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Asia Buzz: Rough Weather Ahead?
Indonesia could pose serious problems for Australia

August 2, 2000
Web posted at 9:30 a.m. Hong Kong time, 9:30 p.m. EDT

The scene is picture-perfect: It is a sunny winter afternoon in Sydney, blue sky and about 17[degrees]C. I'm in a park in Rose Bay down by the harbor, watching as the seaplanes take off on their trips up to beautiful Palm Beach. There is food on the camp table, wine and beer in the cooler. Children play touch football with their dads, dogs walk their owners -- total urban contentment in one of the world's most beautiful cities.

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Then comes the bombshell: "Listen, mate, Australia is on a slow march to war with Indonesia." I nearly choked on my chicken and avocado sandwich. Why, I thought, would anyone want to give up this idyllic life for warfare with 200 million Indonesians to the north? It is not as if Indonesia could invade Darwin -- the Royal Australian Air Force could take out all of Indonesia's air capability in less than the time it took their rugby players to defeat South Africa recently. So if there were war, it would mean that Australia went looking for it.


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I questioned the man who had made the provocative statement -- a photographer who has traveled extensively in the region. "It's West Papua, mate, that's going to make East Timor look like a children's party." As this man sees it, discontent is stirring throughout the South Pacific. Arms that once fuelled the wars in Indochina, he says, now have nowhere else to go, except in the hands of willing buyers in those societies with unsolved ethnic conflicts. Places like Fiji and the Solomon Islands are the obvious examples, "but West Papua, that's the big one, mate. It is the boundary between Asia and Melanesia -- the Papuans are Melanesians, they have nothing in common with the Javanese." (The same argument applied to the Timorese, and we all know what happened there.)

Certainly things don't look good in West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya, and home to extensive deposits of gold and other minerals). Recently two young men were apparently shot dead by Indonesian security forces for nothing more threatening than hoisting a Papuan independence flag. Resentment against Jakarta is growing, separatists have already proclaimed independence unilaterally, and the government doesn't seem to have any strategy to neutralize the shift towards confrontation. Worse, there are now reports that the feared militias, who wrought terrible damage to East Timor, are now starting to move in to Jayapura, presumably with the tacit support of at least some factions within the military.

So if it comes to all-out war in West Papua between the indigenous population (who want self-rule) and the militias (who will do anything to stop Indonesia losing another large chunk of territory), would Australia intervene? Prime Minister John Howard has backed away from his posturing during the East Timor crisis last year of Australia being America's deputy in the South Pacific. Now he says that in crises like Fiji, Australia would only get involved if there were a United Nations mandate to do so.

It is hard to see Howard sending thousands of Australians into the dense jungles of West Papua, where they could get bogged down in guerrilla warfare for years. But if Indonesia plunges further into chaos and armed conflict, the situation could change. Refugees could start flooding into northern Australia, massacres could be shown on TV screens nightly, and instability could start spreading to neighbors -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea.

The weather is pleasant now in Sydney -- but that won't last forever, either.

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