It is somewhat of an irony that West Papua’s recent uprising coincided with the twentieth anniversary of East Timor’s vote on independence.
In mid August Papuan students studying in Central Java were subjected to a combined attack from militia gangs and Indonesian security forces. Their attackers screamed insults calling them ‘pigs’ and ‘monkeys’ before tear- gassing and arresting a large number on a unsubstantiated charge of damaging an Indonesian flag. This was the spark that lit the flame and angry demonstrations followed all over West Papua and in many Indonesian cities as well. Foreign journalists were banned from West Papua and Jakarta imposed an internet blackout – in some places the internet remains partially blocked making it difficult to share photos or videos. So it is extremely difficult to confirm the resulting arrests and deaths and destruction. Human Rights Watch say that there have been at least 10 deaths and are calling for investigations and for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to be given access immediately.
For the West Papuans the demand to be treated with dignity quickly extended into a renewed call for an internationally fair referendum on self-determination. Jakarta’s response has been to intensify the repression of all dissent. As many as 60 students have been detained for alleged damage to property while seven activists are being held in Jakarta for their role in a solidarity demonstration. The Jakarta activists and at least two youth leaders in West Papua are facing charges of ‘makar’ or treason which potentially carries a sentence of up to twenty years. Thousands of additional troops have been sent to West Papua.
Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer with exceptional courage. She has long been subject to threats on account of her work defending West Papuan clients and for her advocacy for West Papuan rights. During this current crisis she shared videos on her Twitter account documenting the unrest. For this she now faces charges of ‘incitement’ and ‘spreading fake news’. She is currently in Australia and Jakarta has asked her to turn herself in. If she does not an Interpol ‘red’ notice will be issued. Australia is refusing to say how it will respond, but won’t rule out acting on such a notice.
Since West Papua was handed over to Indonesian control in 1963 under a US brokered agreement, Indonesia has worked hard to keep West Papua and its independence struggle hidden from the world. But we cannot use the excuse of ignorance now.
For me it is hard not to be reminded of the situation in East Timor back in 1999 when the Indonesian military tried their hardest to sabotage the independence vote. When the Timorese voted for freedom despite the prevailing violence and intimidation, the Generals unleashed a scorched earth programme and additional troops were poured into the territory. Telecommunications were cut and journalists were forced to leave. General Wiranto was Commander in Chief at the time of the 1999 violence. He was never held accountable and now he is Chief Security Minister in charge of this latest repression in West Papua.
It is particularly alarming that pro-Jakarta militia have been working alongside the security forces in West Papua just as they once did in East Timor. Reports and video evidence indicate that nationalist militia were involved in the violent response to demonstrations in the capital Jayapura and in other centres.
Another parallel is the silence of New Zealand and its western allies in the face of mounting crisis. I visited East Timor in April 1999 and while I was there 57 people were killed as they sheltered in a Liquica church. On my return I took advantage of an opportunity to waylay Foreign Minister Don McKinnon to show him some photos of injured victims and plead with him to try to persuade the UN to send a peacekeeping force to stem the mounting violence. He declined. A couple of months later the UN did become involved, but with small numbers and a limited mandate based on the fiction that Indonesia’s security forces were cooperative. New Zealand sent ten unarmed policemen who did a great job against impossible odds, but our leaders still declined to criticise Indonesia or even cut off defence ties.
United States researchers have just released formerly declassified 1999 documents that show that the State Department was in no doubt that the Indonesian military was actively fomenting the militia violence with the aim of derailing the referendum process. In June a US Embassy official reported that it was ‘taken as given by local observers’ that the pro-Jakarta militias and local military were working ‘hand in hand’. He said the local people were terrified to speak to outsiders.
The East Timorese paid an unimaginably heavy price for their freedom- the 1999 violence was just the cataclysmic finale to a brutal 23 year long occupation. Throughout New Zealand pursued ‘quiet diplomacy’. We abstained on the UN vote to condemn the 1975 invasion and subsequently followed a line that the occupation was ‘irreversible’. However, in September 1999 things got so bad that the United States finally called out Indonesia and suspended its defence ties. Only then did New Zealand follow suit.
Will our government sit on its hands until a second 1999? I am waiting for Prime Minister Ardern to speak out about the ongoing racist attacks and insist that Indonesia respect the voice of the Pacific Island Forum leaders and make urgent arrangements for a visit to West Papua from the UN Human Rights Commissioner.
And of course to take a stand on behalf of Veronica Koman and all of those in jail for taking part in demonstrations, raising the banned Morning Star flag and daring to express their hopes for freedom. The perfect opportunity comes up when Ms Ardern attends the UN General Assembly next week.
For its part West Papua Action Auckland and Oceania Interrupted, supported by First Union and Waiata Artists Trust host a fundraiser on Tuesday 24 September 6 pm at the Capitol Cinema: a showing of the great movie: Herbs Songs of Freedom: Tickets available from Eventbrite for $17 or $25.
Maire Leadbeater is a human rights advocate and expert on West Papua.