Free West Papua!

New Zealand is often presented in our media as a country that prides itself as a strong advocate for democratic and human rights. But there is little coverage of the atrocities which occur in West Papua, so close to home. For over 50 years, our Melanesian neighbours have endured and survived some of the most barbaric experiences that constitute at the very least, crimes against humanity and at its worst, genocide.

West Papua is home to 2.5 million Papuans with 250 different tribes. The region is rich in copper and oil and is home to the largest gold mine in the world, known as the Grasberg mine. It is also subject to military repression by the Indonesian state on behalf of multinationals. In January this year, Benny Wenda, a West Papuan exile, reported the raiding of Utikini village on the south coast. Five hundred police arrested 100 people, including women and children. One month before, Red Flag newspaper reported that the Indonesian military opened fire on protestors at the Karel Bonay football field. Six people were killed. Seventeen others were injured including five primary school children.

The exact number of those who have died at the hands of the Indonesian regime is hard to say, as foreign journalists and researchers are banned from visiting. However reports suggest between 100,000 and half a million have been killed. The army is largely funded by foreign investors who reap the benefits of West Papua’s natural resources, including US-based Freeport mining and Rio Tinto, the multinational that also owns Tiwai Point smelter in New Zealand. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which represents governments in the region, including Indonesia, the US and New Zealand, admits the silence of the so-called ‘international community’ is linked to the economic interests of the companies who profit from the occupation.

Indonesia is not the first country to exploit West Papua. In 1907 the Dutch controlled the territory, as well as Indonesia, and its oil reserves. In 1949, though, Indonesian freedom fighters expelled the Dutch but West Papua remained in Dutch hands. In 1961, Indonesia sought to claim West Papua (which it calls Irian Jaya), and threatened to drive the Dutch out with Russian help. Britain, the USA and Australia, in a bid to head off Russian influence in Asia, supported the Indonesian claim. In 1962, the Netherlands acceded to the New York Agreement (NYA), which guaranteed the surrender of West Papua to temporary United Nations control before handing West Papua to Indonesia in 1963. The NYA did not involve any West Papuan representatives, or consultation with the West Papuan people.

West Papuan self-determination was undermined further with the Act of Free Choice (AFC) ‘referendum’ of 1969, when West Papuans supposedly voted in a United Nations mandated and observed poll on integration with Indonesia. Human rights lawyer Melinda Janik, of the International Lawyers for West Papua, has estimated less than 0.2% of the population, or 1026 from about 700,000 West Papuans, were hand-picked to vote. Voting was conducted in the presence of Indonesian officials and the army and based on the Javanese system of consensus. Some reports say West Papuans were held at gunpoint and forced to vote for integration. The AFC was not an act of self-determination.

Between 1969 and 1998 West Papua was under military rule. This gave the military powers to combat makar, rebellion. The Tentarra Nasional Indonesia (the army) and a specialised army branch Kopassus, conducted operations against civilians and guerillas who challenged Indonesian rule. Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured and murdered for expressing dissent, organising public meetings to promote independence and raising the morning star flag, the Bintang Kejora, in public. A 2004 Yale University report documents many of the crimes committed by the regime, including torture, assassinations, sexual violence in public, beatings, electric shocks, the burning of houses, churches and villages.

These human rights abuses by Indonesian troops are recorded as early as 1970, such as the case of a pregnant woman shot dead, with the fetus removed and dissected, while soldiers raped and killed the victim’s sister. Men were reportedly taken to sea, rocks tied around their necks and drowned. The killing continued into the late ’70s and early ’80s, with ‘operation clean sweeps,’ using napalm bombing and chemical weapons. In one reprisal, after a Dutch TV crew filmed hundreds of supporters of the resistance movement Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), villages in the highlands suffered an aerial assault that resulted in an estimated 2500 deaths. The USA has supplied Indonesia with helicopters at an estimated cost of $500 million. Under Obama, the US continues to train Kopassus military personnel. New Zealand also has some military ties with Indonesia.

An ASEAN human rights commission has revealed executions, beatings and imprisonments by the military, including that of Rev Kindeman Gire and Yawan Wayeni. Gire’s death in 2010 sparked outrage when cellphone footage, taken by Indonesian soldiers was leaked.  In 2009 Yawan Wayeni (31) was shot in the calf, his arms and legs tied to log and his stomach was sliced open with a bayonet. The Jakarta Post reported that as he died, with his intestines hanging out, soldiers mocked him for supporting West Papuan independence. Robert Yelemaken (16) and Oui Wea (21) were brutally beaten by police last year for pro-independence graffiti. Filip Karma and Yusak Pakage are serving time in prison for ‘conspiracy to rebel with intent to cause disintegration of the Republic of Indonesia and to cause social unrest’ after raising the Morning Star flag. Local journalist Ardiansyah Matra’is, who reported on illegal logging and Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) agribusiness project was also killed. His body was found in a river in the Nerauke Province, with evidence of violence prior to his death.

US company Freeport Mining and Rio Tinto have copper and gold mines in West Papua and are complicit in this violence, as is the World Bank, which up till 1988 provided millions to fund trans-migration programmes to settle Indonesians in West Papua to work in the mines. The working conditions of miners is poor, with many receiving just $1.50 per hour despite the multi-million dollar profits made from their lands. Few Papuans are employed at the mines.

To make way for mining, many West Papuans are forced to move. Freeport began its operations in 1971 and in 1991 was granted 2.6 million hectares of land. It has paid military officials almost $20 million for the security of the mines. In 2010, the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture allocated 1.28 million hectares of land in Merauke, South Papua, for cultivation and processing of timber, palm oil, corn, soya bean and sugar cane to German firm Ferrostaal A.G. to establish MIFEE, a $900 million dollar agribusiness project.

Despite the atrocities, the strength of the West Papuan people lives in grassroots responses that started in opposition to the  ‘Act of No Choice’ referendum of 1969. The first group to organise was the National Liberation Army (Tentara Pembebasan Nasional, TPM), which conducted hit-and-run attacks on army posts. This was followed by Organisasi Papua Merdeka  (OPM), the Free Papua Movement.

Student movements have gained strength and momentum with frequent protests calling for independence. Jacob Rumbiak, an Australia-based leader, who serves as foreign affairs representative for the movement sees inter-tribal unity as crucial. Rumbiak saw a unified cause, the liberation of West Papuans from Indonesia, as the key to over throwing oppression. Various religious and civil groups have also joined in non-violent protests demanding de-militarisation, land rights, the closure of Freeport mines and self-determination for the West Papuan people.

The call for unity of the West Papua movements has been echoed by surrounding Melanesian countries in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. This conglomerate comprises of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Kanaks of New Caledonia. Vanuatu has been the strongest supporter of Free West Papua, however more recently the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neil publicly announced his support for the application of the ULMFWP (United Liberation Movement for West Papua) into the MSG. It appears international political pressure is mounting as the world becomes more aware of the human rights abuses that have occurred in West Papua and as the fight for freedom of the people has grown in collective strength.  With New Zealand’s newly appointed status on the UN Security Council, there is a chance now to raise awareness of this issue here, and to put pressure on the state. We must help to Free West Papua.