In the fight to finally end the subjugation of Pacific people by colonizing powers, West Papua is the last active front. And the fight for freedom by the native Papuan people kicked into higher gears this last two weeks, as massive protests for human rights and self-determination ignited across the cities of the province. According to the Time Magasine,
the most recent unrest appears to have been sparked by the mass arrest of Papuan students in Surabaya, a city on the island of Java. Citing Papuan activists, the Guardian reports that 43 students were detained in relation to the destruction of a flag during celebrations marking Indonesia’s independence on August 17.
An account by the Time: ” The episode led to a chaotic confrontation in which students barricaded themselves inside a dormitory to fend off an angry mob, and police reportedly threw tear gas inside the building and yelled racist slurs at the Papuan students, calling them derogatory names like “monkeys” and “pigs.” The following Monday, protests erupted in the West Papuan capital Manokwari, soon spreading to other parts of the province. Demonstrations showing solidarity with West Papuans have also been held in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.”
Subsequently, Internet has been blocked by authorities across the region, making it hard for news organisation to cover the initially peaceful protests. But Agence France Presse reports that on Monday the protests turned violent, describing riots. Protestors in the city of Sorong torched several buildings, including a jail freeing 250 to 500 prisoners. Local ONG reported that the protests ending with one activist dead and dozens of wounded.
The bloodshed had an amplifying effect, sparking more resentment across the population and even more rallies. This Wednesday, the protesters faced renewed violence, the day ending with 2 to 5 protesters dead (number of casualties differ between Papuan or Indonesian sources) and a policeman or soldier dead.
These protests are just the latest episode in a long struggle by the Papuan people against what they qualify as a foreign occupation. The West Papuan Province is tightly controlled by the Indonesian government, but numerous accounts of human rights violations against the native Papuan population show a less than amiable cohabitation. Extra-judicial imprisonments and executions are common, whole villages are regularly bombed by the army, mistreatment and general discrimination against native people keep them in poverty, and the natural ressources of the island are pillaged without Papuan consent… But the international community has been largely silent or unwilling to intervene.
Until now. The last protests and subsequent military violence were sufficiently important for regional leaders to voice official concerns, as shown by these quotes published by RNZ :
- Ralph Regenvanu, the foreign minister of Vanuatu, whose country has been the most ardent supporter of the West Papuan independence movement, published by RNZ: “Something more has got to be done because the human rights situation is worsening”
- Tonga’s prime minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva delivered an emotional speach at the Pacific Forum in Tuvalu : “The case has been repeatedly raised and discussed and yet nothing happens, (…) We have become so dependent on other people to control our territory we have lost our sense of selves and self-reliance. Violence will continue to go on and on and on and look at us do nothing. We will continue to discuss the same problem over and over again while our brothers are left behind. We must make sure no one is left behind.”
- Samoa prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi added: “The challenges facing West Papuans have not reduced, and we cannot continue to ignore this issue … we need to review the positions we have taken up until now.”
In the end, the leaders of the Pacific agreed to unanimously called for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit West Papua within the next year to investigate. They also “strongly encouraged” Jakarta to finalise a visit by the commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s office to investigate abuses including torture, extrajudicial killings, and systemic violence by the police and military.
To understand the violences, some historical contest: the western coast of the huge New Guinea island was a historical possession of Indonesian trading kingdoms, starting by the most famous, the Majapahit Empire (1293 to circa 1500). Then it became a Dutch colony in the 16th century, before being ceded to the Indonesian government in 1963 under the name West Papua. The Eastern part of the island became the independent Papua New Guinea country.
West Papua is predominantly Melanesian and Christian, with indigenous people living in the mountains of the island, but there are numerous Indonesian cities along the coast. Indonesia is predominantly Austronesian and Muslim. A peaceful cohabitation could have been possible, but wide abuses of human rights against the Papuan people created a huge schism that lead to the creation of a strong independence movement on the island, complete with armed rebels. West Papua was awarded an autonomy status in 2003, but the grip of the military on the local people is stronger than ever, as the violences of this week illustrate.
Before the situation escalates into a full blow civil war, which will undoubtedly see Indonesia being cast away from the international community, an end to violence and peace negotiations have to be organised to address the core issues of the province.