Radio NZ – More mass demonstrations are expected in Indonesia’s Papua region amid growing international interest in West Papuan self-determination aspirations.
Last week’s demonstrations in cities across Papua region and other Indonesian cities came three weeks after similar public mobilisations, and resulted in mass arrests.
It’s traditional for West Papuans to demonstrate around May the 1st. This date is the anniversary of transfer of administration in the former Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia in 1963, a process in which Papuans were not consulted.
But this year they were also demonstrating their support for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua‘s bid to be a full member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, as well as the International Parliamentarians for West Papua.
The IPWP, a network of politicians from around the world who support self-determination for West Papuans and are concerned about ongoing human rights abuses against Papuans, held a summit in London last week.
One of the IPWP’s founders is the British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who said at the summit that he wanted support for West Papuan self-determination, and recognition of the human rights issues, to become central to policy in his Labour Party.
Attended by MPs from the wider Pacific, Europe and Britain, as well as Liberation Movement leaders such as Benny Wenda, the summit resulted in a declaration calling for an internationally-supervised vote on independence in West Papua.
The West Papua-based journalist Victor Mambor said people demonstrating last week in Papua‘s main centres supported this call.
“They want a referendum, they want the right to self-determination. As far as I know the authorities never talk about that, they didn’t want to talk about that,” he said.
However Jakarta insists that there is no going back on the what it calls the ‘final’ incorporation of West Papua into the republic, and has been swift to condemn the London meeting.
In a series of posts on Twitter, the Indonesian embassy in Australia called the meeting a publicity stunt organised by a ‘small group of Papuan separatists and sympathisers.’
Jakarta said the United Nations and international community already recognised Papua as part of Indonesia, saying the region already has self-determination through special autonomy, elections and education.
However, the 1969 referendum by which West Papua was formally incorporated into Indonesia, named the Act of Free Choice, is widely regarded as having been stage-managed.
A leading Vanuatu government minister who attended the London summit, Ralph Regenvanu, said there was growing international support to address what remained an unresolved decolonisation issue.
“According to international law, that self-determination issue has never been addressed by a proper vote in West Papua, and that’s been recognised at a number of forums,” said Mr Regenvanu.
“Decolonisation never happened and in fact this colony was simply passed from one colonial power, being the Dutch, to another colonial power which is Indonesia which continues to colonise the territory to this day.”
Jokowi’s Papua drive
The demonstrations came just a day after Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo visited Papua region to open a major port facility and preside over a new market construction designed to assist Papuans.
Less than two years since taking office, President Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’ as he is known, has already visited Papua several times – more than any previous Indonesian president.
Jokowi has embarked on a major development drive in Papua, including plans for an 800-kilometre Papuan highway and an ambitious 1,390-km railway project.
“Within the first one-and-a-half years of Jokowi’s administration, eastern Indonesia’s economic growth has surpassed that of the western part of the country,” according to a statement from Indonesia’s House of Representatives following last week’s London summit.
The president’s focus on economic development in Papua has been welcomed but for many West Papuans has not addressed the self-determination issue, nor ongoing human rights abuses.
The Jokowi administration appears limited in its ability to rein in the military and police forces who run Papua; gains in living conditions for Papuans have yet to eventuate.
Indonesia’s leading human rights body said last month that abuses in Papua, generally by security forces, remained as rampant as they were under previous governments.
Furthermore, health and education outcomes in Papua are typically Indonesia’s worst – for instance, Papua region has a rate of HIV/AIDS which is 20 times the national average.
Indonesian police said that the West Papua National Committee (which is part of the Liberation Movement) requested permission to hold the demonstrations and failed to meet the requirements. They proceeded anyway.
The demonstrations have gone wider, spreading even to Indonesian cities outside Papua, including Semarang and Makassar, with significant West Papuan populations.
A Papuan who works with political prisoners, Ruth Ogetay, said there was a common theme among the demonstrators.
“All over our land, West Papua, in cities like Wamena, Jayapura, the expression of West Papuans has been in support of independence,” she said.
While there was a more restrained conduct of police forces in handling last week’s demonstrations compared with past rallies, the number of arrests was massive.
Some local media reports had the number of arrests as high as 1700.
While the vast majority of those detained have since been released, images of hundreds of Papuans being held semi-naked in the midday sun at paramilitary police headquarters have caught international attention.
In the wake of the arrests, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, not for the first time, was pressed about the rights situation in West Papua.
“The government is concerned about these matters,” he told parliament, “and the government wants to see an improvement in the situation in that part of the world.
“The government does not believe that megaphone diplomacy will serve that objective.”
Politicians in Australia have frequently claimed that the economic and social plight of the indigenous people of Indonesia’s West Papua region was improving.
But a new report called ‘We will Lose Everything’, based on a fact finding mission the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Brisbane, concludes otherwise.
Some Papuans say life in their region has improved significantly, compared to the years under the rule of Indonesia’s President Suharto who fell in 1998.
Yet the proportion of West Papuans to the overall population of their region is declining quickly as non-Papuan migrants stream in on a regular basis, via the state-facilitated transmigration system.
As a result, in their homeland Papuans are increasingly marginalised, in terms of culture and economic activity.
The internationalisation of the West Papua issue continues, despite Jakarta’s insistence that it is a domestic matter.
As Tonga’s prime minister Akilisi Pohiva said following his attendance at the London summit, United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals were ‘impossible to achieve without the full support for the human rights of all people living in areas of conflict throughout the world and in the peaceful Pacific region.’
Grassroots support for governmental action on West Papua is steadily growing in the Pacific Islands region, particularly Melanesia.
The Melanesian Spearhead Group’s decision last year to grant the Liberation Movement observer status within the group was a recognition of that.
Concurrently, Indonesia with its claims to a large Melanesian population, became an associate member of the MSG in 2015.
The changing shape of the MSG – whose full members are Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia’s Kanak peoples – has become a divisive issue.
Ralph Regenvanu said Indonesian inclusion in the MSG was supposed to have opened the way for dialogue about West Papua. But he said that unfortunately the MSG’s call for Jakarta to dialogue had been ignored.
“And in fact they rebuffed the prime minister of the Solomons (Manasseh Sogavare who is the current MSG chair). There’s been no response to the letter from the prime minister of Papua New Guinea as the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum to them, asking for some sort of human rights assessment to be done,” said Mr Regenvanu.
“The question is: do they really want to engage or not? If it (Jakarta) is not coming to the table, then why are they in the MSG?”
The MSG is expected to have a leaders summit before the end of June in Port Vila where the full members are due to discuss the Liberation Movement’s bid for full membership.
As this draws near, more West Papuan demonstrations are likely.