Recent events have again underlined the incendiary influence of the Papua conflict in Australia-Indonesia relations. A report on the ABC's 7:30 program last week focused on claims that Indonesia's anti-terror squad, Detachment 88, was involved in the killing of Papuan independence leader Mako Tabuni. This has raised the question of Australian complicity, on the grounds that Australia has provided training and support to Detachment 88.

Foreign minister Bob Carr responded immediately, calling for an enquiry into the circumstances of Tabuni's death. Carr stated that the government regularly raises Papua with Indonesia, but calling publicly for an enquiry is a change of tack. Australia's statement on Indonesia for the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights, for instance, made no mention of Papua, instead raising human rights violations by the security forces in Indonesia as a whole.

Carr's statement, mild as it was, has drawn sharp public criticism from Indonesian MPs and conservative commentators. One parliamentarian accused Australia of double standards for not also raising terrorist suspects' deaths at Detachment 88's hands. Others have said that Australia is intervening in Indonesia's domestic affairs, is giving new enthusiasm to separatism, or is engaging in megaphone diplomacy.

Even a prominent Indonesian human rights activist, Haris Azhar, whose organisation, Kontras, has been outspoken about violence in Papua, had his own reasons to be critical. He told me the call for an enquiry was justified in substance, but that Australia should use other means to influence Indonesia, like restricting or stopping police assistance. 'A diplomatic exercise can be done quietly; shouting is for NGOs.'

The controversy over possible Detachment 88 involvement in Tabuni's death came just after a smaller furore surrounding a WA cosmetics retailer who adorned their shopfront with a 'morning star' flag (the symbol of the Papua independence movement). The 'incident' went virtually unreported in Australia, but saw the Jakarta embassy re-affirm Australia's commitment to Indonesian territorial integrity in the Indonesian press.

Remarkably, putting up the flag also drew public comment from Indonesia's defence minister, if only to indicate that Indonesia would not be protesting. Underlining Indonesia's security-focused approach to the Papua conflict though, he stressed that anyone flying a Free Papua Movement flag within Indonesia would be arrested for subversion, a threat on which Indonesia has repeatedly made good.

The stern reaction of Indonesian conservative nationalists to Carr's statement and the flag incident again raises the question of how Australia can most effectively promote the observance of human rights in Papua. But a sober assessment of the past week by Indonesian authorities ought also lead to a reconsideration of their security-led approach to the conflict (it remains to be seen what actions just-appointed Papua police chief and former Detachment 88 head Tito Karnavian will himself take).

Apart from the practical difficulties of entering into dialogue with Papuans, many Indonesian conservatives presumably oppose dialogue because of the risk of 'internationalisation' of the conflict. Yet the security-led approach, quite apart from the suffering it causes, itself carries a high risk of internationalisation. Even the relatively flimsy evidence presented by 7:30 for Detachment 88's involvement in Tabuni's death (see Crisis Group's report for a different view) has given the Papua conflict new prominence in Australia and placed pressure on the Australian Government to act more forcefully.

These events also again expose the fact that Indonesian restrictions on access to Papua for reporters, researchers and human rights organisations are wrong and counter-productive. If the Indonesian Government wants to be taken seriously when it says it is paying attention to Papua, it needs to allow full and open scrutiny of these claims.

Photo by Flickr user Manogamo.