Security forces watch as a building burns after hundreds of demonstrators marched near Papua's biggest city Jayapura on August 29. pHOTO: INDRA THAMRIN HATTA/AFP/Getty Images

NZ must learn the lessons of East Timor, and break our silence on West Papua

Jacinda Ardern needs to make an urgent plea for UN monitors to go the West Papua immediately. Let us not again wait to speak out only to uncover the horrors later, writes Maire Leadbeater

The uprising that is engulfing Indonesian ruled West Papua has lifted the lid on a deep strand of indigenous anger and resentment. While it is unprecedented in scale, it also has ominous echoes of the deadly clashes that took place in pre-liberation Timor Leste in 1999.

The Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, only to come up against military-backed armed militia groups. It is poignant that the people of Timor Leste have just marked the 20th anniversary of that historic 30 August independence vote. But rather than learn from past mistakes, the New Zealand government is silent and inactive over the violence in West Papua just as it followed “quiet diplomacy” until the 1999 nadir of post-referendum violence in Timor.

For West Papua the trigger came on August 17, Indonesia’s national day, when it is practically obligatory to fly the Indonesian red and white flag. As it happens that is just two days after the anniversary of the 1962 signing of the New York Agreement, the shady deal done to transfer control of West Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia.

West Papuan students studying in Surabaya and Malang, East Java, were subjected to a terrifying ordeal as security forces and militia mobs stormed their dormitory. In a torrent of racist abuse the young people were referred to as “monkeys” and “dogs”. In Surabaya there were prolonged chants of “Kick out the Papuans” before the students were tear gassed and 43 were arrested. The pretext was an accusation – never substantiated – that the students had damaged a flag pole flying the Indonesian flag.

Across West Papua long simmering discontent has exploded into a kind of intifada. Commentators say that we need to go back to the turn of the century to see anything remotely comparable in terms of mass demonstrations, the numbers reportedly reaching tens of thousands. Racism of course is more than verbal slurs – in West Papua it is embedded in the woefully inadequate health, education and social services available to indigenous Papuans.

Indonesia’s statistics show West Papua has the highest rate of poverty of any Indonesian province and has a rate of HIV/Aids that is twenty times the national average for Indonesia. For decades the indigenous Papuans have been subjected to marginalisation in the face of a huge influx of migrants, and to land-grabbing for palm oil plantations for mineral exploitation. In the Nduga regency conflict between the armed resistance and the military has led to the displacement of thousands of civilians and dozens of deaths from hunger and lack of medical care, but the area remains closed off even to local humanitarian NGOs.

The Indonesian government has exacerbated the current crisis by imposing an internet blackout, limiting phone signals and sending in additional security forces. As is always the case in West Papua, international journalists face tight official restrictions on access, so right now it is nigh impossible to verify the reports of civilian and military deaths and injuries. However, activists and human rights groups are doing their best to get the information out, including in short videos. In Deiyai in the highlands it is reported by several sources that at least six civilians and one soldier were killed after the security forces opened fire at a demonstration. In the capital city Jayapura and in other centres buildings have been torched.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s calls for calm and forgiveness ring hollow in the face of an intensifying security crackdown. Coordinating Security Minister Wiranto, a retired general who was commander in chief of the Indonesian military at the time of Indonesia’s 1999 East Timor crisis, says that the Papuan demands for a referendum on independence are “out of place” and not to be mentioned. He says the unity of the Republic of Indonesia is final, but it is also incontrovertible that the West Papuans were never given a genuine opportunity to determine their political status.

The New York agreement stipulated that an “Act of Free Choice” should be held – but when this eventually took place in 1969 it was a cruel farce involving only 1,022 press-ganged participants. According to international law experts the people of West Papua have the same right to self-determination as the East Timorese were finally granted.

So far the New Zealand government has been silent despite pleas from human rights groups for it to speak up in defence of human rights, and against the draconian internet ban. Jacinda Ardern passes letters and emails on to her foreign minister, Winston Peters, who is also quiet.

We should all be shamed by the contrast between this inaction and the outspokenness of several Pacific leaders. Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, supported by the prime ministers of Samoa (Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi) and Tonga (‘Akilisi Pohiva) put last month’s Pacific Island Forum on notice that it cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room. For once the Forum leaders included in their communiqué a statement that had some teeth – they resolved to call for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to go to West Papua within the coming year.

Of course that is too little too late in the current crisis, but shouldn’t that be the springboard for our prime minister to make an urgent plea for UN monitors to go right now? We should not repeat the mistakes of our East Timor past when we waited to speak out and suspend defence ties until the evidence of genocide was impossible to hide and most of that country’s infrastructure had been destroyed?

Maire Leadbeater is the author of See No Evil: New Zealand’s Betrayal of the People of West Papua (Otago University Press, 2018)

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