A group of Australian Aboriginal, non-Indigenous and West Papuan activists will set sail from Cairns for West Papua on Saturday, on a journey that organisers describe as both cultural exchange and act of resistance.
Around 50 people have volunteered to take turns crewing two yachts up the coast of Cape York and across the Torres Strait to Daru Island, in southern Papua New Guinea, from where they hope to sail on to the Indonesian-controlled territory.
The group includes Aboriginal elders from South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, a Torres Strait Islander and one of the West Papuan refugees who arrived in Australia by outrigger canoe in 2006.
The voyage, which has been more than a decade in the planning and realisation, was inspired by a sense of solidarity between Indigenous Australian and West Papuan peoples, who share cultural connections as well as experiences of colonial brutality and a struggle for rights.
“The Freedom Flotilla is to explain to the world about the big family of Aboriginal and West Papuan and Torres Strait Islanders,” West Papuan leader Jacob Rumbiak told NM.
“This mission can also show people that the international community can take the lead as international peacekeepers to look after world peace and justice, starting from the Pacific region.”
Aboriginal elder Kevin Buzzacott, who is from Arabunna country around Lake Eyre, came up with the idea for a flotilla to West Papua 13 years ago. He said the aim was to help the indigenous people of West Papua by drawing international attention to their situation.
“The brothers and sisters up there are in trouble. They've been having difficulties with the Indonesian mob for some years, and it’s been a silent type of war. What we’re doing, because we hear them calling for our help, is we’re going to their aid.”
Since the annexation of West Papua by Indonesia in the 1960s, reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, killings and atrocities by the military and police have emerged steadily from the territory.
In October last year Amnesty International Australia called for an end to police violence against demonstrators there, stating:
“The Indonesian security forces have a track record of unchecked abuses, including torture and other ill-treatment, and the use of excessive force against protesters”.
The flotilla group has already travelled 5000 kilometres by road from Lake Eyre to the Far North Queensland capital, visiting Aboriginal communities, holding musical and ceremonial events and picking up participants along the way.
While organisers emphasise that the mission is one of culture and peace, its hard political edge will not be overlooked by Indonesian authorities.
“We hope to raise awareness of the plight of the West Papuan people,” says organiser Izzy Brown, “and also draw attention to the sovereignty issue of indigenous people worldwide and put the [Indonesian] government on notice that their jurisdiction is in question”.
The Indonesian government has revoked sailing permits originally issued for the flotilla yachts and rejected the group’s visa applications.
The activists plan to enter foreign waters with “Original Nations” passports created by Aboriginal elders and stamped with visas by Jacob Rumbiak, who is the foreign minister of West Papua's alternative, independent government. The Federated Republic of West Papua was set up inside the territory in 2011. Its president and prime minister have been convicted of treason and are currently in jail.
“We’re requesting safe passage,” Brown said, “and we’re hoping that both the Australian government and the Indonesian government can work to provide that.”
From Cairns it will take the boats a week to reach Thursday Island and another two days to sail to the island of Daru. Organisers expect the flotilla to reach West Papua in September.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently reaffirmed the Australian government’s support for Indonesia’s control of the territory now officially known as the two provinces of Papua and West Papua.
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