I don’t have a position on the West Papua situation.
This is perhaps not that strange. I am, by inclination, a person who tends not to have strong positions on things (except when it comes to abolishing of the States. And bacon). But I like to feel that I know enough of the various positions to ramble my way through my own indecisive thoughts.
It’s the role of opinion writers to provide this service to the broader public. Their first duty is to give us the language so that we might discuss our own ideas and intuitions.
In the case of West Papua’s push for independence, the ideas aren’t being explored in a way which results in an informed debate. Instead, it’s been explored through two important contexts. First, news outlets like New Matilda have given a voice directly to the activists involved. This gives a platform for the issue to be brought to broader attention, but doesn’t really give us any insight into how we should be thinking about the issue. Second, the issue has been put through the lens of our asylum seeker debate. A group of West Papuan activists fled to Australia seeking asylum but were redirected to Papua New Guinea as part of the asylum seeker arrangement we’ve got in place. This resulted in further discussion of Australia’s asylum seeker policies but not of the West Papuan independence claims.
I once wrote about the privilege of not engaging with an issue. We conservatives, as custodians of the status quo, can ‘win’ debates by simply refusing to engage. ‘Good luck with your fringe debate, guys,’ we seem to say. ‘We aren’t going to discuss the issue with you and, thus, starve your cause of oxygen.’
It feels like a similar thing is going on here. Because our most influential opinion writers aren’t interested in broader issues, it’s almost as if the West Papuan question has vanished. Starve it of oxygen. Don’t let it become yet another problem between Indonesia and Australia.
Or it’s laziness. The procedural history is complicated. If you don’t discuss it, you don’t run the risk of saying something factually incorrect.
And yet there are important philosophical questions to be cracked here. When should we support independence movements? Each day on my cycle to work, I’d ride by the Tent Embassy here in Canberra which had a great big sign calling for an end to the colonial rule. There are groups of activists who call for ‘Indigenous Australia’ to have independence from ‘White Australia’. How do we evaluate these sorts of claims?
In political narrative, we like the idea of unity. We federate. We have unions. We are a Commonwealth. In popular culture, ‘separatist’ is usually synonymous with ‘terrorist’ or ‘that group of aliens who were working with Darth Sidious in the Star Wars prequels’.
To what extent should we see Indonesia through this lens? Is a unified, strong Indonesia a good Indonesia?
Then there is the old chestnut about the link between Nation and Identity. White societies tended to build strong nations because they had an almost uniform ethnic and cultural composition. Nations which formed (or, perhaps more accurately, were formed) with various ethnicities and cultures have tended to struggle. A dominant group got the organs of the State and then used them to purge the minorities. To what extent should we view independence struggles through the idea that every cultural and ethnic group should have its own territory?
These are all thought bubbles into the ether. I really don’t know. But it does seem weird that these are questions that we’d expect our opinion writers to grapple and they appear to be dropping the ball. What’s causing the apathy?
- Fears West Papuan activists returned to Indonesia (sbs.com.au)
- Emergency Protest against Illegal Deportation to Place of Further Persecution (freedomflotillawestpapua.org)
- Interview with Mr Patrick Matbob (jonathonnoone.wordpress.com)
- Flotilla puts West Papua in the Australian consciousness (freedomflotillawestpapua.org)