Deafening silence as West Papua crisis deepens

November 22, 2019
Weat Papua solidarty rally in Melbourne on September 14. Photo: Brendan Bonsack.

West Papuans and their supporters around the world traditionally raise the Morning Star flag — the symbol of an independent Papua — on December 1. This is an act of defiance, as flying the flag is outlawed by the occupying Indonesian government.

New Zealand-based West Papua solidarity activist and author Maire Leadbeater looks the new uprising in West Papua and the repression being carried out by Indonesian security forces while governments, including NZ’s, remain silent.


Since August 17, Indonesia's national day, West Papua has been in the grip of an unparalleled uprising.

Conflict has been relentless since 1963, when Indonesia took control of the territory, but this time Indonesia's repressive response is backed by a renewed determination to exclude the rest of the world.

New Zealand's political leaders refuse to raise their voices, and a mild statement of concern from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a pathetic token gesture.

Events were set in motion by attacks on Papuan students in East Java's Surabaya following unsubstantiated accusations that the young people had disrespected the Indonesian flag. Security forces and vigilante-type nationalists besieged the students as they hunkered down in their dormitory. The students were tear-gassed and 42 were taken into detention, but it was the racist taunts used by the attackers — "pigs", "dogs" and "monkeys" — that triggered the wave of outrage and solidarity demonstrations across West Papua and in many Indonesian cities.

Within days, Indonesia announced new troop deployments and imposed an internet ban, but the news of demonstrating students killed by gunshots leaked out. Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, currently living in Australia, used her social media accounts to disseminate videos. In September, the Indonesian authorities threatened her with an Interpol "red" notice if she did not turn herself in to the Indonesian Embassy. However, in October, Veronica received a prestigious Australian human rights accolade: the Sir Ronald Wilson award. Australian authorities are urged to provide this brave young human rights defender with protection.

Wamena, in the West Papuan Highlands, saw the worst violence on September 23, when 43 people were killed as buildings and vehicles were torched. More than half of the victims were non-Papuan migrants and many residents, both Papuan and non-Papuan, fled the area. Jakarta capitalised on the suffering of the migrants, offering them trauma counselling and flights home. Journalists were banned and the internet closed off, but some recent witness accounts suggest provocateurs may have been involved.

I was alarmed to note Jakarta's decision to exclude western diplomats from visiting West Papua, even though diplomats such as ours are well versed in playing by the rules. The newly inaugurated defence minister is retired General Prabowo Subianto. He was banned from entering the United States in 2000 because of his complicity in the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the dying days of the Suharto regime. President Joko Widodo seems to have given Subianto a blank cheque, saying he would not give him instructions because "he knows more than I do".

Indonesia's draconian treason law, a relic of Dutch colonial times, gives the state power to impose penalties up to life imprisonment. In a new surge, some 22 people (by Amnesty International estimates) have been arrested under these laws for exercising the right to free expression and dissent.

High-profile cases include the "Jakarta Six", who were hunted down after they participated in a peaceful demonstration in front of the State Palace. The group includes non-Papuan Surya Anta Ginting, a leader in the Indonesian People's Front for West Papua (FRI-WP). The lawyers for the Six say they have only limited access to their clients and are very worried about detention conditions, especially isolation, which has caused physical and mental health issues for the detainees.

Another group of seven people were arrested in West Papua and include leaders of the pro-independence National Committee for West Papua (KNPB). KNPB's modus operandi is "parliament of the street", so its activists are used to constant surveillance and harassment, but the charges against these leaders represent a grave escalation. The seven have been transferred away from family and lawyers to a prison in Kalimantan.

Beyond an ever-tighter security crackdown, and showcase visits to the territory, Widodo has no realistic solution to the crisis. Talk of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, is no salve. Papuans know from experience that means more resource exploitation, more deforestation and more palm oil plantations.

After nearly 20 years of campaigning for West Papuan human rights, I should be used to meeting a brick wall from the New Zealand government. We are put to shame by the dedication of Vanuatu, which champions West Papuan rights at every international opportunity. And by the courage of West Papuan activists and their Indonesian supporters who risk all for the sake of freedom.

[Maire Leadbeater is an organiser with West Papua Action Auckland. This article first appeared in the NZ Herald.]

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