Guns Turn on Protesting Students


‘Sam’ is a West Papuan who lives and studies in Melbourne. Before coming to Australia he was heavily involved in student activism against the Indonesian military’s role in West Papua, and is still in contact with student activists at Cenderawasih University campus in Abepura, on the outskirts of the capital Jayapura, where the latest clash between police and Papuans took place on 16 March.

"I went to jail for six months for protesting against Indonesia’s role in West Papua," he says. Although there has been no official confirmation of deaths, according to Sam’s contacts, six West Papuans have died since the incident, and as many as 150 were injured, including high school students.

Late last week Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja told reporters she had received information from a source in West Papua of 16 deaths in reprisal attacks.

This week Alex Rayfield from the Australia West Papua Association also received independent reports that 16 people have been disappeared, and there are grave concerns for another 75-80 who are in jail.

The deaths have not been confirmed.

Since late February, there have been a number of protests by West Papuan civil society groups and students demanding the closure of the Freeport-McMoRan mining operations around Timika in the south of West Papua, which include the world’s largest gold and copper mine, Grasberg.

West Papuans argue that they suffer the environmental consequences but do not receive revenue from the mine, and that human rights abuses are regularly committed by the Indonesian forces that act as security for the company.

On 16 March protestors gathered near Cenderawasih University, where they felled coconut palms and piled up tyres to block the Abepura-Sentani highway. The Indonesian Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) moved in to remove the blockade, and a violent confrontation broke out.

Rayfield has had contact with a number of people in the area, since the protests. "My sources say that there was someone in the crowd who threw a rock. Then the police opened fire, and that’s when the crowd turned," he said. Three police officers and a soldier were killed.

Locals say reprisal attacks by the police began immediately. Rayfield was told by one source that police had talked about "hunting West Papuans down" regardless of whether they were present at the protest.

"The army got involved and Brimob were kicking down the doors of people’s homes and student ashrams (dormitories), pulling people out and beating them," he said. "They were shooting at cars with West Papuans in them. Even the head of police went down to restore order, and at one stage the police just ignored them. It was total breakdown."

Since the protests, Rayfield has received phone calls and text messages from a number of witnesses and victims, including information that Albert Rumbekwan, a local human rights lawyer, was intimidated by police and asked not to investigate the incident. The staff of West Papuan human rights watchdog, Elsham, who were monitoring the demonstration were searched and their movements have been limited through fear of arrest and detention.

One text message listed eight student accommodation dorms that had been raided by police. They are: Nayak, Nimig, Mimika, Cemo, Uncen (unit 6), Kinaonak, Maro and Moni.

Another read: "Many people’s houses destroyed. Many Papuan citizens were shot and tortured. There are large numbers of victims and the people aren’t allowed to move anywhere. The torture has caused wounding. Please forward this to your networks from Papua."

Last night Rayfield received a text message that said a student had just been shot dead.

"This is similar to the Abepura case in 2000," he says, "when one Brimob was killed [in an attack on the Abepura police station]and they went on a revenge attack, arrested or tortured over one hundred students, killed three in detention and another later died." (Read‘s coverage of the case here).

According to Sam, those involved in the protest on 16 March had three main demands: that the Freeport-McMoRan mine be closed until an agreement is drawn up between the mine operators and the West Papuan people; that all combat troops be withdrawn from West Papua; and that a dialogue take place about the controversial Act of Free Choice (under which Indonesia was handed control of the province), with third party negotiators.

"[Protestors believe that] if they shut down Freeport-McMoRan there will be no money to support the military to enable all the other mining and human rights abuses," says Sam. They also want to draw attention to the fact that Indonesia signed the contract for Freeport-McMoRan to mine in West Papua in 1962, a year before it had official control of the territory.

West Papua was colonised by the Netherlands in the 19th century and incorporated as part of the Dutch East Indies. But Dutch sovereignty was not relinquished at the same time as the rest of the archipelago, which gained independence as the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.

The Netherlands continued to administer the province until 1962, when amid increasing international pressure and in dispute with Indonesia its control was officially transferred to a United Nations transitional government, under a UN-backed agreement known as the New York Agreement.

Under this agreement, administration of West Papua was officially handed to Indonesia the year after, with the provision that Indonesia would hold a referendum after a period of six years in which the people of West Papua would vote on whether to integrate.

The referendum, known as the Act of Free Choice (but later dubbed the ‘Act of No Choice’), was held in 1969, under questionable circumstances. Only 1022 of the 800,000-strong population were permitted to vote ostensibly as community representatives and it is now widely understood that the selected voters were coerced, threatened and closely scrutinised by armed Indonesian security personnel to unanimously vote for integration with Indonesia.

West Papuans argue that their integration with Indonesia was a denial of their right to self-determination.

John Rumbiak is a West Papuan human rights investigator who has worked to uncover abuses undertaken by the Indonesian military in West Papua.

In an interview in 2003, Rumbiak explained that Papuans claim the whole process of transferal to Indonesian control was fraudulent. "However, the Indonesian Government claims that it’s over that Papua is an integral part of Indonesia [and their]stand is supported by the international community, regardless of the fraudulent process," he said.

"We would like to raise it to the international community that this is the source of the conflict."

President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has accused pro-independence activists in West Papua of hijacking what is essentially a local grievance with Freeport-McMoRan, and using the recent protests to undermine Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

Rayfield says the issues are not mutually exclusive. "There are pent up strong feelings and anger [in West Papua]not just at the 40 years of injustice and oppression, but also specifically towards the security apparatus and Brimob in particular."

One local human rights worker says people have begun to resort to violence in West Papua because their demands for negotiation go continually unheeded: "People were protesting for one day and no one noticed or responded. So on the second day they were frustrated. Then instead of sending in the authorities to negotiate, they sent Brimob. Frustration was what caused [the violence]."

Meanwhile, as reprisal attacks continue, hundreds of West Papuan students are reportedly still hiding in the jungles outside Jayapura in fear for their lives.

Because local human rights watch organisations are being intimidated, West Papuans are calling for an independent, international investigation into the situation.

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.