West Papua is one of the world’s least understood regions. There are people, including Australians, who either know nothing of it or confuse it with Papua New Guinea, and yet the capital, Jayapura, is just over 4000 km from Canberra, not too much farther than Canberra is from Perth.
Australian governments and large, powerful news outlets are silent and rarely comment on the situation so close to our shores.
For centuries the Dutch East Indies covered the great archipelago above Australia, except for Portuguese Timor, and embraced the western half of the island of New Guinea, known as West Papua. The Dutch began preparing the people for independence throughout the 1950s, culminating in a congress in 1961. The congress adopted the Morning Star flag as the symbol of the emerging nation, and it was first raised on 1 December that year. Dutch colonisation throughout the remainder of the archipelago was thrown off in 1949 and the Republic of Indonesia was born, growing into a modern and generally cohesive democracy.
The “Act of Free Choice”
The United Nations initially controlled West Papua but then handed the administration to Indonesia in preparation for independence. The exercise of that ‘freedom of choice’ was planned for 1969, but it did not happen.
Australia’s involvement was significant. Officials stopped two pro-independence West Papuan leaders from travelling to the United Nations, just weeks before the so-called Act of Free Choice, at the request of Indonesia. The two West Papuan leaders were halted, questioned by ASIO officers, and then held in detention on Manus Island. As the United Nations stood back and allowed the sham consultation to proceed, their voice could not be heard in New York.
The consultation consisted of 1025 people who were selected to vote on behalf of the other 800,000 Papuans. At gunpoint, they voted unanimously in favour of Indonesian control.
This so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’ was held all over West Papua. The people call it the ‘Act of No Choice’. It was a disgrace that the UN was involved.
Since then, the Papuan people have become strangers in their own land. Government-sponsored migration to the territory has greatly increased the number of Indonesian residents whose numbers now equal the Indigenous people. Papuans lack proper representation at all levels of government.
Under Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of people have died violently. Indonesian anti-terror units are funded by the international community, including Australia, but in West Papua they are used to search for political activists, especially those agitating for independence. Indonesia now treats Papuan political acts as terrorism. Papuans are jailed for raising the Morning Star flag.
The Indonesian government, through its huge military presence, enables widespread human rights violations of the Papuan people, who are still resisting and cling fiercely to their land, their cultures, languages and desire for freedom. Human rights experts appointed by the UN state that 60,000 West Papuan internal refugees have been created by military operations in the highlands, many fleeing to the forests or to other regions, and currently there are at least 10,000 in PNG.
Political demonstrations are met with military dispersal and the arrest of attendees. Civil society, activist and even church group meetings are spied on and often disrupted by state agents. Journalists, aid workers and even diplomats are prevented from witnessing what is going on.
Resource rich Papua
The reason for this appalling situation is that Papua is extremely rich in natural resources which brings great wealth to Indonesia.
Australian governments rarely comment on the situation. Fearful of upsetting Indonesia or challenging the source of company profits, they remain complicit. This unspoken policy ensures that Australia remains in lockstep with the United States, which for decades has fawned upon Indonesia both as a sprawling non-communist presence in Southeast Asia and as a reliable buffer to China.
For all its fanfare of independence, Australia is dutifully meek on the Papuan issue, mirroring the meekness of its relationship with both the United States and highly influential Australian corporations.