President Obama should encourage Indonesian leaders to acknowledge the failure of their policies in West Papua

I wish to congratulate and commend you all for this gathering which underscores the international community's continuing and growing determination to end the systematic denial of Papuans' human rights, including civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights.

I regret that I cannot be with you but am at this moment en route to Jakarta to work with Indonesian and other colleagues to urge that the upcoming visit of President Obama to Indonesia includes a focus on the plight of Papuans and others in the archipelago whose rights have been abused and denied.

Indonesia's democratic progress in the decade since the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship has been impressive but remains threatened by rogue Indonesian security forces, particularly the Indonesian military (TNI). The TNI continues to maintain a shadow government with offices and personnel working on behalf of the military's interest from national level down to district, sub district and even village level. This "territorial system" enables the military to exert influence over government policy, policy and business activity. The TNI's business empire persists despite a 2009 legislative deadline to transfer its business assets to the Government. The TNI's vast empire of legal and illegal businesses, which includes people trafficking and prostitution, extortion and drug trafficking, enables the military to evade civilian control by funding its operations through a secretive, off-the-books funding stream.

Traditionally the TNI has also derived great wealth through the exploitation of natural resources either through its own companies or through collaboration with often illegally operating firms. Not surprisingly, the vast natural resources in West Papua has led TNI to focus much of its exploitative commercial operations on West Papua. The TNI therefore has a strong interest in perpetuating security instability in West Papua as justification for its continued large presence in West Papua. The TNI has worked to create anti-Jakarta sentiment among Papuans through routine brutal treatment of the local people and by increasing tensions between the Papuan people and non-Papuans brought to West Papua by the Government under its notorious policy of "transmigration." In recent years the TNI and allied security elments in the police have created nationalist militias, drawing largely on the non-Papuan migrant community. The effort is highly reminiscent of the Indonesian military's creation of "militias" in East Timor. Observers fear that the Papuan militias, like their counterparts in East Timor a decade and more ago, may come to serve the military as mercenary thug groups assigned by the military to harass the local people.

The TNI's focus on West Papua has grown dramatically in the past decade. Nowhere in the Indonesian archipelago is military insubordination, corruption and abusive behavior more on display than in West Papua, where the military continues to operate in a manner that reflects the rules and practices fostered under the Suharto dictatorship. Civil society and Papuan human rights activists in particular remain subject to security force intimidation, arrest, torture and extra-judicial execution. In recent days the international community has been shocked by graphic video footage of Indonesian security personnel torturing Papuan civilians. Following the release of this footage a cyber terror attack was launched against many international websites that carried the shocking video footage. The resources required for such an attack indicate clearly that elements within the Indonesian government were behind the cyber attack. That attack is in line with determined Indonesian government efforts to prevent the international community from monitoring developments in West Papua.

Iin recent weeks Indonesian security forces also have destroyed the Papuan village of Bigiragi. For decades, especially in the Puncak Jaya region, security force "sweeping operations" have driven villagers into the surrounding mountains and forests where hundreds have died due to lack of access to food, medical care and adequate shelter. Security force refusal to allow humanitarian relief to these displaced civilians has exacerbated their plight.
U.S. support for the Indonesian military and other security forces has long been a source of critical support for these forces, offering financial backing, training assistance and political/diplomatic cover. Successful efforts by the U.S. Congress to impose restrictions on such U.S. assistance based on human rights concerns created pressure for gradual reform of the Indonesian security forces. Unfortunately, under the guise of anti-terror exigencies, the Bush and more recently the Obama Administrations have overridden these Congressional sanctions and expanded cooperation with the still unreformed Indonesian security forces. The recent Obama Administration decision to renew contact with the notorious Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) and continued U.S. funding of Detachment 88 ignores numerous credible reports of their human rights abuse and unaccountability before the law. This policy of support for forces acting criminally and with impunity sabotages courageous efforts by Indonesian NGOs and citizens to secure fundamental reform of all the Indonesian security forces.

The United States played a central role in the undemocratic process that saw West Papua annexed by Indonesia in the 1960s. The period since then has seen continuing, extensive human rights problems in addition to the repressive actions of security forces often backed by the U.S. The Indonesian military employed U.S.-provided air-to-ground attack aircraft to bomb and strafe West Papuan as well as East Timor civililan populations. U.S. silence over this and other repression in West Papua provided diplomatic cover for that repression.

The U.S. and international community have also been slow to react also to the slow-motion genocide which has devastated the Papuan people. The Papuan people have suffered decades of marginalization due in large measure to the Government-organized migration of non-Papuans into West Papua under the afore mentioned policy of "transmigration," and the systematic failure of the government to afford minimal health care, education, or employment opportunities for Papuans. Instead, the Indonesian Government has colluded with Indonesian and international corporations to effectively cleanse Papuans from their traditional lands with minimal or no compensation. The U.S. Government and international community, pressed by the international human rights and Papuan solidarity NGOs, and in the U.S. articulate political voices in the U.S. Congress, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge the systematic brutality afflicting the Papuan people. Unfortunately, the U.S. administration and other governments, rather than insist on real reform, have resorted instead to calls for a fuller implementation of the Indonesian government's "special autonomy" policy whereby Jakarta, a decade ago, pledged to improve conditions in West Papua. That policy, due in part to corrupt implementation, has manifestly failed as made clear by the policy's rejection by papuan civil society and Papuans generally demonstrating in the thousands. The policy's failure is also due to Indonesian government's unwavering resort to a "security approach" whereby it has criminalized peaceful dissent and employed security force intimidation targeting Papuans. Jakarta's failure to address fundamental problems in West Papua has been exacerbated by a corrupt judicial system that enables security forces forces to operate criminally and abusively with complete legal impunity.

The upcoming visit of President Obama to Indonesia affords an opportunity for the U.S. to turn the page in Indonesia by pressing for genuine reform, especially in West Papua where human rights abuse, injustice and security force corruption is endemic. President Obama should encourage Indonesian leaders to acknowledge the failure of their policies in West Papua, notably the Indonesian government's resort to the "security approach" and "special autonomy."

The Obama visit also offers the U.S. the opportunity to address the original injustice perpetrated against the Papuan people by the U.S. in the 1960's in which
the U.S. colluded with Indonesian authorities and much of the international community to deny Papuans their fundamental rights. In the early 1960's, in service of geo-political
advantage, the U.S. pressed its NATO ally the Netherlands to acquiesce to Indonesian demands to transfer of West Papua to Indonesian control. The 1962 "New York Agreement"
derailed a political process already in motion to afford Papuans genuine independence. Once the agreement and Indonesian administration in West Papua under a UN mandate was in place, the U.S. ignored clear evidence of a security force abuse of the Papuan people. That abuse created a brutal atmosphere of intimidation which culminated in a coerced vote by a small, tightly controlled, Indonesian-selected group of Papuans who "voted" for annexation. The vote, known as the "Act of Free Choice" has been exposed as a fraud by scholars, journalists and even UN personnel who powerlessly observed the exercise.

It is high time that the Indonesian Government and the international community publicly acknowledge the historical reality that the Papuan people have not been afforded the right of self-determination as afforded under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 1) and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights (Article 1) , both of which have been signed and ratified by the Indonesian government.

Edmund McWilliams - Former U.S. senior Foreign Service Officer and Political Counselor at the US Embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999