Papuan students during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 28, 2019 (Photo: Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Boycott Bali? Why the atrocities in West Papua demand your attention

It’s estimated that as many as half a million Papuans have been killed at the hands of Indonesian security forces over the past 50 years. Not holidaying in Indonesia is an easy way to say you’re not OK with that, writes Morgan Godfery.

Would you have gone on holiday in apartheid South Africa?

I suspect for everyone other than Don Brash and his fellow Pledgers, the answer is a lightning-quick “no”. It’s a little hard to enjoy the Durban boardwalk knowing that the Black and Indian people who live only a couple of kilometres from the beachfront have probably never sunk their feet into the golden sands, for no other reason than the colour of their skin. Holidays and beaches were only for white people, and only a know-nothing or a white power apologist would book that morally corrupt trip.

I think about this every time a mate posts about his Bali trip. I mean, the trips always seem like a delight: the rice terraces, the cocktails, the tropical sweat-ups. One bloke I know seems to travel to the island every few years for nothing more than the cheap thrill of bartering down some of the poorest people in the world. I’m not sure I get it. One thing I do get, though, are “South Africa 1960” vibes. Do the New Zealanders who book trips there know that a few islands east, the Indonesian government is forcibly occupying the Melanesian island of West Papua and killing its indigenous people?

Last month four students from Jayapura, the West Papuan capital, were taken into police custody after unfolding the Morning Star flag, the symbol of indigenous independence, at Catholic mass. Possessing or displaying the Morning Star’s red, white and blue could land an activist in prison for up to 20 years. This is a possible future for the four students, caught by a plainclothes cop in the back pews. In West Papua the Indonesian government’s occupying forces (police, security services and military) reach into every corner of the country’s public and private life.

Churches, as one of the few places where solace can be found, are almost always at the heart of resistance struggles. The African National Congress did much of its organising under the protection of local churches. But in West Papua the walls are closing in. The Indonesian government is “opening” larger and larger chunks of the Papuan highlands. In earlier times the highlands and their people were more or less left to their live their own lives in their own way, just as they’d done for thousands of years, before the Indonesian military dictatorship ran a sham referendum in 1969 to justify taking the island. The so-called “act of free choice” saw a little over 1000 West Papuans – less than 0.25% of the population – bullied and coerced into signing over their sovereignty to the government in Jakarta.

An act of forced choice.

But what would the Indonesian government want from West Papua, a province that at first glance seems exceptionally poor, more so than even Bali. There are only a handful of universities, and travel is a negotiation between the road and its potholes. Yet the island is home to fantastically rich gold and copper deposits. The American company that operates the Grasberg mine, a vast mineral pit in the central highlands, is Indonesia’s largest single taxpayer. In Grasberg alone reserves worth more than $100 billion are still left to haul from the earth. Other parts of the highlands hide untold billions too.

This, then, is the chief reason Indonesia is tightening its grip on the Melanesian country: Jakarta’s elites understand that West Papua will finance their nation’s industrialisation.

So how far will those elites go to keep West Papua in the fold? Well, in the past half century, as many as half a million West Papuans met their end at hands of the Indonesian security forces. In the Asian Human Rights Commission’s report The Neglected Genocide, survivors from the massacres in 1977 and 1978 describe their run-ins with the Indonesian torture squads and their escape from the killing fields. “Violence wasn’t just something that happened in West Papua, it was a form of government.” Even today activists and ordinary West Papuans still go “missing”. Last year over 2000 West Papuan university students on Java made the trip home after racist harassment on Indonesia’s main island.

Knowing that history, it’s almost impossible to remain optimistic about West Papuan independence. And yet people continue to struggle. Young people, mostly, and increasingly Indonesians alongside West Papuans. Last year six Indonesian activists were taken to the cells for unfurling the Morning Star in Jakarta. Surya Anta, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Peoples Front for West Papua, is facing treason charges for his part in the demonstration. It’s an important reminder that the Indonesian people are separate from the Indonesian government, and not necessarily complicit in the latter’s crimes.

Many are ready and willing to risk more than we, as comfortable Westerners, can possibly imagine.

The same principle holds in Bali – the Balinese aren’t responsible for the actions of elites in Jakarta, and even less so the actions of the 20th century’s Indonesian dictatorship. Regardless, before setting foot on any Indonesian soil you should perform a moral and ethical calculus. Is my Indonesian getaway undermining solidarity for West Papuans? Is it lending international legitimacy to a government that doesn’t deserve it? There are no clean answers. But two truths are inescapable: one, West Papuans are ethnically Melanesian, and so for us as Māori and Polynesians they are our brothers and sisters; and two, the country is geographically a part of Oceania, and so for us as New Zealanders they are our neighbours in need.



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