Build the campaign for a genuine act of free choice for West Papua

Fifty years is too long

Benny Wenda, chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Photo courtesy of the Office of Benny Wenda.
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Earlier this year the United Liberation Movement for West Papua served a petition on the UN High Commission for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, demanding a fresh independence vote for West Papua. The petition, which has more than 1.8 million signatures, will be raised at the General Assembly in September. The Melanesian peoples, who’ve lived in West Papua for tens of thousands of years, continue to campaign resolutely for their independence and urgently need support. 

Lines on a map. European control and exploitation has left a terrible legacy right across the Pacific — not least in West Papua where the people continue to resist. The island of New Guinea was divided by colonialism, setting each half of the island on different courses. 

The Dutch began their colonial plunder of the vast region they called the East Indies in the 16th century. Their arrival sparked centuries of wars and disturbances as distinct nations across the archipelago asserted their independence against the colonisers. The western half of the island of New Guinea was formally claimed as a Dutch colony in 1898. 

In the aftermath of Japanese occupation during World War 2, Indonesians fought a 4-year war of independence, freeing themselves from Dutch colonial rule in 1949. But the Dutch hung on to West Papua, whose people desired independence as part of a unified Papua New Guinea. Indonesia had other ideas about the resource-rich region. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S., keen to discourage Indonesia from getting too close to the Soviet Union, supported West Papuan integration into Indonesia. Australia, which until then had supported independence, performed a foreign policy backflip, and the West Papuans were the collateral damage. 

Under orders from the UN and the U.S., the Indonesian government attempted to give integration some legitimacy through the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969. This was a vote with 1,025 hand-picked West Papuans — less than 0.2 percent of the population. Surrounded by Indonesians, they voted unanimously to remain part of Indonesia. Outside, those who chanted “Sandure! Sandure!,” which means “Freedom! Freedom!,” were hauled away in vans. It is 50 years since this sham vote: far from a free choice, it widely referred to as the Act of no choice.  

No time to waste. The situation is desperate for the people of West Papua, who have no political freedoms and are routinely harassed, jailed and even brutally killed for organising. Media access is restricted. Although the province is the richest in Indonesia, the West Papuans are the poorest. Huge corporates — including BP, with its massive Tangguh gas field, and the Freeport gold and copper mines — funnel out profits while leaving behind environmental devastation. There’s a two-tier health system, and life expectancy for the Melanesian population is low. State violence against women, including sexual violence, is rife. As part of a program of Indonesianisation, the state acts to wipe out indigenous language and culture, and provides generous incentives for people from Java to settle in West Papua. In 1960, non-Melanesians were less than 2.5 percent of the population, but today Melanesians are becoming a minority in West Papua. This is indeed slow-motion genocide.

Representatives of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua in Australia have launched a petition to the Australian Senate, demanding that it instructs Australia to vote in support of the upcoming independence referendum for West Papua. Get behind this effort now! petition: Add West Papua to the UN Decolonization List at the 2019 General Assembly

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