Monday, November 26, 2018

Something New

  We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SEE NO EVIL” by Maire Leadbeater (Otago University Press, $NZ49:95) “LET’S GET LOST” Text by Nicola McCloy - photographs by Jane King (Penguin / Random House, $45)

            When a book is subtitled “New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua”, you know it is a book of advocacy – that is, a book arguing a case. In See No Evil, Maire Leadbeater, veteran activist in many causes, is not concerned to tell a general history of modern Papua or Indonesia, but to indict the complacency and complicity of New Zealand in Indonesia’s take-over of the western half of the land we used to call New Guinea. (Indonesians prefer to call it West Irian or Irian Jaya).

As her friend, former Green MP Catherine Delahunty says in her Foreword: “There is no claim here that New Zealand is a global superpower with the ability to turn the situation around single-handedly, but it is a wealthier neighbour whose self-interest has aligned it with state violence, torture and structural genocide.”

Leadbeater sets out her argument succinctly in her Introduction. As the Dutch decolonised in the 1940s and 1950s, and as the Dutch East Indies ceased to be, New Zealand’s government at first favoured a united and independent Papua / New Guinea. But this was the era of the Cold War, so New Zealand agreed with Australia and the United States that Indonesia would be a helpful buffer against Communism. Hence by the 1960s it joined others in giving Indonesia a free hand in West Papua.

Having set up this argument, See No Evil then delves into more detailed history. The Papuan peoples were labelled “Melanesian” by Europeans and have accepted that appellation. Racially, culturally and linguistically they are quite distinct from the Malay peoples who became Indonesians, and very few Indonesians lived in West Papua. When Papua was colonised by Europeans, the eastern half was divided between the Germans and the British. Then after the Second World War – and after brief Japanese occupation of some areas -  it was administered by Australia. Meanwhile the western part was a Dutch colony.

The Dutch were apparently more benign colonisers than the British or Germans and, when they resumed control after the Second World War, they were a great improvement on the Japanese occupiers.  But after 1945, the world admired the Indonesian national liberation movement, and Indonesian nationalists lay claim to all of the Asian empire from which the Dutch were withdrawing. New Zealand and Australia at first supported continued Dutch control of West Papua until such time as Papuans themselves could vote on independence. Those West Papuans who could make their wishes known were opposed to an Indonesian takeover. But by the 1950s, the US saw Indonesia as suffering from too much communist influence, hoped the Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno would be a bulwark against Communism and therefore did not want to thwart his expansionist ambitions.

As Leadbeater sees it (in Chapter 4) the Dutch administering West New Guinea were more humane administrators than the Australians administering East New Guinea. They mixed more easily with Papuans on social occasions and were genuinely trying to form a cohort of Papuans capable of ruling the country, even if at that time, in the central highlands, there were still many Papuans beyond western influence. Walter Nash, New Zealand’s prime minister at the end of the 1950s, advocated one united and independent Papua / New Guinea. The Netherlands set out a 10-year timetable for ceding independence, under UN supervision, while continuing to train Papuans.

In 1961, a New Guinea Council was inaugurated, the Morning Star flag (of Papuan independence) was raised and local elections were peacefully and successfully held in coastal areas. But at this moment of hope, there was increasing Indonesian infiltration of West Papua. The United States, wishing to accommodate Indonesian ambitions, brokered a new “agreement” between the Netherlands and Jakarta. This New York Agreement involved allowing Indonesia to take over administration from the Dutch in 1963, after seven months of United Nations supervision, and then only after another 6 years, in 1969, to “consult” the Papuans on the question of independence. In New Zealand, the academic Kenneth Cumberland was one of the few to protest publicly against this arrangement and to still hope for a united, independent Papua.

The New Zealand government by now had very mixed feelings about Indonesia, and in 1963-65 New Zealand forces were among those who fought against Indonesia in its “confrontation” with Malaysia. America was also now worried that Sukarno used too much anti-colonial rhetoric and sometimes welcomed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a major ally. It also seemed clear that as 1969 approached, Indonesia would not honour the planned plebiscite on West Papuan independence. Indonesia had already made Indonesian the only official language in West Papua.

In 1965, in Indonesia itself, some generals were assassinated. Leadbeater says this was not a communist initiative, and its perpetrators had nothing to do with main PKI, but it gave the military strongman Suharto an excuse to crack down on Communists. Between 500,000 and 1 million suspected communisits were killed by the Indonesian army and police and there was also a purge of ethnic Chinese. From this point on, Suharto was clearly taking over from Sukarno, though it was was Sukarno, with his incoherent foreign policy, who referred to 1965 as “The Year of Living Dangerously”.

By now, Indonesia was moving both troops and settlers into West Papua. Despite moneys that the Dutch had contributed as they left, Indonesia did little to improve West Papuan infrastructure or health services. There was little international protest. Increasingly New Zealand, Australia and others saw friendly relations with 112 million Indonesians as being more important than the needs or wishes of a few million Papuans.

In the central West Papuan highlands, there was a rebellion against Indonesia’s gradual takeover, but it was put down with great brutality. Finally in 1969, the Indonesian government and troops used coercion to rig a supposed “Act of Free Choice”, forcing Papuans to accept their overlordship. Western and Arab and Asian nations (such as India) accepted Indonesia’s position. In 1975, (Eastern) Papua New Guinea ceased to be under Australian control and became independent. In West Papua, there was continued guerrilla resistance throughout the 1970s, but the Papuan independence movement (the OPM) suffered factionalism and split. A dirty war was carried out by Indonesia, in which napalm and the strafing of villages played a part. Villages in the highlands were forcibly “modernised” by being re-aligned to break up tribal and family connections. By 1984, there were about 220,000 sponsored and unsponsored Indonesian migrants in West Papua and the Papuan population was being “swamped” in coastal areas and ports.

Not to be overlooked in all this were matters of economics and international investment. In the 1930s, a major oilfield was found in West Papua by an American team (Leadbeater says its existence was not revealed to the Dutch colonial government) and large seams of gold were found in the interior mountains.

By the 1990s, having bought a major concession from the Indonesian government, the Freeport-McMoRan company was controlling huge copper and gold mines, paying massive kickbacks to corrupt Indonesian officials. Freeport-McMoRan was the largest taxpayer on West Papua and the source of over half West Papua’s GDP. But it was also a major polluter and none of its profits found their way to the West Papuan people.

There were internal challenges to the Suharto regime by the 1990s. In 1997, Suharto was persuaded to step down and there was some liberal reform in Indonesia itself – but not very much, as the military still had great power. There was hope for a “Papuan spring”, with Indonesia proposing “special autonomy” (as opposed to independence) for West Papua. But this proposal was never really followed through, and the behaviour of the Indonesian army did not augur well for the future. Indonesia had lost East Timor after a popular, UN-supervised referendum there. In revenge, the Indonesian army went on a rampage in East Timor and killed much of the population before UN forces were able to take over. Such “punishment” could be West Papua’s in similar circumstances.

So far, in a bland and boring fashion, I have simply summarised the relevant history as it is narrated by Maire Leadbeater. But this ignores the main target of her criticism, which is the way successive New Zealand governments have complied with Indonesia’s absorption of West Papua. Her comments on this matter tend to come in self-contained paragraphs.

Of the massacre of communists in Indonesia in 1965, she writes: “Western nations, including New Zealand, were influential actors in the drama. From the documentation available it cannot be concluded definitively that the US or any other Western government played a direct role in fomenting the events of 1 October, but there is plenty of evidence that officials were waiting in the wings for the PKI to misstep or mount a coup so that their friends in the Indonesian military could move against them. New Zealand, as a junior partner in the Western alliance, was kept well informed.” (p.120)

Similarly, of Indonesia’s “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, she says: “The New Zealand Department of Foreign Affairs prepared a briefing paper for the New Zealand UN Mission in September. There was no attempt to disguise the fact that the Indonesian authorities used coercion, bribery, intimidation and indoctrination to achieve the desired result. But it was now done and dusted.” The New Zealand report said there was no “practical” alternative to what the Indonesians had done, Indonesians had in effect been in control of West Papua for six years, and New Zealand would therefore not protest in the UN should there be a debate on the matter. (p.157)

She notes that in supporting the Columbo Plan, New Zealand allowed Indonesian military pilots to train in New Zealand, as well as welcoming over 500 Indonesian students. In 1972, Suharto visited New Zealand and was given an effusive state reception by National Party prime minister Marshall. The same friendly attitude towards Indonesia continued with Norman Kirk’s Labour government and the later Lange government. New Zealand governments were mainly interested in trade and regional security, with little thought for the Papuan people.

Leadbeater’s final chapter has the self-explanatory title “New Zealand chooses the wrong partners, but West Papuans find Pacific allies”. In the last two decades successive New Zealand governments (National-led and Labour-led) have endorsed a  common defence strategy with Indonesia; and New Zealand had programmes training Indonesian pollice.  But, says Leadbeater,  “The strategy of engaging with Indonesia’s security forces in an effort to improve their practice has failed. It is time for a re-evaluation, especially in the light of claims that the West Papuan people are experiencing a slow genocide.” (p.232) Leadbeater here defines genocide not as methodical extermination, but as deliberate imposition upon West Papuans of appalling living conditions, limitations of medical aid, and especially the huge influx of non-Papuan Indonesians, ensuring that the island’s culture and traditional identity are wiped out.

As a slight sign of hope, she refers to some positive news coverage of Papuan independence-seekers at times when Indonesia has eased censorship a little. She is impressed by the way churches and other humanitarians have continued to support West Papuan aspirations and the favourable media coverage Papuan leaders receive when they visit New Zealand. But in her “Conclusion”, she still notes that the current Labour-led government of New Zealand has essentially continued the same policies of preceding governments, making trade and good relations with Indonesia their priorities.

I might have a very few little quibbles with this book. The tone is lowered when that old charlatan Rewi Alley is quoted as a reliable source (pp.126-127). The survey of Indonesian events probably underplays the upsuge of popular Muslim feeling that was a major factor in the anti-communist movement – and the fact that Indonesia now is a very Islamic country aligned with some questionable forces.

These are, however, quibbles only. This is a detailed work of polemic. I ended it thinking how similar Indonesia’s gradual and often brutal conquest of West Papua has been to another, and even more lethal, conquest by a totalitarian nation. Just as Indonesians “swamp” Papuans, so do Han Chinese “swamp” Tibetans as China has taken over Tibet and suppressed its culture. And the pile of corpses there has been even greater. Now the Chinese are apparently following the same policies among the Uyghur people of its westernmost province.

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Compared with what I have just been discussing, the book that follows might appear trite and frivolous – but I hope you good readers will indulge me as I make this odd juxtaposition. Subtitled “Great New Zealand Road Trips”, Let’s Get Lost is a travel guide, but not one of those dreary compilations that simply list places to stay, prices and the most popular sights to see. Author (Nicola McCloy) and photographer (Jane King) certainly make recommendations, but they have also produced a real travel book with its own quirkiness.

Their technique is to regard journeys in New Zealand as real road trips – not just hops from A to B, but long, leisurely drives with many stops on the way, following those road signs that take you off main routes, lead you up side-roads, and bring you to those local attractions that more hasty tourists miss in their rush. The attractions may be an unexpected vantage point from which to view spectacular scenery or a neglected historical site, or one of those low-tech tourist attractions like somebody’s collection of teapots or a well-restored country pub.

Their itineraries are five North Island trips and four South Island trips – viz. Northland, Coromandel, the North Island’s East Coast, Taranaki and the Central Plateau, Manawatu and Wairarapa; and on the South Island the north-west (Marlborough, Tasman etc.) , the West Coast, North and Central Otago, and Queenstown to Southland. In each case, we are provided with driving times between desired destinations and suggestions as to the number of nights each trip should probably take. The assumption is that we will linger and spend whole days at one destination before moving on.

I will admit that Nicola McCloy’s prose style is often gushy. Apparently she has never been disappointed in any destination she has aimed for. In Let’s Get Lost quirky local attractions are always fascinating, the scenery is always wonderful, and keepers of pubs, cafés, and bookshops are always charming, helpful and hospitable. Well, the book is an incitement to a form of tourism, after all.

Woolgathering among the photos is naturally one of the main attractions of Let’s Get Lost and for me personally it is a reminder that the one part of New Zealand I have never explored is the North Island’s East Coast (sorry, but I’ve never visited Gisborne or the East Cape). I will take this book with me when I go there.

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