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Spikes of Violence: Protest in West Papua

Like Timor-Leste, West Papua, commonly subsuming both Papua and West Papua, remains a separate ethnic entity, acknowledged as such by previous colonial powers. Its Dutch colonial masters, in preparing to leave the region in the 1950s, left the ground fertile for a declaration of independence in 1961. Such a move did not sit well with the Indonesian desire to claim control over all Dutch Asia Pacific colonies on departure. There were resources to be had, economic gains to be made. The military duly moved in.

The New York Agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, brokered in 1962 with the assistance of the United States, saw West Papua fall under United Nations control for the duration of one year. Once passing into Indonesian control, Jakarta would govern the territory “consistent with the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the inhabitants under the terms of the present agreement.” Education would be a priority; illiteracy would be targeted, and efforts made “to accelerate participation of the people in local government through periodic elections.”

One article stood out: “Indonesia will make arrangements, with the assistance and participation of the United Nation Representative and his staff, to give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice.” In 1969, a ballot was conducted in line with the provision, though hardly in any true, representative sense. In the rich traditions of doctored representation and selective enfranchisement, 1,026 individuals were selected by Indonesian authorities to participate. Indonesia’s military kept an intimidating watch: the vote could not be left to chance. The result for Indonesian control was unanimous; the UN signed off.

Unlike Timor-Leste, the historically Melanesian territories of Papua and West Papua remains under thumb and screw, an entity that continues to exist under periodic acts of violence and habitual repression from the Indonesian central authorities. A policy of transmigration has been practiced, a point argued by scholars to be tantamount to genocide. This has entailed moving residents from Java and Sulawesi to West Papua, assisted by Jakarta’s hearty sponsorship.

The Indonesian argument here has been ethnic and political: to confect a national identity through assimilation. Under President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), one keen to push the idea of “Indonesia Maju” (“Advanced Indonesia”), renewed stress is being placed on infrastructure investment, economic growth and natural resources, of which Papua features heavily.

The indigenous populace has had to, in turn, surrender land to those transmigrants and appropriating authorities. “The rights of traditional law communities,” notes Clause 17 of Indonesia’s Basic Forestry Act of 1967, “may not be allowed to stand in the way of transmigration sites.”

Appropriations of land, the relocation of residents, and the odd massacre by Indonesian security forces, tend to fly low on the international radar of human rights abuses. West Papua lacks the cinematic appeal or political heft that would encourage around the clock coverage from media networks. Bureaucratic plodders in the various foreign ministries of the world prefer to render such matters benign and of little interest. Geopolitics and natural resources tend to do most of the talking.

In late 2015, for instance, Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and James Carouso, acting deputy assistant secretary for Maritime and Mainland Southeast Asian affairs, ducked and evaded anything too compromising in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. The consequences of demographic policies directed by Jakarta were assiduously ignored. Massacres and institutional accountability in the territory were bypassed, as were Indonesian efforts to prevent scrutiny on the part of human rights monitors, the UN Special rapporteur and journalists.

This year, more instances of violence have managed to leach out and gurgle in media circles. It took a few ugly incidents in the Javanese city of Surabaya to engender a new wave of protests which have had a rattling effect on the security forces. Last month, pro-Indonesian nationalist groups, with reported encouragement from security forces, taunted Papuan students with an array of crude insults in East Java. (“Dogs”, “monkeys” and “pigs” were part of the bitter mix). The fuse was lit, notably as arrests were made of the Papuans themselves. “Papuans are not monkeys”, proclaimed banners being held at a rally in Central Jakarta on August 22.

Government buildings have been torched in Jayapura. Additional forces have been deployed, and internet access cut. There are claims that white phosphorous has been used on civilians; prisons are being filled. There have even been protests in Indonesia’s capital, with the banned Morning Star flag being flown defiantly in front of the state palace. (Doing so is no mild matter: activist Filep Karma spent over a decade of his life in prison for doing so).

The struggle for independence, at least in the international eye, has been left to such figures as Benny Wenda, who lobbies governments and groups to back the “Free Papua” campaign. He is particularly keen to take the matter of the Free Choice vote of 1969, that nasty instrument that formalised Indonesian control, to the United Nations General Assembly. Last month, he had to settle for taking the matter to the Pacific Islands Forum as a representative of Vanuatu’s delegation. In January, he gifted the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet a petition with 1.8 million signatures seeking a new referendum for the territory.

The response from an Indonesian government spokesman was emphatic, curt, and conventional. “Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia’s internal affairs. No other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them. We firmly oppose the intervention of Indonesia’s internal affairs in whatever form.”

The hope for Jokowi and the Indonesian authorities will be simple: ride out the storm, conduct a low-level suppression of protests, and place any talks of secession on the backburner. In this, they can count on regional, if hypocritical support. In the words of a spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia recognises Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces. Our position is clearly defined by the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia.”

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  1. New England Cocky

    The 1969 ballot was politely described as a farce on an ABC RN interview with a journalist who was present.

    New Guinea is one island land mass and correctly should be one nation, regardless of the hugely diverse social structure and innumerable languages. At present foreign owned multinational mining corporations are removing raw materials, especially gold from the Freeport mine, the Indonesian Army is bullying NG nationals and Australian politicians STILL have no policies to support the push for New Guinea independence.

  2. David Bruce

    They are still getting buried gold out of West Papua so until that is complete, Indonesia is under the thumb by USA business interests and the money system.

    Now there are moves afoot to relocate the Indonesian capital to Kalimantan. With Jokowi so keen to join the Belts and Road initiative, I wonder how long he will have to wait to have his presidency recognized by the Indonesian justice system?

  3. RomeoCharlie29

    The Australian Government, has shown little interest in supporting self determination movements for islands in the Indonesian Archipelago that clearly haven’t no affiliation with Indonesia. Timor L’Este is the most successful, and how hard was that? Ambon, colonised by the Dutch, tried but were flooded with trans migrants and now we have West Papa, part of an island with Melanesian rather than Austronesian always, the interests of 5he gold gouges, take precedence over the wishes of the people for freedom and self determination and, as always, our pathetic DFAT falls into line.

  4. wam

    In 1962 Australia, under pig-iron bob and two wongs don’t make a white Arthur were still 13 years from giving PNG the independence promised 17 years before. So what chance did the dutch controlled West Papuans gave? The UNTEA gave the indonesians free rein in Papua. The province was the fastest growing mainly due to immigration?
    Time for Indonesia to offer repatriation to anyone who wants to return to Indonesia and go. But with West timor and many other dutch islands, Iakarta needs to find a political solution????

  5. New England Cocky

    Upate n West Papua situation from a reliable source.

    Summary of events in West Papua (12 August – 9 September 2019)
    Its rare that stories about West Papua go viral in the mainstream media but the mass demonstrations over the past weeks certainly did. The rallies were triggered by the arrest of 43 West Papuan students in Surabaya Indonesia on the 17 August, Indonesia Independence Day.

    The incident occurred because it had been reported that an Indonesian flag had been vandalised near a student hostel for Papuans. (It’s not unusual for Papuans to further their education in Indonesia.) in this case Surabaya. Nationalists groups believed that the Papuan students had vandialised the flag and that the students were refusing to take part in Indonesian Independence celebrations.

    The Jakarta Post (19 August) reported that security personnel and members of Indonesian Nationalist groups attacked the Papuan students throwing stones at the dormitory and chanting “Kick out the Papuans!” and “Slaughter the Papuans!” The mob also called the students monkeys, pigs and dogs. As they stormed the building the Police fired tear gas into the building and arrested the students. The students were later released after questioning. They had denied any knowledge of the damaged flag.

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