Bloodshed in West Papua


West Papuan man Opinus Tabuni was shot and killed by the Indonesian military during a celebration of the UN World Indigenous People’s Day in the highland city of Wamena in August. The murder aimed to strengthen the presence of the Indonesian security apparatus in the province, according to a recent finding of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights.

"Tabuni did not participate in the demonstration, and the bullet found in the left side of his heart is of a type usually used by Indonesian military officers. We don’t know the motive yet; but we are afraid that it was engineered to create a horizontal conflict, so they have a legitimacy to be in West Papua." said Commissioner Yosep Adi Prasetyo when I spoke to him in Melbourne in October.

The day was marked by a peaceful demonstration that was attended by over 10,000 West Papuans who travelled to Wamena from the Baliem Valley and neighboring highland areas. The West Papuan nationalist Morning Star flag was unfurled, along with the Indonesian flag, a white SOS flag to call for help for West Papua and the United Nations flag.

The Indonesian Government has placed an outright ban on the use of the Morning Star flag, as it symbolises West Papuan self-determination. The regulations state: "The design of a local symbol and flag must not have main similarities to the design, logo and flag of any illegal organisation or separatist organisation/group/institution/movement in the Unitary Republic of Indonesia". According to Prasetyo: "There is strict enforcement of the government regulation; anyone wearing the Morning Star t-shirt or even a woman who knits the Morning Star sign is accused of rebelling against the state, although they are just showing their pride in the symbol."

The flag-raising ceremony turned to chaos when shots were fired into the air to intimidate demonstrators. Tabuni was caught in the crossfire and the fatal bullet was found to be one typically used by the Indonesian military rather than local police.

The Commission found that a taskforce was deployed from Jakarta to Wamena to monitor the demonstration. "Two police officers and a few local military officers were the eyewitnesses to the incident as they guarded the area. We don’t know, however, where the taskforce officers originated, either from the military or from the intelligence agency, as they never reported to the local authority," Prasetyo said.

Indonesian intelligence, military and police officers have long been implicated in human rights violations in West Papua. Atrocities such as the death of Tabuni led 43 West Papuans to risk their lives and seek political asylum in Australia in 2006. The group say they fled West Papua to avoid prosecution by the Indonesian Government for their independence activism, an allegation later denied by Indonesia.

They left Merauke on 13 January 2006, travelling by sea in a rudimentary seven-metre long canoe. Their arduous journey, expected to take only one day, lasted nearly five days. Aboard the canoe was Julius Kogoya (not his real name) a 23-year-old political activist. Among those accompanying him were seven women and seven children under 15.

Kogoya was politically active when he was a student at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura, West Papua. He was afraid of being persecuted and traumatised after the murder of 10 relatives in 2001. "My relatives were killed in Bogolakme, an area between Wamena and the peak of Mt Jayawijaya. They were shot when they were sleeping by Indonesian soldiers, because they were suspected as members of Free Papua Organisation (OPM)" said Kogoya when I spoke with him recently.

After experiencing harsh conditions for days, the asylum seekers landed in Cape York. They were flown to Christmas Island and detained until the Australian government recognised their status as asylum seekers and granted them Temporary Protection Visas.

Gaining a permanent residency in Australia and witnessing West Papuan independence are Kogoya’s future hopes. Now living in a public housing estate in Melbourne, he is studying journalism and aims to expose any future human rights violations in his homeland.

The acceptance of the West Papuan asylum seekers by the Australian government essentially recognised that human rights violations were committed by the Indonesian authority in the territory, giving weight to West Papuans’ quest for independence. The decision generated much debate within Australia and caused a rift between the Indonesian and Australian governments.

What the discussions turned on was whether Australian foreign policy should focus on human rights issues or on the maintenance of a good bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

Dr Rodd McGibbon, a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University was one of those who was against the decision to grant asylum to the group, and does not believe it is a good idea to support West Papuan self determination. "Instead of creating solution for the conflict, support for the West Papuan independence struggle creates more problems" he claims in his paper, Pitfalls of Papua, Understanding the conflict and its place in Australia-Indonesia relations, which was published by the Lowy Institute in 2006.

He argues that "Australia needs to directly confront perception in Indonesia that it is supporting Papuan separatism". This perception, he said, is "widespread" and "has been reinforced by the separation of East Timor."

Dr Clinton Fernandes, who is a senior lecturer in politics at ADFA, disagrees. "West Papuan independence will not hurt, harm or help Australia, as an independent West Papua will not be antagonistic against Australia," he said. He believes that what hurts Australia most is the failure to dispense justice to Indonesian military officers who committed crimes in East Timor and who are now in West Papua.

Since the reformasi movement started in 1997 there has been some reform of the Indonesian army, including that which eventually led to the downfall of Suharto. Although the progress of the reformasi movement is slower than expected, it does activate people to monitor the Government’s conduct. But while reforms are taking place in the army, the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency remains untouched.

"The military is now being careful, because of the accusations of human rights violations in the past. Its business involvement is also being eliminated. The intelligence agency has not been reformed; its officers often create conflicts and then become peace makers," said Prasetyo.

To stop further human rights violations in West Papua and to prevent further escalation of the conflict, the Indonesian Government needs to commit to further reform within its institutions and be genuine in recognising the needs of West Papuans.

And on the Australian side, orienting foreign policy towards the protection of human rights will prompt further reform in Indonesia; it will also promote solutions to the conflict in West Papua.

The bloodshed in Timor and the slowness of the international community including successive Australian governments to act in the past should be a reminder to those who put bilateral relations before human rights in foreign policy.

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.