West Papua's long struggle for justice


West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto — Independence, Autonomy or Chaos?
By Professor Peter King
University of NSW Press, 2004
240 pages, $40 (pb)


The island of New Guinea, our northern neighbour, is a tremendously rich and largely unspoilt island. One half of the island, Papua New Guinea, is often in our news — not always for good reasons. But what about the other half of the island, commonly known as West Papua?

Australia — and the world for that matter — rarely hears anything from this mysterious area that currently forms a part of Indonesia. That's why Peter King's new book, West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto, is a must-read for those interested in finding out more about this little known part of the world.

West Papua was occupied by Indonesia from the 1960s. King portrays a David and Goliath independence struggle between Indonesia and multinational mining companies on the one side, and the West Papuan people denied their independence and human rights on the other. The West Papuans are clearly racially and culturally distinct from the rest of Indonesia and have fought a four-decade-long desperate battle to maintain their identity in the face of worldwide indifference.

As King makes clear, Indonesia's army is central to keeping West Papua as an unwilling province of Indonesia that is open for business to huge multinational mining companies. No picture of Indonesia is complete without a close examination of its military and widely corrupt society, which is provided for the reader as background to the situation in West Papua. The Indonesian army, notorious for its human rights abuses in Aceh and East Timor, is ruthless in its treatment of any West Papuans who dare to speak up for their rights.

King's book is valuable for anyone wishing to understand the wider picture in Indonesia. At the same time, it enlightens readers to the largely ignored struggle of the West Papuans for their independence. Despite many hardships, their hopes that a world that has ignored them for 40 years will come at last to their aid persist to this day. Detailed in the book are the various factions of the West Papuan independence movement, and the background to the recent assassination of widely known independence leader Theys Eluay.

While the poorly armed OPM (Free Papua Movement) has been operating sporadically against the odds for over 40 years, King makes a convincing argument that nonviolent and peaceful methods of struggle have a real chance of winning autonomy or even independence for West Papua.

King details the granting of special autonomy to the province by Indonesia in recent years, only for it to be rolled back by elements in Indonesia's power structure that are only interested in the exploitation of the province and in maintaining it as part of the Indonesian federation.

The book presents various alternatives for a brighter future for West Papua, ranging from staying within Indonesia as a self-governing province to outright independence. King takes the reader back to the Cold War period, when the United Nations and the international community originally promised the people of West Papua that they would be allowed to vote on their future.

West Papua was a Dutch colony between 1828 and 1961. The UN had decided when the Dutch left in 1961 that the West Papuan people would be allowed to decide their future in an "act of free choice". Indonesia was mandated to hold the territory until that vote took place. Sadly, when the vote happened in 1969 it was nothing more than an orchestrated sham. One-thousand Papuan tribal leaders were coerced or outright forced by the Indonesian army to vote to become part of Indonesia. The UN noted some of the problems with the so-called "act of free choice", but rubber-stamped the vote and allowed Indonesia full sovereignty over the province.

The reader is introduced to the sad reality of West Papua in the 1960s and how it came to be part of Indonesia today. The book shows how it was used as a bargaining chip by Australia and the United States to keep the wavering Indonesia in the Western camp. Also highlighted is how the US, the Netherlands and Australia were originally in favour of West Papua being independent, but Cold War politics and realpolitik intervened.

As King makes clear, West Papua's loss of its chance at independence was a Cold War act of convenience that the people of West Papua have paid for, for over 40 years. They continue to pay as huge companies mine their mineral resources, nearly every cent leaving the province bound for Jakarta and the developed world.

The destruction of the environment goes on unabated and any attempts by the local people to put a stop to this pillage is brutally repressed by the Indonesian authorities. However, as King points out, the example of East Timor and its long — but ultimately successful — battle for independence does give West Papua and its supporters hope for a more independent future.

In describing the events of East Timor, King makes clear the role of Australia's foreign policy elite from 1975, which has sought to appease Indonesia at any cost, regardless of its internal policies. Further, he illustrates the positive role for change that the Australian public can play, as shown by its active role in the East Timorese struggle, which forced a reluctant Australian government and foreign policy elite into action. The end result was the independence of the East Timorese, after many years in which their struggle had seemed hopeless and their plight ignored by foreign governments, especially Australia's.

The active role of an Australian public interested in the human rights of our regional neighbours can play a positive role in West Papua. King draws on his experience to show that the Australian people playing an active part in our regional affairs is feared by the Australian foreign policy elite. King argues that it underestimates Australia's strength and overestimates Indonesia's.

Complicating West Papua's future is the West's interest in Indonesia's assistance to its anti-terrorist crusade. But even with this factor, King offers convincing arguments that it is not in Australia's nor Indonesia's interest for Indonesia to continue to occupy a province that is not racially, historically, geographically or politically part of its federation. He documents the awakening of a global movement determined to see West Papua's rights finally respected.

King's book is a subtle but compelling call to action that gives the reader a view into the history and future of this little-known land fighting for the independence it was promised long ago. It is well worth reading for those interested in learning more about West Papua and how justice can be won for its long suffering and forgotten people.

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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