West Papua is now fighting for freedom

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West Papua is now fighting for freedom

Indonesia has ruled West Papua for 44 long years. Will West Papua be free now? Danny Chivers writes.

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Protesters in West Papua. © Dominic Brown

In West Papua in 1969 only 0.2 per cent of the people could vote. The Indonesian army took all of the voters to the voting station at gunpoint. They told them what to vote. Does this show the wishes of all the people?

The Indonesian army chose 1,026 West Papuans from a population of 800,000 and took them in front of election officials. They ordered the ‘voters’ to raise their hands to vote or they would shoot them. Then they told the world this was a clear vote for Indonesia to rule West Papua. At the United Nations the US, the UK, Australia, and their allies accepted the vote. The lands, forests and mountains with the gold, copper, and natural gas belonged to the Indigenous West Papuan people for 50,000 years. Indonesian President Suharto and his military regime took them.

Forty-eight years later, in January 2017, West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda was in the UK Parliament. He began a global petition to ask the UN to help with a new independence vote in his country in the place of the wrong vote in1969. Benny told the MPs, journalists, and supporters about the many years of human rights abuses in his country under Indonesian rule. He showed a video of protests in West Papua 24 hours before to support this meeting. Groups of West Papuans in villages held up the Morning Star independence flag. This is a crime with15-years in prison in Indonesia. They thanked us for coming to the UK Parliament. One group of protesters filmed themselves in an Indonesian prison. This was a very big risk for all of the protesters.

The people of West Papua are back and fighting for freedom. This is the time to support West Papua culture and the world’s third-largest rainforest. But there is very little time.

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West Papua is the western half of New Guinea, the world's second-largest island.

Two worlds

West Papua is a wonderful place, with a people whose history is tens of thousands of years old. It has rainforests full of insects, birds, and animals which we do not find in the rest of the world. The Indonesian army rules the country. At least 15,000 troops are in West Papua. In many places, there are more Indonesians than West Papuans. Octovianus Mote is Secretary-General of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). He says, ‘In 1999, Indonesia had nine administrative areas in West Papua, Today, they have 43, and are planning to have 73. Each has a police station and a military base. This is for all the new Indonesians coming to West Papua. Western countries took many years for this kind of colonisation and here it is happening very quickly.’

Indonesians have most of the businesses in cities like Sorong and Jayapura. They control most of the money in West Papua. The Indigenous population are a lower class. Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer. She says, ‘When you arrive at Jayapura airport, the officers behind the desk are all immigrants and the West Papuans are the porters. If you go into town, the shop owners are all immigrants and West Papuans are selling nuts on the road.’

When migrants and refugees arrive in Europe, Australia, and the US, they are not a big problem for the culture or the politics in those countries. But the immigrants who come to West Papua are part of a plan to take control of the lands and natural resources.

Protests lead to violence and arrest. Jason Macleod is from the University of Sydney, He says: ‘There is violence by the state all over West Papua. Human rights abuses include killing, torture, sexual assault, and arrest.’

Finding information about these abuses is nearly impossible. Indonesia bans human rights organizations and controls the media. Local journalists are often bribed, threatened, arrested, or killed. Foreign media are mostly banned. We think the number of West Papuans killed by the state is between 100,000 and 500,000. Most deaths are not reported. I hear that villagers put piles of skulls in caves to show these abuses.

There is inequality in healthcare, education, and jobs and so Indigenous West Papuans have more poverty, illiteracy, child deaths, and HIV. West Papuans receive almost nothing from the mining and drilling by companies like Freeport and BP that ruin their food and poison their water. Indonesia supports logging and palm-oil plantations which are cutting through the rainforest.

Jennifer Robinson is from International Lawyers for West Papua. She is sure that this is slow genocide: ‘If we don’t act fast for their rights, then we will lose the West Papuan people.’

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West Papuan women paint their faces with the Morning Star flag before a protest in Jayapura, 19 December 2016. KNBP

Working together

But those people will not go quietly. For years, the Free Papua Movement (OPM) has resisted from the jungle and more and more people in the cities and internationally are supporting them.

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) started in December 2014. The group brought together the different parts of the freedom movement for the first time. With this new movement, more and more West Papuans are protesting on the streets. There are a lot more political arrests in West Papua, from 370 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2016 This shows the movement is bigger, and Indonesia is trying harder to stop it.

The West Papuan people are strong. ‘Last December, the police fired water cannons at West Papuan protesters – and they started dancing in the jets of water!’ says Veronica Koman. ‘Then they arrested 17 people in Jayapura for Free West Papua graffiti. They freed them the following day, and they went straight back and did the same thing again! They’re not afraid any more.’

Smartphones and social media are helping the movement to avoid the media blackout and tell the world about their protests. And so there is new support and action across the Pacific – especially in countries like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands that come from the same Melanesian peoples as West Papuans. This is also helping to make Pacific governments take action.

‘They are free now, but West Papua is still under colonialism,’ says Victor Yeimo of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB). ‘Melanesian support is not about race, it’s about our brothers and sisters helping their family in West Papua.’ There are strong protests from Indonesia but in 2015 the Melanesian Spearhead Group of countries (MSG) accepted the ULMWP as a member and seven Pacific states supported West Papua at the UN in 2016.

Power and responsibility

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Benny Wenda Dale Grimshaw

In May 2016, MPs from around the world signed the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP)’s ‘Westminster Declaration’. They asked the UN to help with a new independence vote. After this there were big meetings in West Papua and 2,000 arrests.

And IPWP’s sister group International Lawyers for West Papua (ILWP) is asking for people to see Indonesia’s actions in West Papua as genocide. They are asking for the UN to look at the human rights abuses. It is very clear that the West Papuans did not have the right to show the wishes of all their people in 1969. To go to the International Court of Justice you need the support of most of the countries at the UN General Assembly. This is another reason why international support is so important for the West Papuans.

More and more Indonesians are joining the protests. Surya Anta is from the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (FRI-West Papua). She says: ‘For the first time in Indonesian history we have a movement which supports West Papua’s right to be a nation.’ Activists from the Papuan Student Alliance (AMP) joined Indonesian protests against a plan to take land for a cement plant at Kendeng, and against forced evictions in Yogyakarta. This is very important as the support of Indonesians was a very big help in the successful campaign for the independence of Timor-Leste in 1999.

There is hope now but we must not lose this opportunity with Indonesia’s strong military actions against protests. We need international support and many of us have a special responsibility here. The British and US governments knew in 1969 that the vote was wrong and that most West Papuans wanted independence. They and their allies supported Indonesia’s claim at the UN. Today, British, US, and Australian businesses profit from mining that destroys West Papua’s forests, and from the sale of weapons to stop its people. We must speak against this.

Together, we can stop Indonesia’s media black¬out and tell the world about West Papua. We can make our governments change the past, and give the West Papuan people the independence vote they want. As Victor Yeimo says, ‘Tell your government, your media, your church, your organization, your family, your friends. Find a way to help. We need you.’

FOR THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE AND REFERENCES: https://newint.org/features/2017/05/01/morning-star-rising/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).