A Forgotten Story


Like the daring embassy occupations carried out by East Timorese students in the lead up to East Timor’s independence, last week’s flight to freedom by 43 West Papuan refugees catapulted the issue of West Papua into the mainstream media. The attention is welcome. West Papua has been a forgotten and marginalised story for too long.

Since the Indonesian takeover of the province in 1963, Indigenous West Papuans – who see themselves as part of a Melanesian culture that spreads east across the Pacific – have been marginalised in their own land. Yet only occasional stories of the repressive military operations, human rights violations and the destructive practices of military-backed multinational corporations have filtered through to our living rooms.

Make no mistake: the 43 West Papuan refugees are political dissidents. The banner emblazoning their outrigger canoe with the words ‘save West Papua people soul from genocide’ was deliberate. Under Indonesian rule their struggle has become a struggle for survival.

In 2001 I interviewed Herman Wainggai, a prominent student activist and one of those seeking political asylum. For over forty years we have been living under pressure from the Indonesian military. Our heart is crying for independence’ he told me.

A sign at the Wamena Military base in West Papua: ‘The army is the protector of the people’.
Photo by Kel Dummett

Wainggai says he is deeply committed to the pursuit of West Papuan independence through nonviolent means. When I first interviewed him in 2001 he had just come out of four months jail for organising and participating in a rally and flag raising. When I returned to West Papua in 2002 he was in jail again for another nonviolent action, and was not released until 2004.

Louise Byrne from the Australia West Papua Association received a phone call at 3:00am on Friday 16 January saying that Wainggai and his companions, many of who had trekked through the jungle in order to make the dangerous ocean crossing, had left Merauke bound for Australia. ‘Their concern seems to be to preserve their activism. The Indonesian authorities have been extraordinarily effective in getting rid of people advocating independence for many years’ she said.

Being a thorn in the side of Indonesian rule seems to run in the Wainggai family. Herman Wainggai’s uncle, the famous West Papuan intellectual Dr Thomas Wainggai was also an activist. In the late 80s Dr Wainggai convened a series of discussions on the plight of West Papuans in which he orientated West Papuans to think of themselves as Melanesians living on the western rim of the Pacific.

On 14 December, 1988 Dr Wainggai, together with several hundred other West Papuans, participated in an illegal flag raising. He was arrested by the Indonesian authorities and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Several other leaders who helped organise the protest also received lengthy prison sentences. Dr Wainggai’s Japanese born wife was sentenced to six years jail for simply sewing the flag used in the demonstration.

Dr Wainggai died in prison in Jakarta in March 1996. The cause of his death is not known but many West Papuans suspect that he was murdered by the Indonesian military.

Yet it’s not only the politically active who are targeted in West Papua. The reality is that just to be Melanesian in the sprawling Asian archipelago is to invite suspicion and derision from the Indonesian security forces. The only contact that many West Papuans living in the remote interior have with the Indonesian State is with men in camouflage.

When the 43 West Papuan asylum seekers landed on Australian shores last week, however, Indonesian authorities emphatically denied there was a problem in the province. Last weekend Indonesia’s Metro TV was denying that the group had even claimed political asylum.

A few short days after their landing, the Indonesian military opened fire indiscriminately into a crowded market in the remote Tigi district of the Paniai regency in West Papua’s highlands. Up to five school children on their way to school were shot. At least one of those – Moses Douw, a relative of one of the 43 asylum seekers – was killed.

The arrival of the West Papuan asylum seekers made this attack news, when previously similar acts of violence by the military might have been suppressed or ignored. The reality, however, is that Paniai has been the scene of bloody military operations by the Indonesian military for the past two years.

According to Church leaders, human rights groups, and the authors of the Genocide in West Papua? report published by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at Sydney University last year, there have been a number of extra-judicial killings by the military in the Paniai regency. At least 371 houses, as well as schools, health clinics and churches have been razed to the ground. Over 6000 West Papuans have been forced to flee their homes, many of who later died of hunger related illnesses.

We cannot say we didn’t know. The CPACS report was tabled in Parliament after its release last year but both the Labor and Liberal parties refused to support a motion put forward by the Greens and Democrats for an investigation into the allegations contained in the report. The question needs to be asked: Why?

For their part, West Papuans are continuing to organise themselves politically to assert their rights. Late last year West Papuan resistance leaders meet at a secret three day meeting in Papua New Guinea to form the West Papua National Council for Liberation. This is the first time in West Papua’s four decade long struggle that guerrilla fighters from the National Liberation Army (TPN), political organisations and civil society groups have come together under one national umbrella organisation. The meeting marks a significant turning point in a movement that has long been riven by disunity and division.

The 30 West Papuan leaders in attendance represented 18 different resistance groups. A further 10 organisations unable to attend the meeting have also pledged cooperation. ‘The coalition will continue to consult widely to consolidate the movement’ said West Papuan leader Rex Rumakiek, one of the Coalition’s external spokespersons, in a press statement later released from Fiji.

Photo by Kel Dummett

Coalition members, including TPN commands, all renewed their commitment to struggle for freedom through nonviolent means. To encourage the armed struggle not to be provoked into conflict with the Indonesian military ‘the Coalition and its Secretariat will maintain close contact between different armed commands to continue to support their commitment to peaceful resistance,’ said Rumakiek.

The Coalition is calling for the support of the international community to assist them as they seek to find a peaceful solution to the West Papuan conflict.

If the Coalition continues to successfully unite opposition to Indonesian rule in West Papua it could pose a substantial threat to Jakarta.

It’s tempting to think that the Indonesian Government alone is responsible for the suffering of the West Papuan people and that the solution is simply to support humane and sensible leadership in Jakarta. The reality, however, is that Western governments like Australia’s are deeply complicit in the problem, and any lasting solution will need to have international dimensions.

Australia supports oppression in West Papua in three key ways. Firstly, seemingly learning nothing from East Timor, in the last five years Australia has trained some 700 Indonesian military personnel. Last year Australia also sent $8 million dollars worth of arms, including ammunition, telescopic sights, and body armour to the Indonesian military.

Australia also continues to obstruct self-determination in West Papua at regional meetings like the Pacific Island Forum, and benefits economically through massive profits reaped by Australian resource companies exploiting West Papua’s abundant natural resources.

It is time Australia grew up and stood up for West Papua. At the very least allegations of genocide need to be investigated. Silence and diplomatic sycophancy do nothing to support democratic transition in Indonesia.

However, like East Timor it is to the Australian people that I look towards to show some leadership and moral gumption on this issue. Perhaps then the politicians will follow.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.