 25 suspects.

After much delay, two senior police officers were charged with crimes against humanity. They became the first persons tried in Indonesia’s permanent human rights court. In September 2005, the two men were acquitted, prompting anger and despair among the victims’ families and the wider Papuan community.

None of the other suspects have been brought to trial and no-one has been held to account for the horrific attacks on the students. Sadly this is just one of several cases of serious crimes in West Papua and Indonesia that have resulted in impunity for the perpetrators.

In August 2005, a month before the human rights court announced its verdict in the Abepura case, two British-made armoured personnel carriers fitted with water cannons were deployed to West Papua for use by the police for crowd control purposes. This brings us to the crux of Mr McBeth’s complaint against TAPOL.

Attacking TAPOL’s criticism of the deployment, Mr McBeth argues that military hardware is supposed to be used in conflict areas, such as West Papua, and to put down ‘internal rebellions’.

He appears completely unconcerned about human rights, avoids the question of military equipment will be used for internal repression, overlooks the highly sensitive political situation in West Papua and misunderstands the nature of the conflict there. His disturbingly hard-line position allows him to dismiss the tragedy of East Timor as ‘an unhappy memory’.

Using the example of South Korea he suggests that the disciplined use of riot-control equipment can make all the difference. He should try telling Mr Lokbere that the Indonesian police in West Papua are disciplined and capable of using proportionate force against peaceful demonstrators.

In TAPOL’s view, there should be a strong presumption, if not prohibition, against supplying military hardware to security forces that are not subject to normal democratic controls.

The killing of five security forces personnel during street protests in Abepura last year, referred to by Mr McBeth, was also appalling, but such incidents will not be prevented simply by providing the police and military with more equipment. A determination to address the Papuans’ heartfelt grievances by political means is what is required by the Indonesian authorities and the international community.

Mr McBeth misses the point that the presence of military hardware on the streets is highly intimidatory and a powerful deterrent to Papuans wishing to protest. Its deployment directly contributes to violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. British-made water cannons were used in Indonesia on many occasions in the 1990s against the pro-democracy movement opposed to the Suharto dictatorship.

Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, two of the prisoners highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report, know all about abuses of basic free speech rights. They have been jailed for 15 and 10 years respectively simply for organising peaceful celebrations of West Papua’s national day and raising the national ‘Morning Star’ flag. Their treatment is in stark contrast to that of the police officers involved in the Abepura abuses.

It needs to be stressed that Papuans who demonstrate or raise the flag are not involved in internal rebellion. They are simply asserting their democratic right to express their political views.

Mr McBeth correctly points out that Indonesia has moved on since the Suharto period. It has made welcome and significant progress in its transition to democracy, but it has by no means completed that transition.

Democratic conditions do not pertain in West Papua and Indonesia’s failure to secure accountability for past abuses, epitomised by the Abepura case, and establish respect for the rule of law mean that it is far from being a fully-functioning democracy.

Accountability is not a stand-alone concept that exists only in a perfect world, as Mr McBeth suggests. It is an integral part of democracy.

Reform of the Indonesian military, TNI, is underway, but the TNI’s ideological attachment to the belief that it is the only institution capable of protecting the unity of Indonesia remains a substantial obstacle to reform. It is allied to a strong distrust of civilian politicians and a willingness to use excessive force to maintain the country’s territorial integrity, especially in West Papua. The TNI’s traditional reliance on business activities for a substantial proportion of its income is another major stumbling block in the way of reform.

In this situation, any move by Western governments to upgrade military relations with Indonesia provides high-profile political support for the TNI and runs the risk of helping to sustain the existing civil/military power relations.

In expressing concern about a possible deal for the sale of more British-made Hawk aircraft to Indonesia, TAPOL, was in part responding to a recommendation in the highly-praised report of the UN-backed Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) in East Timor. The Commission says that military support for Indonesia should be ‘totally conditional on progress towards full democratisation, the subordination of the military to the rule of law and civilian government, and strict adherence with international human rights, including respect for the right to self-determination’.

That would seem to be an entirely appropriate approach to the question of military sales.

The writer is research and advocacy officer for TAPOL.