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SYDNEY — Fragile relations between Indonesia and Australia have taken a nosedive, again, and Canberra is concerned that any sudden venting of anger in Jakarta may wreck years of painstaking efforts at building up mutual good will. The Indonesian ambassador has been recalled from Canberra “for consultations.” Critics in Jakarta are charging Australia with trying to sponsor a breakaway for West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, just as some Indonesians believe Australia did a few years back when East Timor fought for and won independence.

Wrong on all counts, Canberra protests, although Australian Prime Minister John Howard remains too diplomatic to say so.

Trouble is, Australian public opinion is still seething over two recent setbacks in Indonesia, a Muslim extremist bombing on the resort island of Bali that killed 88 Australian tourists and life sentences imposed by Bali courts on Australian drug smugglers. Now comes an event the diplomats are calling “delicate.” A canoe carrying 43 starving Papuans lands in North Queensland after four days lost at sea. The villagers plead for political asylum. Despite Jakarta’s calls for them to be returned, Canberra has granted asylum.

Now thousands of Papuans are believed to be ready to paddle south. Grim as the plight of Papuans demanding independence is, an international situation looms for both neighboring nations as the background threatens to fester into a diplomatic impasse. Neither country is looking squeaky clean. Australia stands accused of hypocrisy in admitting this refugee boatload while turning back escapees from Middle East wars. Indonesia is accused of repressing racially different citizens in a province rich in gold.

In this shrinking world, Australia is finding how pressing are the dictates of geography and history. Home to the world’s largest Muslim population and heading for economic progress, Indonesia inherited a diverse island region from Holland after World War II. Melanesian people in the jungles of Papua then found themselves transferred from a European colonizer to become citizens of a new Asian nation. Despite 1,000 Papuans voting in favor in an “act of free choice” in 1969, this underdeveloped territory has endured years of armed unrest.

For 40 years at least, one spear- and gun-wielding band of freedom fighters, known as the OPM, has been fighting jungle skirmishes against Indonesian Army and police forces. The most recent reprisal killings follow protests over claims of poorly shared wealth from the world’s richest gold mine, Freeport.

Much of the billions of dollars earned goes to Freeport’s American investors, with precious little spent to lift the region into the 21st century. Local Papuans say too much is siphoned off by Indonesian military officers. Five police and soldiers were killed recently when Papuan students demonstrated for the mine pit to be closed. Jakarta is trying to keep a diplomatic lid on the international ripples. But a group linked to the largest Islamic group there, Nahdlatul Ulama, is demanding that Canberra revoke its visas issued to the refugees or else face a boycott of Australian goods. The powerful Golkar Party talks of freezing diplomatic relations and expelling the Australian ambassador.

Jakarta’s tensions are well known and respected in Canberra. The loss of East Timor and long-running breakaway moves in Aceh, Sumatra, have led to an obsession with national disintegration. Now marches organized by Papuan students pose a deeper threat than past sporadic attacks by jungle villagers waving spears and obsolete guns. From the first days of Indonesian self-rule, Canberra has consistently striven to work with Jakarta regimes. Crunch time came when East Timor independence fighters grabbed world sympathy. After years of jungle fighting in the former Portuguese colony, one Jakarta president allowed a United Nations-sponsored referendum to decide whether East Timor could be independent. That U.N. peacekeepers were led by Australian troops to stop a reprisal blood bath has never been forgiven or forgotten by some in Jakarta.

Another East Timor? The words dare not be whispered among the smooth-talking diplomats. But will the Australian media, known for straight talk, respect the delicacies? Harrowing reports from Papuan refugees have started appearing in the Australian media and who can predict the public backlash? The 43 who arrived in a canoe are a case in point.

“We don’t want to go back,” one of them, Henock Nawlea, said in hospital. She said 300 villagers who had fled across the border into independent Papua New Guinea were persuaded with promises to go back, only to be imprisoned, tortured or killed. “We know Indonesian talk,” she added.

Some 4,000 Papuan refugees have formed a community in Australia. Back in the troubled Indonesian province, at least 500 protesters are said to be preparing to flee here. Jakarta suspects the arrivals will form a nascent freedom movement, ready to stir up worldwide anti-Indonesia propaganda. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda has questioned whether Australia’s inconsistency over admitting Papuan boat people while rejecting others will undermine bilateral relations. “We are afraid this would weaken cooperation,” he warned. Soon the Indonesian Parliament is due to vote on a law implementing the Aceh peace agreement.

Critical publicity overseas on the Papuan refugee problem can only strengthen the hand of Indonesian nationalists warning against making too many compromises in oil-rich Aceh. Howard concurs, fending off calls for bold comments.

Outspoken foreign correspondent Greg Sheridan is in no doubt: “The Howard government has absolutely no desire to see an independent West Papua.” “Nevertheless,” he opines, “it faces an exquisite dilemma. There are human-rights abuses in West Papua and Canberra cannot and should not be blind to that.”

The Australian newspaper decrees that “Jakarta must be reassured over Papuan asylum seekers.” Noting that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono telephoned Howard to lobby against letting the Papuans stay here, the paper thunders that Canberra’s subsequent rebuff should not be allowed to upset the “increasingly close and vital relationship.”

“Australia has no interest in an independent Papua or the Balkanization of our northern neighbor. We have too many common interests. Indonesia must understand that acknowledging rights abuses and calling for independence are two separate things. The relationship is too important to be sidetracked by this one issue.” Such calls for sane handling of a sticky situation will be widely welcomed. But these are early days in a still-developing movement. Maturity on all sides must be the watchword for a long time to come.

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