West Papua’s struggle for independence from Indonesia has long been ignored by the international community. A number of recent high profile events are helping to change this.
Indonesia annexed West Papua in 1969 under controversial circumstances. The Dutch had initially retained West Papua after WWII even after Indonesia won its independence. Independent Indonesia continued to claim sovereignty over West Papua but the Dutch disagreed and prepared West Papuans for independence throughout the 1950s. In late 1961 West Papua declared its independence over Indonesian opposition, creating a national anthem and raising the Morning Star national flag (though the extent of this independence is questionable as the Dutch continued to be present).
Nearly immediately Indonesia, backed by the Soviet Union, began launching military operations to try and forcibly retake the region. The United States, concerned that Indonesia was being dragged into the Soviet sphere, intervened in the conflict and brokered the “New York Agreement,” which was agreed to by Indonesia, the Dutch and other international parties in August 1962. The following year it was ratified by the UN.
The New York Agreement called for West Papua to briefly become a UN protectorate after which time would be placed under Indonesia’s administrative control until a referendum could be held where the West Papuan people would decide whether to become an Indonesian province or an independent state. After taking control of the region in 1963, however, Indonesian authorities launched a widespread crack down on internal dissent and began strictly regulating outsider access to the region. Ultimately the long promised referendum on independence was held in 1969. “The Act of Free Choice,” as it was ironically called, consisted of about one thousand elders the Indonesian military had hand-selected voting unanimously to become a part of Indonesia. West Papuans have been rebelling against Indonesian rule ever since.
At times violent, but overwhelmingly peaceful, the West Papuans’ quest for autonomy has been met with relentless brutality by the Indonesian regime. Estimates of the number of Papuans killed by Indonesian authorities range from 100,000 to 400,000 with some West Papuan activists claiming that the number is actually over 500,000. There are also allegations of widespread torture, rape and political imprisonment sometimes for crimes as simple as raising the Morning Star Flag – widely recognized as a symbol of West Papuan independence.
The international community has largely ignored West Papuans’ pleas for sovereignty and Indonesia’s human rights abuses against them. This is due in no small part to Indonesia’s four-decade media blackout in the region. With journalists and human rights groups essentially barred from entering two of Indonesia’s poorest provinces (in 2003 “West Papua” was split into two provinces – Papua and West Papua), the suffering of those indigenous to the region has been largely hidden from the international community. This has allowed Indonesia to act with impunity in the region without sparking a backlash from abroad.
However, recent events have seemingly propelled the issue of West Papua onto the international stage at last.
This began back in August with the “Freedom Flotilla” that attempted to travel from southern Australia to West Papua. The aim of the flotilla, which was manned by West Papuan exiles and Australian activists, was to raise awareness of the human rights abuses in West Papua and the region’s quest for independence. The flotilla received much media attention after the Indonesian government forbade the flotilla from entering its waters because of national security concerns, and threatened to use force to ensure compliance if it became necessary.
Then, last month, three West Papuan activists scaled the walls of the Australian consulate in Bali, Indonesia hours before Australian PM Tony Abbott arrived there for the APEC summit. Once inside the consulate the activists delivered a letter addressed to the Australian people in which they asked Abbott and other leaders attending the APEC summit to stand up for West Papua. The letter also called for greater press freedom in the region.
Around the same time, two prominent West Papuan independence leaders — Benny Wenda who was granted political asylum in the UK in 2003 and Filep Karma who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for raising the Morning Star Flag in 2004 — were announced as nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although there were 259 nominations, Wenda and Karma’s nomination raised the international community’s awareness of the West Papuans’ freedom struggle, and added newfound legitimacy to their cause.
The most significant development however, was Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil’s speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September. During the speech Kalosil called for the appointment of a UN special representative to investigate human rights abuses in West Papua and for another investigation into the circumstances surrounding Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua in the 1960s. Kalosil’s speech basically questioned the legitimacy of Indonesia’s rule over West Papua, and in doing so at a UN meeting, paved the way for future diplomatic discussions on West Papua’s right to independence.
While these high profile events do not ensure immediate change for West Papuans, they have served to increase awareness of their cause internationally and provided West Papuans with hope for the future. As Rex Rumakiek, the general secretary of the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, exclaimed: “Everybody understands that West Papua is next.”