West Papua — Australia's new Timor-Leste?
The decades-long struggle of the West Papuan people for self-determination has intensified in recent months — and Australia’s role in aiding and abetting the Indonesian occupation is once again being brought under international scrutiny.
Australia has had a questionable role in West Papua’s history. The Dutch occupied West Papua and Indonesia in the 16th century. When the Indonesian people won independence in 1949, the Dutch held on to West Papua.
They did so with the support of Australia, which wanted another colonial power to act as a buffer against a possible invasion from the north.
Indonesia’s post-independence president Sukarno demanded West Papua become part of Indonesia. The Dutch instead decided to prepare West Papua for independence. The Indonesian government then invaded West Papua on December 19, 1961, after West Papuans first raised their Morning Star flag on December 1.
Under the 1962 New York Agreement, signed by Dutch and Indonesian officials, a process was set in motion involving temporary United Nations administration, then full Indonesian control and finally an opportunity for “self-determination”.
However, the “self-determination” involved was a sham and instead paved the way for Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua.
In the so-called "Act of Free Choice" of 1969 — known to West Papuans as the “Act of No Choice” — 1022 West Papuans (out of a population of 800,000) were press-ganged into voting for incorporation into Indonesia.
Independence was denied.
Indonesian, Australian and other foreign interests have ruthlessly exploited West Papua's abundant natural resources, leaving West Papuans in poverty and facing the environmental and human impacts of mining and loss of land rights.
Indonesian troops, trained by Australia, Britain and the United States, have terrorised the population for decades. Human rights abuses, disappearances, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement and the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Papuans have been the result of what a 2016 Catholic Justice and Peace Commission fact-finding mission described as a “slow motion genocide”.
The Indonesian government’s transmigration program to resettle Indonesians in West Papua has resulted in ethnic Papuans now comprising a minority of the region’s population.
The election of Joko Widodo as Indonesian president has not improved the situation. In fact, human rights violations have risen since he took power, according to Indonesian human rights groups.
West Papuans routinely face racist treatment in Indonesia. Such abuses, including physical harassment, raids of student housing and brutal attacks, sparked the current uprising that has spread throughout West Papua.
Six thousand new Indonesian occupation troops have been deployed in West Papua since the uprising to carry out arrests, raids and murders.
Indonesian troops have attacked peaceful protesters calling for a democratic referendum to be carried out through an international mechanism. On August 28, troops shot dead six protesters in the West Papuan state of Deiyai.
Indonesia is pursuing Australian-based Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, a long-time campaigner for the rights of West Papuans. Indonesia is seeking the Australian government’s help to hunt her down and is threatening to issue an Interpol Red Notice for her arrest.
So far, Australia has "agreed not to interfere with the legal process", according to the ABC, but this does not guarantee Koman’s safety.
Australia must grant Koman protection and not hand her over to Indonesia.
In a September 15 statement, Koman said: “For years, the Indonesian government has allocated more time and energy to waging a propaganda war than it has to investigating and ending human rights abuses in West Papua.
“Now we are seeing a clear example of ‘shoot the messenger’ in the state’s effort to persecute those, including me, who draw attention to abuses it is unwilling or unable to address.”
West Papua’s neighbour, Timor-Leste, recently celebrated 20 years since its independence. Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in 1975 and throughout its occupation received political support from successive Australian governments.
Australia was the only country in the world to give de jure recognition to Indonesia’s annexation of Timor-Leste. At the time of Timor-Leste’s independence referendum, it was the weight of the growing solidarity movement that forced the Australian government to send troops to protect the Timorese from Indonesian-backed militia attacks.
The Timorese won their independence in spite of Australia’s continued backing of Indonesia. They did so thanks to decades of political struggle by Timorese activists, inside and outside the country, and a powerful international solidarity movement that eventually spread to Indonesia.
Such a movement is needed today to force Australia to cease its training of repressive Indonesian forces, to put the lives of West Papuans ahead of Australian corporate interests and to support the West Papuan people's struggle for self-determination.