The Guardian March 19, 2003

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 

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 

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."

Back to index page