Papua Merdeka! Global support grows for West Papuan self-determination

Protestors at a passionate speak-out in support of West Papua
30 October, 2019: A passionate speak-out in support of West Papua at the IMARC Blockade in Melbourne. Photo by Alison Thorne.
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On 18 October 2019, activists from the international West Papua solidarity movement rallied outside the London headquarters of corporate giant BP. They were there to deliver a report, BP: The Blood of Papua, to newly appointed Chief Executive Officer Bernard Looney. Raki Ap boldly declared, “For Indigenous peoples all across the world, it’s not about eating less meat, or taking fewer showers, it’s about colonialism, it’s about capitalism, and it’s about racism in our own countries.” This was a rallying cry to tackle the root causes of environmental destruction. 

On the other side of the world and less than two weeks later, the same message came across loud and clear when the West Papuan community and their supporters joined a powerful four-day blockade protesting the International Mining and Resource Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne. BP was amongst the parade of corporate criminals and climate vandals attending IMARC.  

An eight-million-dollar expansion to the BP operation in West Papua is planned. The oil giant currently operates the Tangguh Liquefied Natural Gas plant in Bintuni Bay. Subject to little scrutiny, rich profits flow, but few benefits are delivered to the local community. The company ignores the sovereign rights of indigenous land owners, and its security goons spy for the Indonesian military. The environmental impact of its operation is devastating to the costal and marine environment. Raja Ampat Island, an archipelago surrounded by coral reefs, is just off the coast. 

BP is not the only mining corporation causing misery to local people. Freeport-McMoRan runs the Grasberg mine in the Nduga region. This highland area is home to indigenous people who live in harmony with vast rainforests rivalled only by the Amazon. The company, which runs the world’s largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, arrogantly abuses the locals’ land rights and devastates their water quality. The mine dumps heavy tailings into the Ajkwa river system, causing pollution that lasts for centuries and destroys the food sources of first peoples

The Melanesian peoples of the western half of the island of New Guinea have been fighting to throw off the yoke of colonialism for generations. From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the Netherlands, Britain and Germany competed for control, with the region eventually being incorporated into the Dutch East Indies.

Since 1969, West Papua has been an unwilling part of the Republic of Indonesia. Through a combination of transmigration, mainly from Java, and the suppression of the many distinct Melanesian languages and cultures, a process described as slow-motion genocide is taking place.  West Papuans are tired of the decades of inequality, racism, repression and land grabs. They have no choice but to resist.  

On the home front. West Papuans are defiant in the face of severe repression. Tensions are high in the Nduga region, which is infested with military operations. The people want services such as healthcare. Instead, the Indonesian government has funded a military contractor to build the Trans Papuan Highway that will benefit the military, transmigration and mining operations.

This year in mid-August, mass independence protests flared and continued for weeks. The spark was a racist incident in Indonesia’s second biggest city, Surabaya. On August 16, the day after Indonesia’s Independence Day, a racist mob, mobilised by Indonesian nationalist groups, launched an attack on a group of West Papuan students. Their excuse was a dubious rumour being circulated that, inside the secrecy of their dormitory, the students had defaced the Indonesian flag. This story was the catalyst for hundreds of screaming nationalists to surround the dorm yelling “monkey,” “pig” and “dog” at the Papuan students, who barricaded themselves inside. 

An elité squad of police — Detachment 88 — was called to the scene. This counter-terrorism force has been accused of torture. It was formed after the Bali bombing, and is funded, equipped and trained by the U.S. and Australia. Instead of protecting the besieged West Papuans, Detachment 88 fired canisters of tear gas into the dormitory, stormed inside and arrested 43 Papuan students. 

The response was swift. Huge protests broke out in the West Papuan capital, Jayapura, and in cities across the provinces as well as in the highlands. Government buildings were torched. There were clashes with police and mass arrests. Indonesia responded by sending 6,000 troops on a “military exercise.” 

Indonesia has generally operated with impunity in West Papua. It makes journalists’ visits and reports about the province almost impossible. Indonesia responded to the new wave of protests by slowing internet speeds to a trickle, and even shutting off the service altogether for a period, to prevent information getting out. These efforts to isolate the West Papuans failed. 

Notwithstanding the censorship, media obtained video footage of Indonesian soldiers openly firing on protesters. On 28 August, six people were shot and killed in the Deiyai region. On 2 September, four Australians were deported for taking part in West Papuan independence rallies. On 9 September, Buchtar Tabuni, a leader of the West Papuan independence movement, was arrested, allegedly for treason. 

Despite police shooting with live ammunition, and using tear gas, mass arrests and intimidation, tens of thousands of people took part in the recent upsurge. 

The whole world is watching … and organising! The protests were not confined to West Papua. Rallies in support of West Papuan independence were held right across the Indonesian archipelago. One of these actions, led by West Papuan students, took place in Jakarta right outside the state palace where protesters defiantly waved the banned Morning Star flag. 

Amongst Indonesians, nationalism and anti-Papuan racism is strong. But, while still a minority view, solidarity with West Papua is growing. An opinion piece sympathetic to West Papua appeared in the Jakarta Post on 27 August. As the movement in solidarity strengthens across the Pacific and Australia and in other parts of the world, the momentum in Indonesia is also likely to build. 

Indonesia needs to learn the lessons from its decades as an occupation force in East Timor — oppression breeds resistance and unites the opposition. This is exactly what is happening in West Papua. 

While the Surabaya incident was the catalyst for mass protest, the upsurge is best understood as part of the growing resistance to Indonesian occupation and brutality. The West Papuan independence movement is stronger, more confident and unified than it has ever been. 

The indigenous Papuans are from many different tribal groups, each with their own language, territory and culture. It is Indonesia’s repression of language and culture, land theft, mineral exploitation, combined with its racist brutality and censorship, that has unified the disparate Melanesian First Nations into a single coherent movement. There’s an invigorated climate of optimism amongst the West Papuan people.

There is also a tsunami of solidarity building amongst the peoples of the Pacific, who strongly support the West Papuan struggle. 

The Surabaya incident coincided with the release of the communiqué from the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, which strongly criticised Indonesian human rights violations in West Papua. To the chagrin of both Australia and Indonesia, the issue of West Papua was prominent at the forum in August, with Vanuatu bringing West Papuan leaders as part of its official delegation. Faced with arrogant Australian imperialist overlords refusing to listen to their climate change concerns, Pacific states facing submersion are making common cause with West Papuans facing annihilation. 

Papuans holding a banner that reads: "Referendum Now! For West Papua"

Papuans call for an independence referendum and demand a boycott of the Indonesian election in April this year. Photo from Twitter @friwp

The right to self-determination. Momentum is growing for the people of West Papua to be given a free vote on independence, as was won by the people of Timor-Leste and who gained their independence from Indonesia 20 years ago. 

The recent upsurge coincided with the 50th anniversary of “The Act of No Choice,” which is how West Papuans refer to the sham vote that took place in 1969. The Indonesian military selected 1,025 people from a population of 800,000 who were then “supervised” to vote unanimously for integration into Indonesia. 

In 2017, a petition calling for a free vote was signed by 1.8 million people — 70% of the current Papuan population. These signatures have been presented to the United Nations (UN) Decolonisation Committee. On September 9, another petition signed by 18,000 people was presented to the Australian Parliament. It calls on the Australian government to support the cause of the West Papuans at the UN.  

Back at the IMARC Blockade a now-familiar chant filled the air — Papua Merdeka! The Morning Star flag fluttered, and rousing speakers wove threads connecting movements, deepening solidarity and defying Indonesian attempts to isolate the struggle. 

Standing with the West Papuans were Australian First Nations people, environmentalists, trade unionists, socialists, feminists and students. Also present were immigrants from across the globe, with the same experience as the West Papuans of capitalist mining giants imposing their agenda, expatriating massive profits, destroying the environment and buying the protection of the military.   

In the same way that the Indonesian military and security apparatus protects the interests of BP and Freeport-McMoRan in West Papua, a wall of police armed with batons and capsicum spray protected the interests of the of the corporate profiteers meeting in Melbourne. 

For more than half a century, the people of West Papua have been fighting for the right to self-determination. Their voice is getting louder, despite the repression of the Indonesian State, as they build a global movement for their freedom. Stand with West Papua!

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