Human rights abuses on our doorstep but we say nothing.

May 5, 2021

We know this order will lead to more killing, more torture, more suffering of my people. The Speaker of the Indonesian House [of Representatives], Bambang Soesatyo, has urged the Government to “destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later”.

Indonesian government censors are slipping up. Maybe they’re too hungry and tired during the fasting month of Ramadan to choke every tweet which criticises Jakarta’s West Papua crush-dissidents policies or promotes independence for the far eastern province. (Confusingly there are two provinces – Papua and West Papua, but the latter term is widely used for both.]

Indonesians seeking information that hasn’t been well washed by the Army normally have to use VPNs to bypass the blue pencils. But the statement above by Benny Wenda, Interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, got through.

It follows the ambush of a motorcycle squad led by Special Forces Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, 50. He was reportedly shot on 25 April while heading to see school buildings allegedly torched by separatists. If correct it suggests the guerrillas have better intelligence than their opponents.

Two years ago nationalists killed 19 workers on the serpentine Trans-Papua Highway. The 4,600-kilometre road will open up land to outside settlers against the wishes of local tribes.

Outsiders are barred so regular allegations of abuses by the military are rarely independently tested. Half the population of more than 1.2 million are Melanesians. The rest are mainly migrants from other parts of the archipelago leading to fears the nominally Christian indigenes will soon become a minority.

Last month’s killing of such a senior officer aroused the wrath of the government and army which launched Operasi Nemangkawi to find the attackers. They are believed to be from the poorly armed West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization.

President Joko Widodo declared the WPNLA a terrorist organisation and ordered the police and military “to chase and arrest” all rebels involved: “I want to emphasise again that there is no place for armed groups in Papua.”

Widodo’s words were followed by Soesatyo who brought a tanker-load of fuel to the conflict with his comments about ignoring human rights, drawing this response from Wenda:

“Amnesty Indonesia has already condemned the Speaker. In the last 24 hours, we have reports that people are fleeing the villages in anticipation of the crackdown. Helicopters are being deployed over the villages, reminding me of what happened in 1977 when I was a child.”

As in so many fights for independence, irony is ever-present along with the bombs and bullets. Widodo’s and Soesatyo’s statements could have been delivered by Dutch generals between 1945 and 49. The Netherlands was fighting Indonesian nationalists who said they were in a War of Revolution, calling it “Police Actions”.

Whatever the title it left an estimated 100,000 Indonesians and 6,000 Dutch dead before the conflict was settled following intense pressure on The Hague by Washington. However, the west end of the island of New Guinea stayed with the Dutch till it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 through an UN-sponsored ballot.

The authenticity of the poll has long been challenged by Wenda and his predecessors. It was called the Act of Free Choice with 1,025 voters selected from an estimated 700,000 Papuans.
Western media observers labelled the exercise an Act Free of Choice. The result was unanimous support for Indonesian control.

Cynics claim the low-intensity struggle waged since then with little independent scrutiny is more about money than sovereignty.

Explainers tag the province ‘resource-rich. That’s an understatement. The Grasberg mine, once owned by the US company Freeport, but now majority held by the Indonesian government, is the seventh-largest gold mine and the second-largest copper mine in the world. Both minerals are fetching top prices.

This is one reason why Indonesians have little sympathy for the “terrorists” who are usually imagined to be puppets controlled by nameless outsiders. These sinister forces apparently want to plunder the goodies and impoverish the nation, repeating the policies of the Dutch colonialists.

The loss of another province after the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999 would further destroy the “Unitary State”. This concept is held as strongly as Australian politicians invoke the Anzac spirit to demonstrate their nationalism.

Reinforcing the international conspiracy theory is that Wenda, 46, isn’t in his homeland. He lives in Oxford after escaping from a jail in West Papua in 2003 and fleeing into Papua New Guinea. He’d been charged for leading an independence rally and faced 25 years behind bars.

With the help of European NGOs, he got political asylum in Britain where he leads a global campaign for independence.

Another activist working from overseas is Indonesian Veronica Koman, 32, who remains in Australia where she came to study postgraduate law. In 2019 she won the Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Awards for exposing human rights abuses in West Papua.

Indonesian authorities want her back to face accusations of sedition. An account with her name tweeted that declaring independence fighters as terrorists meant “Indonesia has just burnt the bridge towards a peaceful resolution”.

Australia always denies backing Papuan separatists, though supporting NGOs – often faith-based – are operating from the continent. So far this hasn’t become a hot issue in relations between Jakarta and Canberra, probably because Covid-19 is getting a higher priority and the two nations are cooperating on disease control.

However, it remains a slow burner ready to flare if the death of the one-star general is followed by fierce and unchecked retaliation drawing overseas outrage. Some media are already carrying reports – sourced to the “Nemangkawi Public Relations Task Force” – that nine members of an “armed criminal group” were killed in a shootout three days after the Brigadier General died.

Footnote: I first applied for a journalist’s visa to enter West Papua four years ago. It was endorsed by an Indonesian Ambassador. Despite assurances there are no problems and it’s being processed, I’m still waiting.

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