Why Are Protesters Dying In West Papua?
Above photo: Photo: Whens Tebay
August was a busy month for those advocating for the West Papuan cause. The last two weeks saw protests – the biggest for over two decades – across the region which culminated in violence and left seven reported dead and many more injured.
If you’re not entirely sure why West Papuans are fighting, you can’t be blamed. While the occupied country – the western half of the island of New Guinea, which lies some 250 kilometres off the north coast of Australia – has a long, bloody history which has seen over 500,000 indigenous West Papuans murdered at the hands of the Indonesian military, their cause is neglected by the international community and its media. (But well reported by New Internationalist – see NI 502 for more – Ed.)
The current unrest came two days after the 57th anniversary of the New York Agreement – the pivotal UN deal that effectively gifted West Papua from Dutch to Indonesian hands.
The agreement, signed on the 15 August 1962, transferred the territory from the Dutch to the United Nations. It would later be handed to Indonesia in 1963, all without Papuans’ knowledge. The agreement stipulated that West Papuans be allowed the chance to vote freely and fairly on becoming an independent nation-state before 1970. But the Indonesian 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’ violated the agreement. In reality, 1,026 West Papuan men, handpicked by the military, were forced to vote at gunpoint for integration into Indonesia. Ever since, Indonesia has fiercely defended their claim over the territory, which they consider to be their easternmost province.
The most recent chaos was sparked by two significant events. On 15 August, the multilateral Pacific Island Forum released a communiqué that finally recognized the need to ‘address the root causes’ of the unrest that has gone on for over five decades. Although falling short of calling for an independence vote, it’s the most significant statement issued by the Forum for years.
This positive political development gave cause for optimism. But it was swiftly followed by a violent confrontation between Papuan students and the Indonesian military in the city of Surabaya, East Java on 17 August, Indonesian Independence Day.
Security forces accused Papuan students of disrespecting the Indonesian flag and fired tear gas into their dormitory before raiding the building and arresting them. Dozens of far-right Indonesian nationalists, who had gathered outside the building, began chanting racist slurs aimed at the Papuan students as they were led out and bundled into police trucks. ‘Bantai Papua!’ ‘Bantai Papua!’, which translates as ‘slaughtered Papuans’, joined chants of ‘monkey’ .
Footage of the incident went viral, sparking an eruption of protest. The next day tens of thousands of West Papuans surged on the streets of the two biggest cities in West Papua, Jayapura and Manokwari in an anti-racist protest. It wasn’t long before independence sentiment surfaced. Shouts of ‘Papua medeka!’ (‘Papua freedom!’) were heard and the banned Morning Star flag was soon flying over the crowd. In response, Indonesia deployed 1,200 Indonesian security personnel to West Papua.
Over the next few days West Papuans – tired of decades of under-development, inequality and state-sponsored land grabbing, which has seen Western corporations profit from the territory’s rich natural resources – took to the streets to demand independence. As the situation has escalated, the much needed and long sought-after international media coverage of the protests began to emerge.
‘The racist discrimination towards the West Papuan people is the spark which has lit the fire of over 50 years determination to be free,’ exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda told US broadcaster CNN.
On 21 August phone and internet lines were cut to ‘accelerate the process of restoring security and order’, according to Indonesian state sources. A week later, according to local witnesses, on 28 August, in Deiyai regency, six people were killed by Indonesian security forces and several others injured during a pro-referendum protest. Gruesome photographs have since emerged online. The Free West Papua Campaign are reporting that there have been other fatal shooting across the country.
In an effort to quell the pro-independence sentiment Indonesian President Joko Widodo invited Luks Emembe, governor of Papua province, to the Indonesian capital Jakarta for talks.
Meanwhile, on 29 August, several buildings in Jayaprua were set alight. With the internet cut off and phone lines down it is hard to get an accurate picture of what is happening in the provincial capital but social media posts have described burning buildings and Indonesian military in the street. Campaigners are fearful that the Indonesian military will carry out a repeat of the massacres that happened in Dili, East Timor back in 1990s or on Biak island in 1998, when scores of unarmed civilians died.
This month also marks two years since the West Papua People’s Petition, signed by more than 1.8 million people was smuggled out of West Papua to Geneva, Switzerland.
In the last great stage of its journey a team of swimmers – including myself – carried the petition 69km across Lake Geneva to the United Nations. The petition remains the largest piece of evidence displaying West Papuans desire for independence from Indonesia.