Does West Papua Have A Publicity Problem?


"In my opinion, what’s happening in West Papua amounts to genocide, both physical and cultural," says Akihisa Matsuno, a professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy who specialises in Indonesia. "At the very least we have to say this is a crime against humanity in terms of a systematic annihilation of the civilian population that is intentional, widespread and ongoing."

"But Indonesia is different from Burma, which is a sort of pariah state, or North African countries which we know are despotic," he says. "In Indonesia the president looks okay, he’s not a dictator, he’s just an ordinary president heading an ordinary developing country, so it is more difficult for people to condemn him."

Professor Matsuno visited Sydney last week to speak at Comprehending West Papua, a conference organised by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University and attended by many of the prominent figures in West Papua’s long-running campaign for independence.

Despite the renewed interest in rights abuses on the other side of the globe, the conference attracted very little media attention. And yet it’s a lack of international attention that Matsuno believes has allowed the situation in West Papua to reach breaking point.

"West Papua is one of the very few areas in world where foreign mass media — or even domestic mass media — have no access. The others are probably Tibet and Xinjiang in China. And this is happening at a time when free media is flourishing in other parts of Indonesia, so people really aren’t aware of what’s going on there."

"This is why the world doesn’t know how unsustainable the situation on ground in West Papua really is, and in turn why the Indonesian Government doesn’t want the media to have access — because the Indonesian Government is afraid for the world to know."

In a thought-provoking presentation, Professor Matsuno told conference delegates that those calling for independence in West Papua should be publicising the dire situation in the province right now to support their claims, rather than revisiting past injustices and drawing on international covenants that protect the universal right to self-determination.

"Usually arguments for independence in West Papua address the past issues, and these arguments are still valid and correct," he said. "But I think we have to add a new dimension to the argument, and that is the unsustainability of the situation in West Papua right now: the human rights abuses, the lack of economic development, the malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and more."

"If you talk about the past 40 years then the situation with human rights in West Papua is really serious, it is one of the biggest tragedies in our time. We don’t know exactly how many people have died — some people say 300,000, some half a million — but the fact that we don’t know is neglectful in itself."

International opinion on self-determination is changing, Matsuno told the conference, and this can be seen clearly in recent international examples. Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, for example, was seen not as a right, but as a remedy to an unsustainable situation. Matsuno said this is an important distinction.

"In retrospect, we must say that … the territorial integrity of Serbia was neglected [and that]the protection of the people in Kosovo apparently had more weight", he said.

Matsuno believes this is highly relevant to Indonesia’s claims to West Papua. "If this interpretation is right, the world now tends to see the issue of self-determination not in terms of its original legality alone but more in terms of contemporary situations of functioning morality within the state borders," he said.

"I think the implications of this for West Papua are rather clear if this is right."

However, he warns a major obstacle to international support for West Papuan self-determination will be the history of UN involvement in the issue. "Historically, the UN recognised the incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia, it is a stain on the UN’s record, so it is very difficult to get the issue back on the political agenda in the UN because everyone feels guilty," he said. "If there is no strong movement like that happening in North Africa now, it will be difficult to get it back on the agenda."

From within West Papua, support for independence is widespread and resistance to Indonesia’s rule takes many forms, from armed guerilla-style, to the simple act of raising the Morning Star flag, an offence that carries a jail term of up to 20 years.

"When I travelled there a number of years ago I felt very strong support for independence among the people — from the young to the very old," says Matsuno. "Even when I spoke to public figures in universities or government, they couldn’t say explicitly [that they supported it], but I could feel they were so frustrated with the situation on the ground."

"The real obstacle to getting the situation in West Papua back on the public agenda is that no one knows just how bad the situation really is. Ideally we, the international community, should pay much more attention, but that is too abstract when people don’t really know what’s going on there."

"West Papuans are losing the information war," says Matsuno, and by blocking all media access, Indonesia is clearly winning. As such, they and their supporters need to "step up efforts to get information out in any way possible", and make use of social media to disseminate and organise.

"We should set up internet connections for example, encourage Facebook and Twitter — all of the new technology we are witnessing in North Africa at the moment."

"Strategically, we all need to think about how we can win this information battle."

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.