West Papua: Seeing no evil

Maire Leadbeater on the Current crisis in West Papua and her new book See No Evil: New Zealand’s Betrayal of the People of West Papua (Otago University Press, 2018)

On August 17, Indonesia’s national day, West Papuan students studying in Surabaya and Malang, East Java were subjected to a terrifying ordeal. Security forces and militia mobs stormed their dormitories yelling racist abuse included referring to the young people as ‘monkeys’ and ‘dogs’. In Surabaya the students were tear-gassed and 43 were arrested. The pretext was an accusation- never substantiated – that the students had damaged a flag pole flying the Indonesian flag.

In West Papua long simmering discontent has exploded into a kind of intifada. Commentators say that we need to go back to the turn of the century to see a comparable period of mass demonstrations, numbers reportedly reaching tens of thousands. Heedless of the risks they face, the young people are calling for an independence referendum and raising the banned West Papua Morning Star flag.

The Indonesian Government has exacerbated the situation by imposing an internet blackout and sending in thousands of security force personnel. As is always the case in West Papua, international journalists face tight official restrictions on access, so right now it is nigh impossible to verify the reports of civilian and military deaths and injuries.

This won’t play well for the Indonesian authorities. Videos are now emerging that indicate that armed militia or vigilantes are working with the military to attack the demonstrators.

In West Papua racism is embedded in its past as David Webster has illustrated in his post ‘International anti-Papuan Racism’. It is also embedded in the woefully inadequate health, education and social services available to indigenous Papuans. Indonesia’s statistics show West Papua has the highest rate of poverty of any Indonesian province and has a rate of HIV/AIDS that is twenty times the national average for Indonesia. In the Nduga regency conflict between the armed resistance and the military has led to the displacement of thousands of civilians and dozens of deaths from hunger and lack of medical care, but the area remains closed off even to local humanitarian NGOs.

When the Pacific Islands Forum met in August the heads of government included in their communiqué a statement about West Papua that was stronger than usual: a call for the UN Human Rights Commissioner to go to West Papua within the coming year. So there have been calls on the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to call for that mission to go now, as well as to speak out against the draconian internet ban.

But so far, silence.

The New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, says that New Zealand raises human rights with Indonesian representatives but makes sure Indonesia knows that New Zealand recognises Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty over Papua.

From my point of view, this ‘quiet diplomacy’ is a betrayal and in my book See no Evil: New Zealand’s betrayal of the people of West Papua I explain why.

The Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand, Tantowi Yahya, is not a fan of my book. Earlier this year he told Duncan Graham, a New Zealand journalist working in Jakarta, he had read my book and that the first three chapters of my book were factual but the rest was ‘propaganda’.

It is understandable that Mr Yahya does not look kindly on any critical examination of the history of Indonesia’s acquisition of West Papua. West Papuans were never consulted when they were traded off to Indonesia in 1962. The United States brokered the deal – the so-called New York agreement – between the Netherlands as the then colonial power and Indonesia. The agreement stipulated an ‘Act of Free Choice’ – but when this eventually took place in 1969 it was a cruel farce involving only 1,022 press-ganged participants.

However, Ambassador Yahya’s comment got me to re-examine Chapter Four in my book. It deals with a little known 1960 New Zealand initiative to help resolve the looming crisis in what was then Netherlands New Guinea. Prime Minister Walter Nash promoted the idea that the two halves of the New Guinea Island (the eastern half is today’s Papua New Guinea) should come together as one. Nash’s concept built on the work undertaken by Australian and Dutch officials who also gave thought to a joint decolonisation project. Nash was reprimanded by Indonesia’s Ambassador to New Zealand and Australia, but he replied that the people of New Guinea would want eventual independence ‘like everyone else’.

That is based on archival research, so hardly ‘propaganda’! It is interesting too that the call for a united New Guinea from Sorong on the north west tip of New Guinea to Samarai in the southeast of the island has many supporters today on both sides of the colonial border that divides New Guinea.

New Zealand’s betrayal of West Papua followed the pattern set by the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. For New Zealand it was a 180 degree turnaround from its earlier support for Dutch plans to decolonise the territory by gradually introducing self-government. The official briefings prepared for the Prime Minister in early 1962 reveal a level of moral unease. However, Keith Holyoake, the conservative Prime Minister who replaced Labour’s Walter Nash, accepted the advice he was given that New Zealand would have to accept an Indonesian takeover that would ‘pay lip-service to self-determination but provide no real guarantees whatsoever that the Papuans will in fact be able to exercise any genuine choice.’

As I dug into the New Zealand archives in the course of my research I encountered what I can only describe as complicity. New Zealand officials were always aware of how badly indigenous Papuans were faring under the Indonesian regime and of how fraudulently the 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’ was managed. The New Zealand Ambassador who observed part of the process commented on the ‘questionable morality of the entire process’. New Zealand officials knew in the 1980s of the negative impact of the transmigration programme on the lives and security of the Papuan people. And in the 1990s a representative observed at first hand the environmental devastation and land alienation caused that the Freeport-McMoRan mine left in its wake. New Zealand welcomed the 2001 ‘Special Autonomy’ Law for West Papua. However, in one 2003 report which was leaked to me unredacted, New Zealand Embassy officials are frank in their assessment that the law was not likely to address long-standing grievances. Until today, indigenous Papuans have no agency over their rich resources of gold, copper and timber.

Last year New Zealand celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations with Indonesia as ‘friends for good’. In March 2018 Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was welcomed to New Zealand with considerable pomp and ceremony including a 100-person guard of honour, a Maori powhiri or welcome and a 21-gun salute. At the same time New Zealand attained the status of a ‘Comprehensive partner.’ This is not quite up with the United States, which along with several other nations, including Australia, Japan and China, is ranked as a strategic partner. For western nations like New Zealand, Indonesia matters: it is a cornerstone of their regional security strategy as well as a lucrative trade and corporate investment partner.

The United States, closely followed by New Zealand, suspended defence ties with Indonesia in 1999, at a time when the Indonesian military unleashed a storm of destruction and deadly violence in East Timor. The new nation of Timor-Leste gained its freedom, but the Generals and commanders responsible for this deadly mayhem were never held to account. Retired General Wiranto was head of the armed forces at the time. He has never faced court over the atrocities that were meticulously documented by the Timorese and the United Nations. Now, as Chief Security Minister, he backs the current law and order crackdown and communications block in West Papua.

Fortunately for the Papuan people there is growing concern in the Pacific for West Papuan suffering. In 2015 the ULMWP gained observer status of the Melanesian Spearhead group. Since then a loose coalition of Pacific nations, led by Vanuatu, has succeeded in highlighting human rights abuses in West Papua at the United Nations General Assembly and at the Human Rights Committee. At the latest Pacific Islands Forum, the Prime Ministers of Samoa and Tonga were particularly vocal calling for stronger action.

These might seem like small steps but they are backed by an ever growing solidarity movement for West Papua. Across the Pacific colourful demonstrations are backed by social media campaigning calling for the West Papuans to be restored to their Pacific family. In February a large World Council of Churches delegation visited West Papua and expressed deep concern about environmental destruction and the ‘marginalisation’ of the Papuan people they witnessed. The Pacific Churches are taking a lead in solidarity actions in the current crisis.

Guam human rights lawyer, Julian Aguon, describes the denial of the right of self-determination to the people of West Papua as in itself a form of ‘state-sanctioned violence’.

‘Despite Indonesia’s claim to the contrary, in no universe was the infamous 1969 plebiscite a valid exercise in self-determination.’ West Papua is not on the UN decolonisation list but ‘the legal status of West Papua, or any colony for that matter, is determined by international law, not the list’.

It is clear that the West Papuan resistance is not going away. New Zealand, the United States, Australia and all other nations that have chosen to look away should be mindful that West Papua’s story is no longer hidden. East Timor showed us that international solidarity can eventually prevail even when governments and international institutions seem intractable.

Maire Leadbeater
Author of See No Evil: New Zealand’s Betrayal of the People of West Papua. Otago University Press, 2018.