Prepared by Peter Boldt, Multimedia Coordinator, Pacific Peoples’ Partnership
Just as the old proverb goes, history, unfortunately, tends to repeat itself. Corporate impunity, top-down development and violent dispossession are just but a few characteristics which describe everyday life for many Indigenous Peoples throughout the world who continue to fight for their survival. These painful realities have existed since the establishment of colonialism but oppression and systematic racism continue to occur on a global scale in the present. The Indigenous Peoples of West Papua who make up around 50% of the population of the region referred to in Indonesian as “Papua Barat”, are often victims of this continued oppression, and face acts of intense police brutality, land dispossession and persecution perpetrated by the Indonesian government.
The territory of West Papua is situated within an intersection of complex histories of colonization and competing geopolitical interests. Some 2 million Papuans call the land of West Papua their ancestral home and are ethnic Melanesians who share close connections with the peoples of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. West Papua had been under the colonial rule of the Dutch since the 16th century and was poised for independence in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, at the behest of the United States, control over the territory was handed to Indonesia as part of the now-infamous New York Agreement. A few years later, in 1969, the “Act of Free Choice” would ostensibly provide West Papuans with an opportunity to vote for their independence. The referendum however was a sham, and would later be mockingly referred to as the “Act of no-choice”. Only 1,025 citizens participated in the vote and were hand-selected by the Indonesian military. Some were even allegedly forced to cast their ballot at gunpoint, resulting in an unsurprising unanimous vote in favour of Indonesian control. Countless advocacy groups and democratic organizations have since protested the results of the referendum and continue to call on the United Nations and the rest of the international community to support West Papuan independence.
Despite its large resource endowments including one of the largest gold mines in the world (Grasberg Mine) and recent focus of corporate development, West Papua possesses the lowest Human Development score (HDI) in Indonesia at 60.1 (compared to the Indonesian average of 70.1). Poverty affects around 25% of the population compounded by high rates of maternal mortality, illiteracy, unemployment and HIV. These issues have been exacerbated by indiscriminate discrimination, restrictions of political expression, and police violence. To illustrate, in February 2020 an investigation by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission determined that a 2014 shooting committed by the military, which saw the death of four Papuan students and injured 21 others, was a gross violation of human rights. Sadly, just a few days after the judgement, another shooting transpired killing one Papuan and injuring several others.
These kinds of killings, beatings and torture are part of everyday life for many Papuans. It is unsurprising then that the murder of George Floyd in May of this year and the momentum of the #BlackLivesMatter movement resonated strongly with Papuans who also face similar injustices in their daily lives. In response, Papuans and allies rallied around the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter in an effort to bring international attention to their struggle. Lamentably, foreign journalists are rarely permitted entry to West Papua and domestic journalists are tightly controlled through harsh anti-defamation laws. Because of this, the Indonesian military is rarely held accountable for their oppressive actions. In addition to militarization and land dispossession, Papuans who study and work elsewhere in Indonesia are often victims of racial abuse and discrimination. The Papuan identity is thus under a siege that spans economic, cultural, and social dimensions.
History need not repeat itself and the #PapuanLivesMatter movement together with #BlackLivesMatter speaks to the critical juncture global society finds itself precariously situated within. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded on these tensions and injustices and exacerbated hardships for Papuans and African-Americans alike. Now is the time to act in favour of democracy, racial equality and human rights. Pacific Peoples’ Partnership continues to stand in solidarity with both the #PapuanLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter movements and in favour of decolonization, self-determination and social justice.
Pacific Peoples’ Partnership has been involved in raising awareness about the West Papuan crisis for over 30 years. Through our Tok-Blong Journals and various advocacy campaigns, we have worked hard to shed light on the human rights and political abuses suffered to this day in West Papua. In October of last year (2019), amidst mounting state-led violence in West Papua, Pacific Peoples’ Partnership called on the Global Affairs Canada to pressure the Indonesian government to end the political and cultural persecution of West Papuans. Five months later, Minister of Foreign Affairs, The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, returned correspondence indicating that Canada hoped for “a peaceful resolution to the ongoing situation in Papua…” whilst “recognizing and supporting the territorial integrity of Indonesia.” Pacific Peoples’ Partnerships was disappointed in the content of the response and hope Canada will take a stronger stance in favour of human rights and West Papuan independence.