West Papua has been gaining international support recently, especially in its pursuit of inclusion in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), a regional intergovernmental organisation that has supported the independence movements of its members.
Controversially, Indonesia, which has occupied West Papua for decades, has had observer status in MSG since 2011.
The West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) reported meeting with Fiji’s PM Voreqe Bainimarama on March 27 to discuss adding West Papua to the MSG. Bainimarama said “we will ensure that it will go through the proper process and that it is discussed at the next MSG Senior Officials Meeting”.
The meeting is scheduled for June in Noumea, New Caledonia. This was an important step as Bainmarama is current MSG chairperson.
On April 3, Vanuatu’s PM Moana Carcasses pledged his support for approving West Papua’s inclusion in the MSG and removing Indonesia’s observer status, said the Vanuatu Daily Post. Carcasses was recently installed as PM after the former PM Sato Kilman resigned just ahead of a no confidence motion.
One factor behind Kilman’s unpopularity was his lack of enthusiasm for West Papuan independence, which previous Vanuatu governments had been outspoken about.
WPNCL also reported meeting with Victor Tutugoro, head of New Caledonia’s Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) on April 11, who also pledged his support for West Papua, saying: “MSG is only for Melanesia and Liberation Movements within it, the FLNKs leadership would therefore be very happy to welcome the WPNCL as a new member in our Melanesian family. We open our heart and extend our hands to receive you the lost Melanesian son to come back into rightful Melanesian family.”
Promising signs have also been come from the usually wary Papua New Guinea. Solomon Star also reported PNG health minister Michael Malabag posted on social media that “sooner or later PNG has to ... bring it before the United Nations Assembly ... The West Papua issue bugs me all the time.”
On March 6, governor of PNG’s National Capital District Powes Parkop said in front of a crowd of 3000 people that “there is no historical, legal, religious, or moral justification for Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua”.
Conditions within West Papua show why international support for Papuan freedom is needed. On April 16, six West Papuan independence activists were sentenced to one year in prison for carrying dangerous weapons and treason. Their defence lawyers plan to appeal the sentence.
The “Timika Six” — Romario Yatipai, Steven Itlay, Yakonias Womsiwor, Paulus Marsyom, Alfred Marsyom and Yanto Awerkion — are members of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), an organisation that led large non-violent demonstrations for West Papuan independence in recent years.
They were arrested in October last year by the Australian-funded Detachment 88. In June 2011, Detachment 88 troops shot dead Mako Tabuni, then-leader of KNPB.
The unit has been accused of human rights abuses in West Papua. West Papua Media said that “then-incoming Papua Police Chief, former Detachment 88 chief Tito Karnavian, exploited the brutal arrests to increase justification for use of Detachment 88 against political activists”.
The trial was deemed “opaque and farcical by observers”. A big part of the police’s case was that the accused were carrying explosives. But no such forensic evidence was given at the trials, despite the Australian Federal Police providing Detachment 88 with explosives and ballistic forensic testing capabilities.
Yatipai appealed for help, telling WPM: “We hope [the] International community ... support us and pressure Indonesia government, Indonesia Police in Papua and Timika”.
Tensions have risen since the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (TPN-OPM) killed eight Indonesian soldiers in February. The government has tried to claim that it is pursuing a humanitarian, developmental approach, rather than militaristic, to solve the West Papua problem. This is despite reports of mass displacement and military occupation in the areas around the February shootings.
As if to demonstrate the government's double-speak, the Jakarta Post reported it announced the army will build 1520km of new roads in West Papua. This would mean an additional 1,000 military personnel in West Papua for the next two years.
The West Papua Advocacy Team said: “It appears likely that the military will develop roads to serve its interests, especially to enhance its tactical mobility and to facilitate its business interests, notably both legal and illegal timber operations. The expansion of the already bloated TNI presence in West Papua by 1,000 personnel will only exacerbate the burdens of that presence now born by the Papuan people.”
Survival International reported Papuan leader, Rev Socratez Yoman saying “The West Papuans do not need big roads, but a better life on their own land, without intimidation, terror, abuses and killings”.
Meanwhile, the Jakarta Globe reported a revival of a rights campaign to change the 1997 Law on Military Tribunals, which prevents military personnel from facing justice in a criminal court, an anti-corruption court or a human rights tribunal. These recent calls for amendment were sparked by an incident in Yogyakarta in March, where Kopassus (Army special forces) soldiers shot and killed four detainees accused of killing a fellow soldier during a brawl at a cafe.
Kopassus are another notorious unit that has been accused of human rights violations in West papua. Hendardi, the head of the Setara Institute, a democracy watchdog, said the law in its current form “makes the military untouchable by criminal law statutes”.