Australia bows to Indonesian pressure
by Marni Cordell Australian Government and public institutions alike surrendered to pressure from Indonesia last month to withdraw support from a number of events recognising the plight of West Papua, a resource-rich province that has been struggling for independence since its Indonesian takeover in the 1960s. The Morning Star Concert for West Papua, held on Friday February 28 at the Melbourne Concert Hall, was designed to be "part of an energetic awareness raising campaign for the issues of West Papua". It was a high profile event, featuring popular Australian and West Papuan bands, from which all proceeds will go to support the West Papuan human rights monitoring group ELSHAM. Concert organisers had advertised that the ABC's Radio National and Triple J would be broadcasting the event. However, in the week preceding the concert — following complaints — Minister for Communications Richard Alston ordered that the ABC withdraw their 'support' for the event, and ABC managing director Russell Balding accordingly issued a directive, reportedly stating that the ABC could not go against its charter to support a 'political' occasion. The ABC were never in fact supporting the concert, but merely recording it, in order to broadcast the event at a later date. Similarly, RMIT University (Melbourne) surrendered to pressure from Indonesia last month to withdraw their support for the West Papua Futures forum. The forum, held on February 25-26, was to be in RMIT's Storey Hall, but was moved at late notice to the Victorian Trades Hall after a complaint from the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. Although the forum was jointly sponsored by New Internationalist magazine and the Globalism Institute, a research facility located within RMIT, the university administrators have distanced themselves from the event. Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Neil Furlong, commented: "it is not appropriate that universities formally endorse activities such as conferences and forums where criticism on matters pertaining to the sovereignty of other nations is intended." Australasian editor of New Internationalist Chris Richards described the move by RMIT as "outrageous", explaining that the conference did not intend to challenge the territorial integrity of Indonesia, but sought to encourage "open dialogue and debate" about the many social and political challenges the province is currently facing. "We organised the conference because there are so many divergent views between Indonesia and West Papua about the future of West Papua: what should it look like, how should they be governed, what is actually happening in terms of human rights in the country at the moment?" The conference was held in the same week as the Morning Star Concert for West Papua and aimed to be "an academic addition to what was quickly becoming a West Papua week; an opportunity for people who are interested to learn about the country and to experience some of its culture." While claiming that reduced federal funding to tertiary education had made universities prey to this sort of pressure, he maintained that, as an academic institution "RMIT should not have bowed to any government", and described the decision as "effectively banning debate" on one of the great social issues of our time. The Indonesian Charge d'Affaires, Imron Cotan, requested that Senator Brown withdraw from speaking at the conference. Senator Brown refused, stating: "it is an issue I've been involved in since I got into Tasmanian parliament 20 years ago, and I intend to continue." This is not the first time that RMIT has bowed down to pressure from Indonesia. The university apologised for "any offence that may have been unintentionally caused" after a ceremony honouring West Papuan political refugee Jacob Rumbiak raised protest from the Indonesian Embassy in August last year. Pro Vice Chancellor Furlong comments: "the university has a clear obligation to respect the reputation of its students, staff, alumni and institutional partners both domestically and internationally." However, it is also understood that RMIT has withdrawn support from the forum in part to avoid financial repercussions; a significant proportion of the university's international fee-paying students hail from Indonesia. According to Richards, "instead of taking an academic response to what's happening in West Papua, RMIT have taken a commercial response." "I am speaking out, out of concern for the public interest: the fact that the Indonesian Government is prepared to intervene in academic institutions for a particular result; and, more concerningly that academic institutions are prepared to respond to that pressure."