West Papuan refugees in Papua New Guinea have been terrorised and arrested by police, West Papua Media Alerts said on January 28. They were allegedly arrested on behalf of the Indonesian military and local logging interests.
Police and soldiers rounded up 79 refugees living in camps around Vanimo, on PNG’s north coast near the border with West Papua, in the early hours of January 23.
The soldiers burned down at least 30 refugee houses, destroyed crops and food, and assaulted people, WPMA said. Other refugees have reportedly fled to the jungle.
Acting deputy police commissioner Fred Yakasa said anyone found not to be a PNG citizen would be considered an activist with the Free Papua Movement (OPM) and sent to the refugee camp at East Awin, Radio New Zealand International said on January 26.
About 12,000 West Papuan refugees live in PNG, WPMA said. They escaped from Indonesia’s repressive rule.
The OPM has struggled against Indonesian occupation for decades. Its armed wing, the National Liberation Army (TPN), has engaged in a low-level guerrilla war.
However, WPMA said the vast majority of those arrested are not believed to be OPM members.
The mass arrest of refugees is unprecedented, given PNG’s history of relatively tolerant behaviour towards West Papuans.
Refugees in PNG are usually allowed to work, but denied other rights as citizens, such as education and permanent housing. Many others cross the border regularly as it divides their traditional tribal lands, RNZI said on January 27.
The crackdown comes after the OPM signed an agreement with the PNG government in December to allow training in non-violent civil resistance techniques in the area, WPMA said.
However, the PNG government has used alleged activity by the TPN as an excuse for the arrests.
Spokesperson for the Blakwara refugee community Yalli Jikwa told WPMA: “The accusation that these villages were National Liberation Army training bases is completely false. These villages attacked have no connection at all to the TPN, and [PNG prime minister Sir Michael] Somare knows it.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it received official assurance that the refugees will not be forced to return to West Papua, RNZI said.
However, UNHCR’s Walpurga Englebrecht said it is not possible to be classed as both an OPM activist and a refugee, leaving their status in limbo.
The action by PNG authorities was part of “Operation Sunset Merona”, allegedly to protect local businesses by stopping the illegal shipment of goods into PNG by the Indonesian military.
It was also said to be aimed at stopping illegal workers employed by foreign logging companies operating at the border.
In January, a number of logging workers and Indonesian military personnel were arrested in raids on remote border camps and villages by PNG forces, WPMA said.
However, the switch to targeting refugees has led many to believe the operation is motivated by logging interests run by PNG elites and the Indonesian military.
It also follows the general pattern of harassment and intimidation of West Papuans carried out by Indonesia.
Most of the targeted refugee camps are in areas valuable for logging. The PNG government and business community also have a history of working closely with Indonesian interests to the detriment of ordinary people and the environment.
Secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have implicated the Indonesian military in illegal logging operations on both sides of the border. SMH.com.au said on December 23: “The Indonesian Military (TNI) has far more troops in Papua than it is willing to admit to, chiefly to protect and facilitate TNI’s interests in illegal logging operations.”
The action has angered many locals, who sympathise with fellow Papuans forced to live under brutal Indonesian rule.
Vanimo-based police units and army battalions refused to take part in the operation, which was run by forces from Port Moresby. WPMA said they cited resentment at working for Indonesian interests.
Governor of Port Moresby and long-time human rights activist Powes Parkop condemned the border operation in an open letter to Somare.
He called for the end of the operations, “as it is becoming obvious that our government and therefore police are being used by the Indonesian government to harass and suppress suspected West Papua activist campaigning for Independence of West Papua”.
“This is morally and legally wrong.”