While the international community is fixated on events taking place across the Middle East, they are turning a blind eye to desperate cries for help by the Papuan people. Seeing Indonesian rule of their land as illegal, countless West Papuans across the island are growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo.
As video of Gaddafi’s dead body haunted TV screens across the world, images of beaten and murdered Papuans boomed around social media in the Asia-Pacific. Their crime: to peacefully raise their national flag and declare independence.
The meeting was supposed to be peaceful. Thousands of Papuan leaders from across the country descended on the region’s largest city, Jayapura, to attend a national congress. Then, after the Papuan leaders installed a national government, the peace was broken.
Having waited on the fringes of the congress, the signal was given, and hundreds of heavily armed police stormed the compound. It is reported that the attendees had been peacefully dancing for an hour when the crackdown took place. While the Indonesian police say only warning shots were fired, several bodies have been found with bullet wounds. More than five people are believed have been killed – local human rights groups say 17 – some are still missing, hundreds arrested, and countless people wounded and in hiding.
The government was quick to blame the incident on “separatists”. Jayapura’s Chief of Police, Imam Setiawan said they had no choice but to crackdown on the congress, as an act of treason had been committed. Despite the mortalities and suffering, he showed no remorse for what had happened. “Whoever supports separatism or subversion activity, I will do the same as yesterday. I’ll finish them,” said Setiawan.
“So, if there is anyone supporting such movements, I’m ready to die and finish them. This is my duty.”
While the government calls their declaration for independence an act of treason, those inside West Papua see it as part of a struggle to reclaim their land.
Although Indonesia officially gained independence in 1949, the Dutch government kept control over West Papua until 1961. Eager to get his hands on the resource rich region, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, made repeated attempts through the United Nations to gain ownership. Frustrated with a lack of progress, Indonesia deployed tens of thousands of armed troops to take the western half of New Guinea Island, by force.
The Kennedy administration, keen to avoid confrontation and the loss of another Asian country to communism, brokered the New York Agreement between the Dutch and Jakarta in 1962. The agreement transferred control of the colony to Indonesia on the condition it committed to hold a referendum on independence, to be called the ‘Act of Free Choice’.
In 1969, 1,025 handpicked Papuans – out of a population of over one million – were chosen for the vote. These ‘representatives’ unanimously elected for West Papua to remain within Indonesian sovereignty. Amid allegations of threats to voters, a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefing that year found “the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made”, while the US Ambassador to Indonesia said, “95 per cent of indigenous Papuans wanted to have freedom”.
Across West Papua, the Act was seen as a complete sham, fuelling protests and inspiring parts of the population to take up arms. The Indonesian military launched widespread campaigns to quell dissent. Thousands of refugees fled the country and members of the resistance set up armed groups deep in the jungle – where they remain today still fighting for independence.
A teary-eyed general
In February this year, I travelled undercover to West Papua. Foreign journalists are restricted from working freely there, so I had to evade detection by the authorities. Relying on networks of the independence movement, I was whisked into a boat and taken deep into the jungle to meet General Richard Youweni, one of the longest running commanders in the rebel army.
Flanked by tribal soldiers in traditional attire, the teary-eyed general told me how he was an engineering student in Jayapura when the conflict began. Hearing what was happening to his people, he quickly returned. “I could not just stand by and let Indonesia take our land,” Youweni told me seemingly haunted by the memory. “They do not care about our people or our land, they just want to take our resources.” The same grievances were reiterated by the rest of the commanders. Many cried at the memories of Papuan people being tortured or killed by the Indonesian army.
The rebels are fractured, poorly armed, and lack international support, but their dedication to their land and people is evident. One of the commanders, Freddie Laboi, makes sure I know this. “We might be small and poorly equipped,” he says with a cheeky grin. “But we will continue to fight to win back our land, which is rightfully ours.”
The day I came out of the jungle, thousands of protesters had gathered outside a government building to protest against the continued rule by Indonesia. In recent months, the protest leaders, inspired by events remaking the Arab world, are launching protests on an almost weekly basis.
The following day, I met with the student protesters on the outskirts of Jayapura. They were hiding from the security forces, fearing arrest for their organisation of the protests, the day before. One by one they took it in to turns, telling me about their dreams of liberating West Papua. Explaining how poverty levels are high, and they believe Jakarta’s only interest in their land is resource extraction. They said they did not want international companies to continue destroying their land.
“They have no right to be here, they did not ask for our permission,” said the student’s spokesman who is currently behind bars in Jayapura for organising the congress on October 19. “It is destroying our land and does not help the people”.
The Grasberg Mine has been criticised by environmental groups worldwide – and by Indonesia’s own environment ministers – for the severe damage caused by its waste deposits. The Norwegian government went as far as divesting around US $1bn of shares in Rio Tinto, citing concerns over environmental damage from the mine.
Other concerns lie in Freeport-McMoRan-Rio Tinto paying the Indonesian military millions of dollars every year to protect the mine, which have been accused of committing human rights abuses against Papuan villagers.
Freeport’s beginnings in West Papua are particularly shady. The first contract was signed with Indonesian President Suharto in 1957, before Indonesia had even gained control of West Papua. Former US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger having visited Indonesia the day before the invasion of West Papua, now sits on the board of the company.
In the week leading up to the events at the congress, separate protests had been held near the Grasberg mine. While these protests were isolated, the incidents share the same underlying roots and grievances. “We’re being exploited by Indonesia and these international companies,” said one protest leader. Their main demand was a rise in wages. Each miner receives only $1.50 per hour, from a company that is the biggest taxpayer to the Indonesian government and has such high profits that the strikes cost the company over $30m every day.
While the Indonesian government and international companies make vast profits from natural resources on the island, the local Papuans live in abject poverty. The United Nations Development Programme says about 35 per cent of West Papua’s population lives below the poverty line, contrasting with the Indonesian national average of about 13 per cent.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, secondary school enrollment in Papua is only 60 per cent compared with a national average of 91 per cent. And as more companies come to the islanders, bringing non-Papuans, the situation is not expected to improve.
According to Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, if the fast rate of resource extraction continues, Papua will “lose millions of hectares of forests and be stripped of valuable resources without the benefits of value-adding industries to create wealth and jobs locally”.
Instead, only foreign companies, Jakarta and a small group of Papuan elites will benefit. Wadley adds that the rising interest in Papua’s resources “will see an influx of millions of migrants from other parts of Indonesia, likely limiting indigenous Papuans to a tiny minority in their own land”.
Some commentators, he notes, see the rapid development as “politically ideological in its aims” and an “effective foil to calls for independence”.
While some Papuans have become pacified over the years, it is clear there is growing dissent from within West Papua. Few are willing to stand by and watch Indonesia continue to exploit their land, and violently repress their desperate pleas for independence. The violence, which took place in congress, is likely to further ignite hatred towards Jakarta and many are expecting the situation to get more tense in coming weeks.
The international community has done little to help or even highlight the West Papuan struggle for independence. Human rights groups estimate that over 400,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia began its quest to colonise the nation. Despite the plight of Papuan people, few around the world are aware of the how they have suffered over the years.
Like the international community recognised Indonesia’s wrongful occupation of East Timor, it also needs to recognise the illegal occupation of West Papua. The international community must pressure the Indonesian government to listen to the voices of the independence movement, and the Papuan activists’ repeated calls for dialogue with Jakarta, which have been ignored.
Having been denied the right to democratically vote for the future of their country in 1969, the Papuan people deserve a referendum free of pressure and harassment. Jakarta needs to immediately allow human rights groups into the country to monitor abuses taking place, almost daily.
It is clear that the Papuan people will not back down. Despite the violent attack on congress, thousands of Papuans rallied on October 31 demanding an investigation into human rights abuses committed at the congress. Shadowed by hundreds of Indonesian security forces, the protesters defiantly called for the release of all political prisoners.
The question remains on many West Papuan minds, why can Indonesia get away with shooting unarmed people, but other governments cannot. The international community also must ask themselves the same question. The pleas of the Papuan people were ignored in 1969, and with growing tensions, cannot be ignored again.
“The difference between us and the Middle East,” Jacob says, “is that we’re not fighting a dictator. We’re fighting invading neocolonialists who have stolen our land.”
“If the international community doesn’t help us, West Papuan people will slowly perish while fighting for the independence we deserve.”
William Lloyd George is a freelance correspondent reporting on under reported stories around the globe. Follow him on Twitter.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.