Mirrors & flags: the situation in West Papua.

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Susan Connelly.

A great deal is being written about the violence and deaths in Papua and West Papua, the two provinces of Indonesia which occupy the western half of the island of New Guinea. But what is being done about it?

The confusion of names in this region exacerbates the problem. West Irian, Irian Jaya, West Papua, Papua, the Papuan provinces – so many name changes. Too many people think that, when discussing West Papua, the topic is Papua New Guinea (PNG). Ignorance of the name merely symbolises the lack of awareness of the greed, violence, and dishonesty at the heart of the region’s recent history, one of Australia’s closest Pacific neighbours.

The Papuans have one advantage – a flag. Its symbolism, however, is a two-edged sword. Papuans are being arrested and jailed for honouring their flag.

Recent Papuan history is almost a mirror image of that of East Timor (now Timor-Leste). The Papuan provinces and East Timor were both subject to European colonisation, and left relatively under-developed and vulnerable when their colonial masters withdrew (Portugal from East Timor in 1974, and the Netherlands from Papua in 1963). East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, and endured 24 years of occupation, before a properly administered UN referendum in 1999. Once the Dutch left Papua, it was handed over to Indonesia in a most deficient UN process. In a population of over 800,000, reports indicate that only 1,025 Papuans were taken to various gathering places in 1969, and, while being held at gunpoint, agreed to a statement that Papua was part of Indonesia.

The distinguishing marks of Indonesian rule both in Timor and in Papua included transmigration, subjugation, and violence. Migrants were brought to both areas from heavily populated parts of Indonesia, given housing and ready access to education, jobs, and promotion prospects. The indigenous populations faced programs of ‘Indonesianisation’ through strictures on using their own languages, and by the favouring of Indonesian cultural expressions. Opportunities for advancement, or for simply selling produce and wares, paled in the face of the advantages provided to Indonesian migrants.

In West Papua and Timor Leste, decades of ill will and discrimination generated opposition. The failure of Indonesia to gain the hearts and minds of the youth was met not with questions and self-reflection, as may have been expected from Indonesia, which itself gained independence and arose as a justly proud nation in 1945. Instead, Timorese and Papuan patriots were met with arrests, detention, torture, and death. Up to 183,000 Timorese died violently during the occupation, in a population which did not reach one million until years after independence. The most conservative estimate of Papuan violent deaths is 100,000; others maintain it is far greater than this.

Concealment of the true situation in both places made the facts difficult to ascertain. East Timor was closed to the world for the 14 years from 1975 to 1989, and journalists have been actively prevented from entering the Papuan provinces for years.

Australia’s role

A deeply troubling aspect of all this is the role of Australia. The Australian voting pattern at the United Nations consistently favoured Indonesia, and Australia continued various levels of military assistance throughout the annexation from 1975 to 1999. Until the very last moment, Australian governments endorsed Indonesian claims to sovereignty over East Timor. In 2006, Australia and Indonesia signed the Lombok Treaty, in which bilateral relations, intelligence sharing, and security challenges are addressed. Through this treaty, Australia recognises Indonesia’s ‘territorial integrity’, which includes its claim of sovereignty over West Papua.

Australia’s deference to Indonesia is symbolised by a disturbing event which occurred in 1969. Just before the ‘Act of Free Choice’, two Papuan leaders attempted to go to New York with petitions and other documents testifying that their people were calling for independence. When they arrived in the Australian-administered territory of New Guinea en route to the United States, they were stopped by ASIO officers and detained on Manus Island, preventing them from raising the Papuan voice at the UN. The fraudulent ‘vote’ then went ahead, the UN meekly deferring to Indonesia, as Australia had done.

As the widespread violence continues in West Papua in the last quarter of 2019, the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister has called on both sides to exercise “absolute restraint”. Both sides. The use of this innocuous-sounding phrase is itself a deeply fraudulent act. It continues all Australian governments’ consistent support of Indonesia by painting as some form of equal contest atrocities on the part of heavily-armed Indonesian army and police against civilians with sticks and knives. Has Australia noted, even diplomatically, that Indonesia has installed General Wiranto to administer security in Papua – the same Wiranto indicted in 2003 for crimes against humanity for his role as security guardian in East Timor? Does this outrage even raise an eyebrow in the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade?

The suffering of the Papuan people mirrors the suffering of the Timorese. Sadly, the current fence-sitting on the part of Australia mirrors its docility during the decades of the Timorese oppression. Yet, as with the Timorese, it is the Papuan people who are holding a mirror up to the Australian face. Their plight reflects back to us our fear of Indonesia, our desperation not to appear to offend, our shaky grasp of human rights. We look into that mirror and see the deep national void we so long to fill with a character, an identity worthy of the name.

Not yet having come to terms with the dispossession inflicted on our own Indigenous peoples, we are paralysed in the face of this creeping Papuan genocide. The suffering of the Papuan people is the suffering of the Cross in 2019. We would do well to gaze and learn.

The Papuan people are making two demands: that the UN investigate the human rights abuses which account for so many deaths, and that a properly supervised referendum be held to replace the shameful betrayal of 1969. Already, 1.8 million Papuans have signed and delivered a petition to the UN, demanding these basic political rights.

What can we do to help the Papuan people? Well, 1 December marks West Papua Flag Day, the anniversary of the bestowal of the West Papuan flag by the Dutch, as they were leaving the territory. To fly the Papuan flag with them on 1 December on social media accounts or in emails would be one small thing we could do to show solidarity, compassion, and resistance.

This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of The Good Oil, the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters
Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph. She has taught in Catholic and State schools, has worked with the people of East Timor, and is particularly concerned about the injustices suffered by the West Papuan people, and Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
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