The Thales building looms large over Sydney Olympic Park station. An imposing wall of slick dark glass, crowned by a six-foot tall sign bearing their logo. From the outside, you wouldn’t know that Thales is an arms dealer.
Thales is not exactly a household name, and they don’t want to be. They move in the shadowy world of the global arms trade and would prefer not to be in the public eye. Their customers are mostly nation-states, so there is no reason to bother wasting resources on building their brand in the minds of ordinary people. Ordinary people don’t get a say when defence contracts are negotiated. Contracts like those Thales holds to supply the Indonesian forces with weapons. Weapons that are then used to violently repress the West Papuan struggle for independence and self-determination.
This complacency, this certainty that they can do whatever they want in pursuit of profit – including arming human rights violators, dictators, despots, and fueling conflict around the world – is probably why we were able to walk right in. They weren’t expecting to be challenged.
A sunny summer morning in so-called Sydney, the first of December. On this day in 1961, West Papua declared it’s independence and raised their now-iconic morning star flag for the very first time. Just months later, their dream of self-determination was steam rolled by Indonesian invasion and an elaborate UN process orchestrated by the US. The New York agreement made West Papua a province of Indonesia in the eyes of the UN. West Papuans have struggled for recognition and self-governance ever since.
Western interests were watching the newly formed nation of Indonesia. Indonesia was looking around for allys in an effort to establish its self as a people and a nation on the world stage. Being the height of the cold war, the US was worried that communism might sound appealing to peoples who had just moments ago thrown off the yoke of Dutch colonialism and set about ensuring that this new state aligned its self with the West. West Papua was little more than a bargaining chip, but their struggle would outlast the cold war context which produced it.
We walked across the ground floor entrance chamber and summoned the lift. A few people passed us and looked at us quizzically, we smiled and waved amiably. Then we got to level 2, spilled out of the lift into the reception level and unfurled a West Papuan flag.
“Staff of Thales” I thundered in my most official sounding voice. “We have a message for you”
“We are not here to hurt you. We have brought no weapons. We will not harm you or your family, we will not poison your water, raze your homes, or imprison your leaders. We just ask you do the same for us and for our friends in West Papua”
Most of the staff hid in their offices, and sent a representative out to ask us to leave. We asked him what he thought about West Papua, and he said he didn’t know anything about it.
“No problem!” I said “I’ll tell you about it again”.
After failing to extract a personal opinion from this person, not as an employee but simply as a human being, he was starting to get a little antsy. We continued to reassure the staff that we understood that they probably didn’t know that their employer was arming the repression of West Papuans less than 500 miles from Darwin – because any reasonable person wouldn’t stand for that. We told them we understood that the people on the level 2 reception desk are not attending board meetings and deciding which dictators will be next year’s clients. But at the same time, we reminded them that their labour is critical to the continued functioning of the business and that no matter who or where we are, we always have a choice to make.
We told them the names of some West Papuans who had been killed by state forces in Indonesia and held a memorial in their honour, right there in the Thales lobby. We asked the staff to be respectful of the lives lost and allow us to hold our memorial, and to be fair they stayed sheepishly silent during our proceedings.
At the conclusion of our memorial we made our way back down in the lift and out onto the footpath, after which time they shut off the automatic doors. We left them some messages on the footpath with chalk including “our friends in West Papua say hi” and “these guys arm genocide”. As we were leaving the cops finally arrived.
“Thank god you’re here!” we said “Those guys are selling weapons!”
“Where?!?” said the main cop – we had him going for a minute there 😉