EXCLUSIVE: Detained Papuan Leaders Speak Out


The man who was last month elected President of the ‘Federal Republic of West Papua’ after a declaration of independence by the third Papuan People’s Congress may be behind bars, he may have been savagely beaten by the Indonesian police, but he has not been silenced.

From his five by four metre cell in the bowels of the Jayapura Police Station — quarters he shares with five other Papuans also charged with rebellion against the Indonesian state — Forkorus Yaboisembut recently issued a rousing call to action, which was smuggled out of the prison and obtained by New Matilda.

"To all the Papuan people," Yaboisembut writes, "don’t be afraid to celebrate December 1, whether you do so simply, or as part of large gatherings. Do not be afraid because we, the Papuan people, do not intend to destroy any country; we only wish to defend our political rights."

1 December marks the anniversary of the first raising of the Morning Star flag in 1961. Along with many other Papuan activists, Yaboisembut was arrested after Indonesian security forces opened fire on the Congress meeting on 19 October. At least six people died during the attack.

This is the first time Yaboisembut has spoken to Western media since his arrest. Our discussion is constrained by time and space but I can picture the tribal elder from previous meetings. He is a quietly spoken man who is getting on in years but is still strong and alert. He walks tall, sits up straight and dresses neatly. His short hair and longish grey beard gives him the look of an Old Testament prophet.

When Yaboisembut was arrested last month he was tortured so badly that he could barely sit or stand. Dominikus Surabut, from the West Papua Council of Customary Tribal Chiefs, who was also detained and badly tortured, told New Matilda that police beat Yaboisembut mercilessly with a rifle butt, raining blows down on his head and crashing their weapons into his abdomen. In a widely published Indonesian language account of the arrest, a religious leader said that an Indonesian soldier was ready to shoot him dead but was urged not to by a policeman.

Yaboisembut believes West Papuans’ political rights are inalienable. "Whether you take the United Nations founding document, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights or even the Indonesian Constitution as your starting point, Papuans have the right to self-determination," he says.

"The preamble to the 1945 Indonesian Constitution mentions expressly, that independence is the right of all nations, and because of this colonialism must be swept away, it is consistent with the principles of justice and humanity. Consequently, the people of Papua cannot be blamed in accordance with any law for wanting to celebrate their national day."

These ideas, the same ideas that inspired Indonesians to liberate themselves from Dutch rule, are igniting the imagination of entire generation who want to be free from Indonesian oppression. What makes Yaboisembut’s ideas even more extraordinary is that he is urging an insurrection that is grounded in what he calls "human dignity".

"1 December 2011 is the 50th anniversary of when Papuans first raised the Morning Star flag. It is our golden anniversary," he says. "It must be celebrated in an atmosphere of peace, safety and calm".

"To Papuans, I therefore say, do not carry out acts of terror, intimidation or commit violence of any kind towards anyone, for whatever reason, whether they are Papuan or migrants.

Those arrested in the wake of the Third Papuan Congress are not backing down from the declaration of independence made on the final day of the gathering. Selphius Bobii, who also shares a cell with Yaboisembut and is the chair of the Congress committee, told New Matilda: "We are committed to using people power, diplomacy and the law to achieve our rights".

Dominikus Surabut says that he and the other prisoners are refusing to sign police statements charging them with "rebellion" (makar) under sections 106 and 110 of the Indonesian Criminal Code.

"We have done nothing wrong" Surabut says. "We have a political right to declare independence. We do not seek to destroy Indonesia or any other country. On the contrary, it is the Indonesia state that has attacked us."

How can it be, they ask, that the Indonesian police get written warnings for killing Papuans when Papuan activists nonviolently exercising their rights to freedom of expression are beaten and jailed?

Is this the same country that Barack Obama and Julia Gillard recently lauded as a beacon of democracy?

In a widely published letter in support of Papuan political prisoners, Human Rights Watch says that the articles under which the six Papuan political prisoners have been charged "are a legacy from the Dutch colonial era". Charging nonviolent activists with rebellion is, they write, "in violation of the Indonesian Constitution, Articles 28(e) and 28(f) which respectively afford ‘the right to the freedom of association and expression of opinion’, and ‘the right to communicate and obtain information…’."

The charge of rebellion is also inconsistent with Indonesia’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2006, a point which the jailed Papuan leaders make repeatedly to me. Besides, the Papuan leaders say, they have been left with no other option. "Special Autonomy has totally failed and even the MRP [Papuan People’s Council], a state institution, convened a meeting which came up with eleven recommendations, one of which was to hold the Third Papuan Congress."

Outside their police cell, in the cities and towns of West Papua, a new political consensus is emerging. This consensus has been forged not through endless meetings of the Diaspora or in discussions with political elites in Jakarta — but on the streets. It is simply this: that West Papua must be free.

After the Congress, three overlapping political groupings have emerged: the Papuan Peace Network, which is calling for political dialogue; the West Papua National Committee, which demands a referendum; and the Papua Congress leaders.

The killing of at least six nonviolent Papuans by the Indonesian police and military on 19 October has divided ordinary Indonesians, flushing out ultra-nationalists and their racist discourse, and outraging political moderates longing for a different kind of future than the one left to them by former dictator Suharto.

Inside Papua the massacre appears to be having a unifying effect — although Papuan politics remain complex. The West Papua National Committee, who opposed the Congress, later marched in support of the six political prisoners. Father Neles Tebay, respected intellectual and leader of the Papua Peace Network, has intensified the demand for political dialogue. It is a call that has been supported by Yaboisembut and others.

"All Papuans, wherever they are, must respect the dialogue process democratically initiated through the Papuan Peace Conference and the Papuan Peace Network," says Yaboisembut.

Whether the Indonesian police and military will act in a similarly dignified manner remains to be seen.

As I write this, a long-term Papuan human rights activist sends me this message: "There’s an increase of military patrol of soldiers around Jayapura Township." Some put the numbers as high as 40,000. Reports are filtering in of troop surges in Sorong, Paniai (where gunshots have been heard), the border region and Jayapura.

"The atmosphere here is quiet but eerie," my friend writes. We are all waiting to see what 1 December will bring.

With West Papua Media.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.