Greens Senator Kerry Nettle received a warm welcome when she finally managed to get to Christmas Island on January 28-30 to visit the 43 West Papuan asylum seekers and a family of West Timorese being held there. NSW Greens immigration spokesperson Max Phillips, who accompanied Nettle, told Green Left Weekly that it seemed like half the town had turned out to greet them.
"When we arrived at the community housing, there were a couple of West Papuans on the verandah of the house occupied by the West Timorese family, but no sign of Global Solutions Ltd (GSL) guards." Phillips wondered whether this hands-off approach was because politicians from the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories were also visiting the island.
Nettle and Phillips were taken to meet Herman Wainggai, the main spokesperson for the group, and the other West Papuans living in community detention. (The single men are being held in detention, while family groups are allowed to live more freely in community detention.)
Phillips said the West Papuans were "very excited" to see photos of solidarity rallies in Sydney and Melbourne calling for the government to grant them asylum in the days following their boat's arrival. "Before that, they had no idea that Australians knew about them and supported their struggle", Phillips said. They were "ecstatic", Phillips said, to see a photo of their boat with its banner from one of the newspapers. The banner had been strung from the boat in the hope that their asylum message would reach the Australian people.
Nettle and Phillips discovered that the West Papuans had been travelling for six weeks, not five days as initially reported. They began their voyage on the mid-north coast of West Papua, where Herman Wainggai's father had helped make the dugout canoe. They navigated the coastline of West Papua, stopping along the way for food and fuel. At one point, they drifted off course towards Ambon, which they were fearful of reaching because of the numbers of Indonesian troops stationed there. They also had to contend with big seas and high winds.
One of the young men told Phillips of their fear when they were hauled into a Hercules plane after reaching Australia. They thought they were being returned to Indonesia, but they were taken to Christmas Island. "They thought it must be just off the coast of Australia. We showed them a map, and they were horrified it was so close to Java", Phillips said.
According to Nettle, "The West Papuans hope that Australia will help their country as we helped East Timor. I hope that Australia gives them protection and speaks out against the gradual genocide of the West Papuan people at the hands of the Indonesian military."
Video footage of Wainggai arguing the case for protection was shown at a 120-strong public meeting in Fremantle on January 31 where Nettle spoke along with Ned Byrne from the Australia West Papua Association, refugee campaigner Kaye Bernard and Project SafeCom's Jack Smit. Videotaped messages from that meeting will be sent to Wainggai and the asylum seekers on Christmas Island.
On February 2, Byrne visited Yunus and Anika Wainggai, the father and daughter being held in Fremantle hospital. Both have been declared free of active tuberculosis, though Yunus has a non-contagious form of the disease.
Byrne told Green Left Weekly that Yunus, who was responsible for keeping the dugout's motor going, told him it lasted until their final leg from Merauke to the Torres Strait. They then drifted around for five days, collecting fresh water and dribbling it into the children's mouths. They also ran out of food, having expected the journey to take just 15 hours.
Byrne has been active in promoting the independence cause of West Papua since 1999. His brother-in-law, Jacob Rumbiak, now based in Melbourne, is one of the leaders of the West Papuan independence movement and a co-founder, along with Dr Thomas Wainggai, of the non-violent resistance in 1987.
Byrne is concerned that despite the Indonesian military repression in West Papua, the Australian government wants to sign a new security treaty with Jakarta. In 1995, then Labor prime minister Paul Keating negotiated a secret security pact with the dictator General Suharto. It was junked when the Howard government was forced to intervene to stop the carnage in East Timor in 1999.
From all reports, the new treaty is far more wide-ranging and is more explicit about the importance of non-interference in the internal affairs of Indonesia compared to the last one.
"They made the journey right on time", Byrne said, referring to the heightened public interest in and awareness about the struggle of the West Papuan people for their independence. Byrne is optimistic that this may force Howard to postpone signing the treaty with Jakarta.
Project SafeCom's Jack Smit is less optimistic. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono phoned Howard on January 27 asking for the return of the asylum seekers, and guaranteeing they would not be harmed. "It remains to be seen whether Howard will, behind the scenes, manipulate the outcomes of the visa processing under pressure from Yudhoyono", Smit told GLW.
Australian businesses have an interest in West Papua remaining open for exploitation. Soon after the asylum seekers' arrival, the Cairns Chamber of Commerce demanded the government adopt a "hardline approach". This is hardly surprising, as Cairns businesses are some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Freeport mine at Grasberg in West Papua — the largest gold and third-largest copper mine in the world. Cairns operates as Freeport's supply base, with direct flights to Timika. Cairns is also where many miners take their rest and recreation. West Papuan independence would mean the loss of $50-70 million a year for local Cairns companies. For Indonesia, it means a whole lot more: the Freeport mine is Jakarta's biggest corporate taxpayer, contributing an annual $192 million in taxes.
From Green Left Weekly, February 8, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.