West Papua

West Papua: how many of us know where it is and the struggles the people have faced, and continue to face, under military occupation?

A search for West Papua on the BBC News site returned just three articles, the last of which was dated 25th March 2009.  By contrast, a search for Tibet – not given the coverage of, say, Iraq but also under military occupation – returned five results, the latest of which was dated 19th May 2010.

West Papua MapWest Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, borders the independent state of Papua New Guinea and lies 250km north of Australia.  West Papua is swathed in tropical rainforest – second in size only to those of the Amazon – and home to many unique species of wildlife, including tree kangaroos and birds of paradise; it is also one of the world’s most resource rich areas containing huge reserves of oil, gas, copper, gold and timber.

The indigenous population total about 1,000,000 Melanesian Papuans, many of whom still live subsistence or hunter gatherer tribal lifestyles.

West Papua remained under Dutch control when the Republic of Indonesia became an independent nation in 1949.  The Dutch government began preparing West Papua for independence throughout the 1950s and, at the end of 1961, it held a Congress at which its people declared independence.

Within months, however, the dream was dead: the Indonesian military invaded and conflict broke out between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the indigenous population regarding control of West Papua.

The US intervened and engineered an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands which, in 1962, gave control of West Papua to the United Nations and one year later transferred control to Indonesia.  The Papuans were never consulted although the agreement did promise them their right to self determination.

By 1969 there was widespread resistance to Indonesian rule.  The Indonesian military had killed and imprisoned thousands of Papuans during its occupation yet it was under these conditions the people were supposed to exercise their right to self determination.  It was agreed the UN should oversee a referendum of the people of West Papua where they would be given two choices: to remain part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation once again.  The vote was to be called the Act of Free Choice although the Papuans now call this referendum the Act of No Choice.

Unfortunately, the Act was a sham.  Instead of overseeing a free and fair vote, the UN stood by while Indonesia rigged the vote.  The Indonesian military hand-picked 1,026 ‘representative’ Papuans – out of a population of 1,000,000 (about 0.1% of the population) – declaring the Papuans were too ‘primitive’ to cope with democracy.  The Indonesian military threatened to kill the ‘representatives’ and their families if they voted the wrong way then told them to choose.

The result was ‘unanimous’: West Papua would remain part of Indonesia.

Despite protests from the Papuans, a critical report by a UN official and condemnation of the vote in the international media, the UN shamefully sanctioned the result and West Papua has remained under control of the Indonesia.

Benny Wenda

Benny Wenda: a West Papuan independence leader and chairman of the Koteka Tribal Assembly; when he was a child, his village was bombed by Indonesia and many of his family were killed.

Since the first days of Indonesian occupation, the people and land of West Papua have been under relentless attack.  In order to maintain control over the Papuans and to claim the land for resource extraction, the Indonesian army has systematically murdered, raped and tortured people in numbers that could constitute a genocide.

One of the worst examples of this is the displacement and killing of thousands of people to make way for the giant American- and British-owned Freeport mine, the largest gold mine in the world, which has reduced a sacred mountain to a crater and poisoned the local river system.

To the world’s shame, the West Papuan tragedy continues today.  Though the majority of Papuan people are united in calling peacefully for independence, the Indonesian military and authorities continue their reign of terror.  Events have included the burning of highland villages by Indonesian soldiers – resulting in 6,000 internal refugees still living in temporary camps in the forest – the shooting and beating of protesters calling for the Freeport mining company to leave the country and the jailing of two men for ten and fifteen years for the ‘crime’ of raising the West Papuan Morning Star flag in public.

The issue of West Papua is creeping up the agenda as campaign groups such as Free West Papua (the source of this short history), Papuan leaders-in-exile and concerned people all over the world alert their leaders to the injustice that is happening in West Papua.

Things are moving in the right direction but they need to move much faster if more bloodshed is to be avoided and the people of West Papua given independence.

As you might expect, the Green Party has been a strong supporter of West Pupua – in January 2010, for example, Caroline Lucas, the party leader and then MEP for the South East, helped launch International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) in the European parliament.

IPWP EU Parliament Launch

Caroline Lucas at the IPWP EU Parliament Launch

Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert, the Green MEP for London, were signatories to the West Papua declaration when it was launched in 2008.  You can help show your support for West Papua by adding your name to the declaration.

David M. Davison

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