20 January 2019
The Australian Jesuits

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West Papua's fight for independence

Cecily McNeill |  08 November 2018

Barbie weather in Australia and many readers will be out on the deck while the temperatures are low enough to enjoy the outdoors. But, how many realise that the timber in those decks and outdoor furniture comes at great human and environmental cost? 

Since 1990 West Papuan rainforests have been felled indiscriminately and illegally. The logs are then processed in Indonesia removing from the Indigenous people the opportunity to draw income from the further processing of the timber.

With a rapid rise in the impact of climate change on Pacific nations, West Papuans are worried about the effect on the climate of the logging of the native forest. As with the Amazon rainforests in Brazil, also being felled at an alarming rate, the West Papuans feel they are responsible for the “lungs” of the world and this ability to breathe is rapidly being stifled.

57 years of torture and silence
But the decimation of the rain forest and appropriation of Indigenous land are not the only issues worrying West Papuans. A two-person delegation from the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Justice and Peace Commission reported hearing “many stories of bashings, torture, murder, economic hardship, social marginalisation and cultural deprivation. Executive officer Peter Arndt and Sydney Josephite Susan Connelly heard a sense of urgency and fear in West Papuan voices. With the rate of transmigration, bringing migrants from Indonesia and other countries, the Indigenous population is diminishing. They believe they have only two or three years left before their people will be swamped by pro-Indonesian voices. “Yet, beneath all this, there is an unmistakeable determination to continue to strive for the long cherished dream of freedom,” (p 3).

Examples of such continual brutality are documented by West Papuan film-maker, Wensislaus Fatubun, who visited New Zealand in October. He spoke of the latest example of more than 50 years of Papuan suffering under Indonesia.

“On December 8, 2014, the Indonesian military shot dead four high school students in Paniai, West Papua province. Military and police fired into the crowd of about 800 minority Papuans who had gathered to perform a traditional dance. Most of the victims were children. The community was totally unarmed. The miliary had their weapons.”

In the mid-1960s with the birth of the Free Papua movement (OPM) the West Papuans set up resistance to Indonesian rule with the help of weapons left behind by the Dutch or airdropped by the US during World War II. The Indonesian army responded with bombing raids, arrests and torture of dissenters or anyone who dared to criticise the regime. New Zealand writer and campaigner Maire Leadbeater writes in her 2018 book See no evil: New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua, that in one military purge, an estimated 500,000 to one million people were massacred. “Tens of thousands were imprisoned, and the family members of those killed or imprisoned were stigmatised and barred from government employment for decades” (See No Evil PPs 118-119).

A 2011 congress convened by the West Papua National Authority drew 5,000 and the venue, a field near the capital, Jayapura, was “ringed with armoured personnel carriers, military trucks and thousands of soldiers and armed police,” writes Leadbeater (See No Evil pps 223-224). This just a week after a striking Freeport miner had been shot dead, yet participants raised the Morningstar Flag and chanted independence slogans.

Indonesian takeover
Indonesia’s colonisation of West Papua dates from the 1960s when the Dutch colonisers of Indonesia withdrew rapidly as a result of the 1962 New York Agreement and the decision to install a temporary UN administration. The Dutch administration which was reportedly good, was replaced by the Indonesians who stripped out the shops and even the capital's hospital (See No Evil p 112). Before the Indonesian takeover in 1963, Dutch schools and training institutions, especially in the coastal towns, were quite good. 

On December 1 every year West Papuans and their supporters raise the Morning Star flag to mark the first time it flew alongside the Dutch ensign in 1961. May 1 is known as the “day of terror” the first day of Indonesian rule in 1963. 

In 1969 the Indonesians set up a plebiscite known as the “Act of free choice” often referred to as the “act of no choice”. Under the terms of the New York agreement, Indonesia was bound to hold an act of self-determination involving all adult West Papuans before the end of 1969. A small group, 1022, less than 0.01% of the population, of West Papuans was elected in a complex regional process to represent the people.

Arndt and Connelly write of meeting one of the participants who told them she was denied contact with her family for two weeks before the vote and she and the other 1021 were under intense pressure from the Indonesian authorities to support the takeover. On the day of the vote, the hall was ringed with Indonesian soldiers, she had to read a statement prepared by the authorities supporting Indonesian integration. After the statements were read, she and other participants were asked who agreed. Under great duress, they raised their hands. There was no vote. When the large crowd of West Papuans gathered outside the hall heard that they had “voted” for integration, “they shouted their fierce opposition to the decision”. A Papuan priest who was a teenager at the time said the Indonesian security forces chased the protesters away. Many were beaten. (pps 4-5).

West Papua’s desirability
As well as rainforest hardwood timber, West Papua is immensely attractive to Indonesia because of its mineral deposits, particularly gold, copper and palm oil. Maire Leadbeater writes a geologist with the Netherlands New Guinea Petroleum Limited, Jean Jacques Dozy, discovered in 1936 the world’s richest gold deposit on the two mountains he named Ertsberg and Grasberg. “Today this gold deposit is the site of the notorious open-cast gold and copper mine operated by the US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc.” Leadbeater says the Dutch kept this gold discovery hidden during World War II and the Indonesians continued the concealment policy during its war of independence (P52).

Bolstering Indonesian support
In the 1980s Indonesia pursued a policy of transmigration and development. Leadbeater writes that transmigration had brought “an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 migrants into the territory – a number augmented by possibly as many as 160,000 ‘spontaneous’ or non-subsidised migrants”. This policy was a “deliberate strategy to dilute the power of the OPM or Free Papua Movement by disrupting the communities it relied on,” says Leadbeater.

Fatubun says this has resulted in a marked decrease in the Papuan population. In 2010 West Papuans comprised 42% of the territory's population. "The percentage is now about 37% as reported to the UN committee on prevention of racial discrimination in 2016." The West Papuans call this Indonesian policy aided by police intimidation and brutality a slow or cold genocide to distinguish it from that of Rwanda in 1994.

Reliable population figures are difficult to come by but research fellow Jim Elmslie writes the population in the coastal towns is dominated by migrants but the West Papuans continue to occupy the interior and have defied the occupation by keeping their culture largely intact. At present, the balance between the migrants and the indigenous population is at or close to tipping point. This may be exacerbated further with President Joko Widodo's development plans.

Further colonisation
Widodo has begun a major programme which includes a Trans-Papua highway and railway, mega-electicity projects on the coast and in the hinterland and small and large-scale dams. Fatubun says the president wants to actively promote Papua as an “investment zone” for trans-national companies and governments.

This is having a devastating impact on the social and economic lives of West Papuans, Fatubun says. He showed New Zealand MPs film of West Papuans being forced to mine sand for the homes of migrants. This, the farmers say, is destroying the beaches as well as removing their food source and livelihood and diminishing their voice.

Despite their failure to support West Papuan self-determination, Australia, New Zealand and the UN continue to be the subject of appeals for help to persuade West Papua’s hegemonic invader to return to the indigenous people their land and control of their resources. A growing body of support notably from the Solomons, Tongan and ni-Vanuatu leaders in the Pacific Islands leaders’ forum and from church and other activist groups in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, is helping to spread the word of the plight of the West Papuans which was silenced for so long.

Social, cultural, religious differences
Researcher Pieter Drooglever writes of West Papua’s Melanesian people as being quite different from Indonesians who align more with Asia. The religion is mostly Protestant, Catholic and Animist compared with Indonesia’s overwhelmingly Muslim population. Peter Arndt and Susan Connelly believe racism is behind Indonesia’s wish to stamp out the West Papuans.

“From the first day of Indonesian occupation of West Papua to the present, its treatment of the people of Papua smacks of institutional racism. The contempt and discrimination shown towards Papuans and the influx of large numbers of Indonesian migrants has led to a significant loss of culture and ever-increasing economic and social marginalisation,” (P 23).

The people of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) fought a lonely battle over 25 years for self-determination from Indonesian oppression and eventually won; but in terms of mineral wealth, West Papua is far more attractive to its coloniser and one questions whether Indonesia will be more wary of letting its colony go.
Meanwhile, Australians, New Zealanders and others must work to get our governments to understand why this tiny nation needs their help to bring Indonesia into peaceful negotiation over a path to independence. For the future of the earth and of the West Papuans, the rainforest felling must stop. Let the kwila stay there.

Images: West Papuan film maker Wensislaus Fatubun (credit: Wensislaus Fatubun)
New Zealand MPs and others: Maire Leadbeater author and campaigner, Marama Davidson (Greens co-leader), Wensislaus Fatubun, Adrian Rurawhe (Ngati Apa, Labour, deputy speaker), Poto Williams (Labour), Duncan Webb (Labour), Catherine Delahunty (former Greens MP), Edwina Hughes, Peace Movement Aotearoa. (credit: Cecily McNeill)


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