Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Australians confused over Papuan name changes

John McBeth, Senior Writer for Singapore's Straits Times newspaper observes rhat Australian Govenrment officials are uncomfortable with name changes in Indonesia's two New Guinea island provinces. "Ever since Irian Jaya was renamed Papua during thebadministration of president Abdurrahman Wahid, Australian officials have followed the lead of Papuan independence campaigners in calling it West Papua. Now, West Irian Jaya - one of the two provinces that make up Papua - has set the cat among the pigeons by renaming itself - you've guessed it - West Papua. Just to confuse the uninitiated even more, the other province - which occupies the rest of the vast, road-less territory as far as the Papua New Guinea border - is called Papua as well," he wrote.

The province of Papua Barat (West Papua) covers most of the island's so-called Bird's Head region and will rely for much of its economic lifeblood on BP's Bituni Bay liquefied natural gas plant, which starts up next year while Papua province has access to the royalty streams from PT Freeport Indonesia's vast gold-copper mining operations.

According to McBeth, no one is quite sure why Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and other Canberra officials have insisted on calling Indonesian New Guinbea "West Papua" as, by doing so, "they appear - at least to many Indonesians - to be expressing solidarity" with the Papuan separatist organisations.

"At one point, someone in Canberra offered the lame explanation that it was to differentiate between the Indonesian side of the island and Papua New Guinea. But in general usage no one shortens Papua New Guinea to Papua. It has always been simply PNG. Unless Aussie officialdom decides to be dogmatic about the whole issue, it surely will have to do a serious rethink. Otherwise, there is going to be a lot of confusion over what Aussie officials are actually referring to - the province or the whole territory," he wrote.

Australian journalists, particularly those who have covered Indonesia, seem as bemused as anyone. "One Jakarta-based correspondent could not disguise his glee over the province's new name, hoping it might lead to his newspaper changing its policy. I had the same dilemma back in the late 1970s when the magazine I then worked for decreed that Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge should be called Kampuchea, following the lead of the communist regime that committed genocide on a grand scale. I could never bring myself to do it and eventually, after invading Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh, the editors decided to go back to calling it Cambodia. So, any suggestions for Mr Downer?" Mc Beth asked.

UPDATE (17 Feb 2007)

John McBeth is wrong. The Australian government strongly supports Indonesia's territorial integrity and recognizes its sovereignty over the provinces of Papua and West Irian Jaya.

Our commitment to this position was made clear in the Lombok Treaty signed between Australia and Indonesia last year.

We are aware of proposals for name changes and to create new provinces on the half-island, but also understand these are yet to be formalized by all appropriate authorities.

Just to make it quite clear, we regard Papua and West Irian Jaya as integral parts of Indonesia.

Australian Embassy

UPDATE (20 Feb 2007)

In his haste to call me "wrong" (The Jakarta Post, Feb.17, Australian Embassy clarifies), Ambassador Farmer has completely missed the point I was trying to make.

I was not seriously questioning the Australian government's stated commitment to non-interference in Indonesia's internal affairs.

I was asking why Australian officials from Prime Minister Howard on down insist on calling the place West Papua, when its official name is Papua.

Whether the ambassador likes it or not, it conveys the impression to many Indonesians that Canberra is following the lead of the Papuan independence movement.

So I ask the question again. Why?


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