News / Asia

US Officials Back Indonesian Stand Against Papua Independence

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks to media during a meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, October 23, 2011.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks to media during a meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, October 23, 2011.

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Brian Padden

Analysts say U.S. support for Indonesia's strong stand against Papuan separatists puts added pressure on the independence movement to seek a negotiated settlement. But there are concerns that the U.S. is not putting equal pressure on the Indonesian side to peacefully resolve the conflict.

While visiting Indonesia, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated the U.S. commitment to closer ties with Indonesia and voiced support for Indonesia's strong stance against a separatist movement in the eastern province of Papua.

But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell says the warming relationship has not stopped the U.S. from speaking out against possible human rights abuses by the military in Papua.

"We have made very clear where there are allegations of abuse or problems associated with excessive violence," said Campbell.  "We want those circumstances thoroughly explored. And if there is indeed cause for subsequent remedial action, we would expect a legal process to be followed accordingly."

A number of violent incidents in Papua have escalated tensions in the region, including recent shootings that killed six people in connection with a labor strike at the Freeport gold and copper mine. In another incident, more than 300 people were arrested at a political rally and congress where separatists proclaimed their independence from Indonesia. Indonesian military forces beat the protestors with rattan canes and batons, and six activists were charged with treason.

Muridan Widjojo, a researcher with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences who has been involved in organizing peace talks in Papua, says the strong government response to the independence movement will put pressure on Papuans to return to the negotiating table.

"In the long run they will see that the only possible way to deal with their problem by using the means of dialogue," said Widjojo.  "So they have tried the congress. They have to declare literally Papua independence and they will learn from this experience."

Rich in natural resources West Papua is one of the poorest regions in Indonesia. Separatists have called for independence from Indonesia for decades. The Indonesian government has granted the region some autonomy, and its leaders say they are willing to give Papuans more local control, but independence is out of the question.

Alexandra Wulan, a researcher with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, says the U.S. has little choice but to support Indonesia's promise to negotiate a peaceful settlement, because Washington needs Indonesia's support to counter China's growing influence in the region.

"At the moment they really need the support of the Indonesian government," said Wulan.  "Therefore, they have to put aside the issues of human rights. And of course giving assurance to the Indonesian government that they have their back, I mean the U.S. has the Indonesian back in this case of Papua."

But she says the Indonesian side has lacked leadership on resolving the region's problems.

Campbell says despite the sensitivity of the topic, the U.S. has voiced concerns to Indonesian officials on human rights issues and the slow pace of progress in the region.

"I think there needs to be a deeper set of discussions about development, about the aspirations of local populations and I think there needs to be a clear sign of a determination on both sides to be able to deal with the very real problems that exist on the ground today," Campbell said.

He says the policy of engagement with the Indonesian military has actually given the U.S. some access and leverage to promote human rights in the region.

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