More West Papua Updates

Some more reports from Christmas Island and West Papua that I’ve received through emails. The accuracy cannot be independently verified.

From Christmas Island:

As of Monday morning – DIMIA have moved the 3 West Timorese men out of the Christmas Island Detention Centre and in with the family (mum and 2 young children) in community accommodation. This means that the family are now under guard and unable to move about in the community or receive visitors at the house. So the 2 little kids who were going to playgroup on Christmas Island are now back under guard and isolated during this current flurry of activity on Christmas Island.

Locals have been told to ‘come back tommorrow’ by GSL guards when they tried to visit the West Timorese (and West Papuan families).

In West Papua:

There are reports today of large demonstrations in Nabire, the administrative capital of Paniai. The Papuan demonstrators were highly emotional and marched on the Military base in Nabire. This base is understood to be the headquarters for the Battalion believed to responsible for the shooting on Friday. A demonstration also occurred outside the DPRD Provisional Assembly building demanding that those responsible for the shooting be bought to justice.

Reports say there was a protest outside the Police Station on the Friday morning of the shooting. There had been a dispute between local people and a road construction contractor about adequate payment. The local people had built the road but felt that the payment they were to receive was inadequate. It is reported that after a Policeman fired a warning shot into the air outside the Police station and the soldiers then opened fire indiscriminately on the people in the market. This protest group at the Police Station was 100 meters from the market.

Other reports say local people have now cut the 5 – 7 bridges around Waghete on the Highlands Highway from Nabire to Enarotali in the Paniai region. Local people are standing in groups along the road. Local sources report that there is an atmosphere where violence may occur between local people and the Indonesians. These sources report that all ethnic Indonesian civilians have left Waghete and moved to the administrative centre of Enarotali. Only Indonesian Police and TNI soldiers remain in Waghete. Human rights workers are extremely concerned that further shooting and violence may occur.

Other pieces of information:

This piece in the Jakarta Post reports on moves by the Papua People’s Council (MRP) to form four teams “to gauge public opinion in West Irian Jaya about the controversial proposal to form the area into a separate province.” Proposals for some form of autonomy in West Paua have been quite fraught, with a lot of scepticism about how meaningful this will be. Still, the recent agreement reached for a special autonomy for Aceh does provide some positive indication of what can be achieved.

Also, here is some comment in the Green Left Weekly

Some other comments from me:

Given the long-held concerns about human rights abuses in West Papua, it is good that the issue is likely to get some public focus for a change. However, as this comment in my previous West Papua post indicates, there is reason to be cautious as well. While I don’t agree with this comment that we need to consider whether we are “willing to start a war”, I do agree that it is an issue where we need to try to tread sensitively where possible.

There is certainly a real risk of reprisals occurring against family or associates of those asylum seekers who have fled to Australia. This was shown with the assumption that the recent shooting in West Papua was directed at a relative, although it seems to me that any connection was coincidental. This story certainly suggests that is the case, with a human rights activist in the Indonesian province of Papua quoted saying “he believes there is no connection between a fatal shooting there and the arrival of Papuan asylum seekers in Australia.” However, it is not unreasonable to speculate that news of the arrival of the asylum seekers here would have increased tension in the area.

As with many issues, those who have supported human rights in West Papua have had different strategies. Some have promoted independence, some self-determination, others some degree of autonomy and others simply focus on the need to stop human rights abuses and letting things work out from there. It is not unusual for there be to be some tensions between people who have different views about what strategy should be followed, despite the large area of common ground.

It is common and understandable for people to hold a diversity of views, especially on such a distressing issue. However, I am a bit concerned, given the way a burst of media attention can play out, that an appearance might develop of people in Australia competing to be the ‘real spokesperson’, and the media will gravitate to whoever ends up reporting the most sensationalist accounts, which are usually the ones most likely to have errors. If the main message of the issue in Australia becomes Indonesia bashing and exaggerated claims that can then be debunked by the government, it runs the risk of undermining the chances for progress on a very important issue.

There is much to criticise Indonesian authorities about, particularly with their record in West Papua, but we should also acknowledge the enormous difficulties that the country has faced, and the very significant progress that has been made in moving to a fully functioning democracy and tackling corruption and human rights abuses.

One extra problem with West Papua is that Indonesian sovereignty over it is recognised by the UN and throughout the world. The fact that the “Act of Free Choice” process through which this occurred was a sham, a farce and a disgrace doesn’t change this. This is different to East Timor, where the Indonesian invasion was not recognised by anybody (except Australia, sadly.) It is not surprising that Indonesia is sensitive about its ‘territorial integrity’ and it would be counter-productive to just ignore the deep seated reasons for this, whatever disagreements we may have about past actions. Even strong government critics in Indonesia (outside of West Papua) tend to talk about resolving issues ‘within the framework of the unitary state of Indonesia’.

I was lucky enough last June to be part of a meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda in Jakarta. Without pretending to be an instant expert on the basis of two day’s worth of meetings, there are clearly still a lot of competing forces and agendas within Indonesia, not least the competing power of some within the military. This is bound to take some time to resolve, but there have been some positive signs and I certain there is a strong desire to make prompt and significant progress on improving human rights (in the region as well as within the country) and tackling corruption.

The balancing act of drawing attention to human rights problems in a neighbouring country while not appearing to be an interfering or antagonistic neighbour is a difficult one, but it is one we should try to achieve. This recent article in The Age by Scott Burchill is mainly on East Timor but it draws a direct parallel with West Papua and reminds us that:

“turning a blind eye to repression in the name of stability is not only a dereliction of our ethical duty, it is politically shortsighted and usually results in blowback. Unfortunately for these latest arrivals, the Government that will decide if they qualify as refugees could not be less sympathetic to their claim for independence.”

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks Andrew for your reasoned comments on this crucial issue.

    Can you please clarify the Dems position though.

    Does the party support
    A) Independence
    B) Self determination
    C) Neither of the above but a strong push for an end to brutal human rights abuses.
    D)Local autonomy of some kind for indigenous Papuans

    While I understand the difference you cite re UN recognition, it is very clear that the 1969 vote has no genuine moral status. West Papua is occupied, even if the UN and others like to pretend otherwise.

  2. Mark

    I should emphasise that I am not the official party spokesperson on the issue. However, our formal position has been for self-determination (which can lead to independence of course, or for that matter to special local autonomy while remaining within Indonesia – such as has occurred in Aceh).

    The 1969 vote – the Act of ‘Free’ Choice may have no moral status but unfortunately it has had legal status for some decades. The large levels of transmigration since then adds another complication – I believe indigenous West Pauans are now close to being a minority in West Papua, which makes the self-determination process messier too.

    This wasn’t a major complicating factor in East Timor either.

    An end to human rights abuses should be a given, regardless of what else happens.

  3. West Papua is utterly different from most of Indonesia – in its culture, languages, religions, history and flora and fauna. It has a great deal in common with Papua New Guinea, New Britain and the Torres Strait Islands.

    What is happenning there is a result of the US Freeport Mine, by far the richest gold mine in the world, and its other gold interests. It was the discovery of that mine that led the US to lean on the UN and oust the Dutch. The Australian Gov, in its rather vassal-like relationship to USA, is too lilly-livered to stand on its own feet and do what is ethically correct in West Papua.

    Australia should be exerting the strongest diplomatic efforts it can to get West Papua back into the hands of its original inhabitants. What is happenning there is no different than what happened when Australia was colonised and its indigenous people subjugated. We all know that was absolutely immoral and led to untold harm to the original inhabitants, from which we suffer today. Indonesia is on a course which is unpardonable in the light of the history of nations like ours and the US.

    The resettling of Indonesians in West Papua is no different than Israel’s settler activities in Palestine – they should get out, or at the very least, ensure that they have the approval of the West Papuan groups before they go there or stay there. Australia should be expressing its strong dissaproval of these activities and be very vocal about it at the UN.

    On the matter of human rights, Australia and the US should not support the Koppasus and the other corrupt military overlords that dominate all activity in the region. Where Indonesian forces are committing large scale ethnic cleansing and other abuses, Australia should be urging a UN force made up of local Asian nations to prevent such abuse. Similarly Australia should be very firm with China’s illegal logging trade actvities there.

    I believe West Papuan people have taken all they can and done all they can. They are obviously running out of patience and the situation is explosive. There must be strong action – ethical unbiased action by the UN, initiated by Australia, otherwise there will be a huge los of life there and West Papuans will virtually disappear as a people.

    The UN has recognised the rights of other indigenous groups, why not the West Papuans?
    Roger Callen

  4. Well said Roger. The only hope for West Papua is if it becomes an United Nations protectorate. All efforts should be focused in that direction.

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