The Indonesian government has taken several highly controversial measures to quash autonomist sentiments.
Tom Tyler is a London-based university student
A great tragedy of the break-up of European colonial empires was clumsy partitioning, with little or no regard to ethnic, linguistic or cultural divisions. This was scarcely more evident than with the abuses seen in the Indonesian territory of West Papua
In order to fully understand the issues facing the region, one must understand its background. Prior to its succession, what is today known as West Papua was a Dutch colonial possession (Netherlands New Guinea) constituting part of the Dutch East Indies.
In a tale that was repeated throughout the colonial world, Indonesian nationalists sought secession from foreign rule and, following armed and diplomatic struggle, achieved independence in 1950.
Crucially, however, the secessionists claimed sovereignty over all of the Netherlands’ former possessions, including areas in which Muslim Javanese and Sundanese (the two ethnic groups most represented in Indonesian society), such as Timor and West Papua.
In 1961, President Sukarno reasserted this claim and, under the guise of combating ‘Western Imperialism’, led an invasion of the territory in 1962. The indigenous Melanesians, who have inhabited the island for over 45,000 years, have long resented being ruled from Jakarta, signified by a decades long insurgency under the separatist Free West Papua Movement.
In response (or perhaps as an excuse), the Indonesian government has taken several highly controversial measures to quash any autonomist sentiments. These include:
- Criminalising the presentation of West Papua’s Morning Star flag (often associated with Papuan nationalism) as a treasonous offence;
- Attempting to dilute the province’s ethnic and religious makeup through the transmigration programme, which encourages Indonesian (mostly Muslim Javans) settlers to migrate to Papua.
- A series of indiscriminate killings and massacres that, since Indonesian rule began in the 1960’s, have amounted to a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, leading to allegations of genocide levelled against Jakarta;
- Journalists and Human Rights activists are barred from entering the territory, contributing to a “dearth of information” regarding the situation;
- In a particularly outrageous development, it has been reported that Jakarta is actively engaging in the kidnap of Papuan youth, destined for madrassas for ‘re-education’;
These policies continue to this day, with little resistance from both the international community and human rights organisations.
An explanation for this could be the aforementioned ban on the entrance of journalists and activists. This trend has, however, slowly begun to change.
In a pioneering diplomatic move, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) – a supranational union composed of the four Melanesian sovereign states of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands – has considered extending membership to West Papua.
Although largely symbolic, with officials undecided on precisely who would represent the Papuan people, it is among the first movements of its kind in recognising the Papuan right to home rule.
Away from the field of international politics, the Free West Papua Campaign – an NGO that is exclusively devoted to self-determination for the Papuan people (note it is unrelated, at least officially, to the militant group Free West Papua Movement) – has also gained traction.
Indeed, their petition calling on Jakarta to overturn their ban on journalists and activists entering West Papua has accumulated almost 35,000 signatures. Further, the campaign’s de facto leader, a political refugee by the name of Benny Wenda, was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize along with fellow activist and political prisoner, Filep Karma.
The campaign has also attracted some high profile supporters, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu; prominent British human rights activist Peter Tatchell; Australian senator Richard Di Natale; Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson; and of course the infamously outspoken Mark McGowan (commonly known by his alias ‘Chunky Mark’ or the ‘Artist Taxi Driver’).
These activists highlight the importance of investigating all alleged human rights abuses, no matter how far-flung and exotic their location.
Although I consider it dubious, it is neither my position nor my right as a private individual to deny Indonesia’s claim to sovereignty. What remains certain, however, is that the appalling situation must be addressed soon, lest it deteriorate into another East Timor – the likes of which the world does not want to see again.
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