Imagine a referendum in which just 0.2 per cent of the population were allowed to vote. Imagine that every one of those voters was marched to the voting station at gunpoint, and told exactly what choice to make. Would you believe the result truly represented the wishes of the people?
This is exactly what happened in the Pacific nation of West Papua in 1969. The occupying Indonesian army marched 1,026 handpicked West Papuans (from a population of 800,000) in front of election officials. These ‘voters’ were ordered to raise their hands at the right moment or be shot. This ‘Act of Free Choice’ was then presented to the world as an unequivocal vote in favour of Indonesia’s claim over West Papua, and rubber-stamped at the United Nations by the US, the UK, Australia and their allies. The lands, forests and mountains that had been home to the Indigenous West Papuan people for 50,000 years were handed over to Indonesian President Suharto’s military regime – along with the vast reserves of gold, copper and natural gas buried beneath them.
Forty-eight years later, in January 2017, I’m sitting in a packed-out conference room in the UK Parliament building in Westminster. We are here to see West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda launch a global petition, calling on the UN to oversee a fresh independence vote in his country to replace the sham referendum from 1969. Benny stands, ceremonial feathered headdress on his head, and tells the gathered MPs, journalists and supporters about the decades of human rights abuses his people have suffered under Indonesian occupation. His speech is accompanied by something I’ve never seen before – a video of demonstrations that took place in West Papua in the previous 24 hours, in solidarity with this meeting. We see groups of West Papuans in jungle villages holding up the Morning Star independence flag – a criminal act that carries a 15-year sentence in Indonesia – and thanking us for coming to Westminster today. One group of protesters have filmed themselves inside an Indonesian jail. Every participant in these actions will have done so at great personal risk of reprisal from the Indonesian military.
The people of West Papua are rising again, determined to reclaim the voice that was denied to them almost 50 years ago. After decades of struggle and brutal repression, recent events have propelled their fight for freedom back onto the world stage. If we’re serious about defending human rights and tackling climate change, this is the moment to stand with West Papua – the survival of an entire culture and the preservation of the world’s third-largest rainforest are hanging in the balance. But time is running out.
West Papua is an extraordinary place, with a civilization stretching back tens of thousands of years and rainforests teeming with species found nowhere else on the planet. Ever since Indonesian troops first marched into West Papua in 1961, the government has sought to tighten its grip on this resource-rich, lushly forested territory. This has involved military occupation – at least 15,000 troops are stationed in West Papua1, making it one of the most militarized zones in Southeast Asia – and also the transmigration of Indonesians into West Papua. In several key regions, the Indigenous population is now outnumbered by Indonesian settlers. ‘In 1999, Indonesia had set up just nine regencies [local administrative areas] within West Papua,’ says Octovianus (Octo) Mote, Secretary-General of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). ‘Today, they have 43, and are planning to expand to 73, each with its own police stations and military base. This is all to accommodate new settlers and further outnumber our people. The kind of colonial history that took Western powers many years to carry out is happening here at high speed.’
Indonesians run the majority of businesses in cities like Sorong and Jayapura; they control most of the wealth in West Papua, while the Indigenous population is treated as an underclass. In the words of Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman: ‘When you arrive at Jayapura airport, the officers behind the desk are all immigrants, while the West Papuans are the porters. If you go into town, the shop owners are all immigrants, while West Papuans are selling betel nuts on the road.’
This kind of colonial takeover by an invading force puts Western fears over immigration into sharp perspective. Migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, Australia and the US present little or no threat to these countries’ cultural and political dominance; the people of West Papua, on the other hand, are at the sharp end of purposeful transmigration policies from an occupying power seeking to cement control over their lands and natural resources.
Dissent is often met with violence and arbitrary arrest. According to Jason Macleod of the University of Sydney: ‘Acts of state violence occur all over West Papua and are carried out by all parts of the security forces. [Human rights violations] include killing, torture, sexual assault and deprivation of liberty.’
Gathering statistics on these abuses is near-impossible, thanks to Indonesia’s ban on human rights organizations entering the region, and tight media restrictions. Local journalists are routinely bribed, threatened, arrested or killed; foreign media are largely banned.
Estimates of the total number of West Papuans killed by security forces range from 100,000 to 500,000.2 The vast majority of deaths go unreported by official media sources; I have been told of villagers stacking skulls in caves as evidence of atrocities that might otherwise be forgotten.
Unequal access to healthcare, education and employment means that Indigenous West Papuans have much higher rates of poverty, illiteracy, child mortality and HIV infection than the rest of the Indonesian population. Jim Elmslie of Sydney University observed that between 1971 and 2000, the Indigenous West Papuan population grew 50 per cent more slowly than the population of neighbouring Papua New Guinea, resulting in 360,000 ‘missing Papuans’.3
West Papuans gain little benefit from mining and drilling projects from companies like Freeport and BP that trash their food sources and poison their water supplies. Indonesian-backed logging and palm-oil plantations are cutting swathes through the rainforest in a process Octo Mote describes as ‘destroying the lungs of the world’.
Jennifer Robinson of International Lawyers for West Papua is in no doubt that all of this amounts to a slow-moving genocide: ‘It’s a constant, low-level conflict where West Papuans are dying all the time – from state violence, from the HIV epidemic, from a lack of access to healthcare, from being forced off their land. If we don’t act fast to secure their rights then we will lose the West Papuans as a people.’
But those people have always refused to go quietly. For decades, the under-equipped and outnumbered forces of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) have maintained a guerrilla resistance from the jungle, supported by a growing civil resistance movement in the cities and now a new wave of international support.
A game-changing event was the foundation of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) in December 2014, an umbrella group that has succeeded in uniting the disparate factions of the freedom movement for the first time. Emboldened by their new united leadership, West Papuans have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. The surge in political arrests in West Papua from 370 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2016 reflects both the growth in the movement, and Indonesia’s increasingly repressive attempts to crack down on it.
The West Papuan people are refusing to be cowed. ‘Last December, the police fired water cannons at West Papuan protesters – and they started dancing in the jets of water!’ says Veronica Koman. ‘Then 17 people were arrested in Jayapura for Free West Papua graffiti. They were released the following day, went straight back and did the very same thing again! They’re not afraid any more.’
Every significant international development now sparks mass demonstrations in West Papua. Smartphones and social media are allowing the movement to bypass the media blackout and share their struggle with the world, which has helped drive a new wave of solidarity action across the Pacific region – particularly in countries like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands that share West Papua’s ethnic Melanesian roots. This new sense of regional solidarity has in turn helped to push Pacific governments to take an active international stand.
‘They are now free, but West Papua is still under colonialism,’ says Victor Yeimo, chair of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB). ‘Melanesian solidarity is not a racial sentiment, it’s about the responsibility of our brothers and sisters to help their family in West Papua.’ Despite fierce protests from Indonesia, in 2015 the ULMWP was formally accepted as an Observer member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group of countries (MSG), and seven Pacific states spoke up in support of West Papua at the UN in 2016.
In May 2016, MPs from around the world signed up to the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP)’s ‘Westminster Declaration’, calling on the UN to oversee a new independence referendum. The event was celebrated with huge gatherings in West Papua that resulted in 2,000 arrests.
Meanwhile, the IPWP’s sibling group International Lawyers for West Papua (ILWP) is calling for the recognition of Indonesia’s actions in West Papua as genocide, pushing for a UN investigation into human rights abuses, and challenging the legitimacy of the Act of Free Choice. Although the legal case is clear – the West Papuans were denied their right to self-determination – getting it heard at the International Court of Justice requires majority support at the UN General Assembly, another reason why international support is so vital for the West Papuan cause.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Indonesian citizens are joining the demonstrations. Surya Anta, spokesperson for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (FRI-West Papua), says: ‘For the first time in Indonesian history we have a united solidarity movement which acknowledges West Papua as a nation and supports their right to self-determination.’ That solidarity is starting to be returned. Activists from the Papuan Student Alliance (AMP) joined Indonesian protests against a proposed land-grabbing cement plant at Kendeng, and against forced evictions in Yogyakarta. This is extremely significant, as the support of Indonesian citizens was key to the successful campaign for the independence of Timor-Leste in 1999.
These are all hopeful signs – but this moment of opportunity could easily be lost, crushed beneath Indonesia’s ever-harsher military crackdowns. International solidarity is urgently needed, and many of us have a special responsibility here. The British and US governments knew in 1969 that the vote was a sham and that most West Papuans wanted independence.4 They and their allies supported Indonesia’s claim at the UN anyway. Today, British, US and Australian corporations profit from mining projects that destroy West Papua’s forests, and from the sale of weapons used to repress its people. We must refuse to be complicit, and speak out.
Together, we can beat Indonesia’s media blackout and share West Papua’s struggle with the world. We can pressure our governments to right the wrongs of the past, and give the West Papuan people the real independence vote they have been denied for so long. As Victor Yeimo says, ‘Tell your government, your media, your church, your organization, your family, your friends. Whatever your skills or talents, find a way to bring them to our struggle. We need you.’
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