Movement Against Genocide And Oppression In West Papua

A petition, crying out against the genocide and suppression of the Indigenous people of West Papua was submitted to the UN in Geneva last week, particularly as the slow and brutal genocide of Indigenous West Papuans has killed over 500,000 civilians. The petition, which now has nearly 130,000 signatures, demands an internationally supervised and legally recognized vote that will decide the fate of West Papuan governance. Throughout West Papua, the petition was supported and promoted in secret in order to avoid the harsh penalties the Indonesian regime threatened signers with. Being uncensored and widely supported, the petition, and the grassroots Free West Papua movement behind it, give a clear representation of the desire for self-determination and freedom. 

Moreover, West Papua was freed from Dutch colonial rule after the Indonesian National Revolution in 1962, with Indonesia stepping in the following year and taking full official control of the nation in 1969. During the 50’s the global community, especially the Netherlands, maintained that West Papuans were not Indonesian and that they ought to be granted independence. However, the American government, eager to keep Indonesia as an ally, used its considerable power to influence the international community, and in the end, an agreement was signed. The New York Agreement, as it was called, mandated a vote, determining the governance of West Papua. Nevertheless, it also made it impossible for the UN to oversee this vote, which was implemented by Indonesia seven years later. Indonesia won the vote, putting in place the governance system which remains today. Yet, according to Carmel Budiardjo, founder of the human rights organization Tapol, the vote “consisted only of just over 1000 so-called tribal chieftains who were selected by the Indonesians, with guns held to their heads, and forced to state their unanimous agreement that West Papua should become part of Indonesia. The UN scandalously accepted the result, and from then on West Papua was swept under the carpet.” As such, independence activists like Budiardjo have disputed the legitimacy of this vote since its implementation.

Furthermore, the Free Papua Movement, a social movement backed by a small pro-Papuan-independence militant group, also refuses to accept the outcome of the vote and has struggled vehemently against the Indonesian military and police since, instigating many small scale skirmishes, kidnappings and protests. This conflict occasionally spills over into Papua New Guinea, resulting in patrols along West Papua’s eastern border. While searching for these rebels, the Indonesian authorities routinely scour rural areas and have been known to arbitrarily murder civilians, destroy crops, release livestock and even burn entire villages to the ground, forcing villages to hide in forests where they are vulnerable to disease, starvation, and animal attacks.

With that said, many West Papuans have called the invasion a ‘slow-moving genocide,’ with hundreds of thousands of West Papuans being killed. In 1999, Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, said in a public report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, that the Indonesian authorities used rape “as an instrument of torture and intimidation,” and that the “torture of women detained by the Indonesian security forces was widespread,” in West Papua. However, most are afraid to openly criticize or speak out against the regime, with the Indonesian government quick to persecute and punish those who do. Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Filep Karma is currently serving his 15-year prison sentence for waving a West Papuan national flag. Karma is one of the hundreds of political prisoners, many of whom are imprisoned merely for peaceful protest. Prison conditions are very poor, and mistreatment, denial of medical treatment, abuse and torture of prisoners is not uncommon. According to Amnesty International: “Impunity for human rights violations is commonplace. Accountability mechanisms to deal with police abuse remain weak, and reports of torture by members of the security forces often go unchecked and unpunished. Many victims of past human rights violations in Papua are still awaiting justice.”

Despite the genocide of the West Papuan people, Australia supports the Indonesian rule, training Indonesian military units and supplying Indonesia with weapons. Australia has been accused of supplying 2 helicopters that were used in operations that killed over 4,000 West Papuans, in 1977-78. Prime Minister Abbott also stated in 2013 that Australia would not tolerate any anti-Indonesian protest or demonstration by West Papuan activists in Australia. This is a result of the diplomatic relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and the level of power Indonesia holds in the Pacific. The conflict has also been covered very little by international media over its 50 year period, partially due to the Indonesian ban on international journalists entering West Papua (with threat of deportation if found), though there are also reports of journalists being imprisoned or attacked. Two French journalists who managed gain entry without repercussion say that “By maintaining this restriction, the government is operating like a paranoid regime, afraid the outside world may find the skeletons it hides in its closet. If the government has done much to improve the lives of Papuans, why not show it to the world?” NGOs have also found it increasingly difficult to work in West Papua, with the International Red Cross evicted in 2010, and the Peace Brigades International in 2012.  

With that said, the invasion of West Papua has been tirelessly worked against by many small groups, but little ground has ever been made. The freedom and independence of West Papua is crucial to the lives of its people, but until the international community acknowledges the injustice and atrocities, and works to dismantle Indonesian control of the nation, it will remain in a state of violence and oppression. Change must occur in several areas, with global powers needing to support and empower local West Papuans. This means that governments, especially Australia, a very powerful neighbour who has at best turned a blind eye to the situation and at worst aided Indonesia in its suppressive tactics, must hold the Indonesian government accountable, and apply political pressure. As well, the UN must both mediate and monitor the situation, but also help to enforce international law in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the petition, as a grassroots undertaking appealing directly to the UN, is a strong step in the direction of West Papuan liberation, but for it to be successful it must put in motion a far larger movement. The UN will need to organize and oversee a referendum vote and once more decide the fate of West Papuan governance and must ensure that this vote is not corrupted by Indonesian oppression, but free and democratic. In the meantime, it must also employ forces to ensure the safety and justice of West Papuan people against the inevitable backlash from Indonesian forces. This includes the release of innocent political prisoners and monitoring of prisons, ensuring the accountability of the Indonesian military and police force and helping to give Indigenous West Papuans an uncensored political voice.

As a nation violently oppressed for decades, the petition took great courage to initiate, and this courage must be rewarded by the recognition and support of the global political community in overturning a brutal regime.

Eleanor Goodbourn