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The Indonesian-occupied nation of West Papua has called for urgent international intervention against Indonesia’s intensification of what a 2016 report called “slow motion genocide.”
West Papua is facing an onslaught of colonial settlement backed by the military of the fifth largest nation in the world, with the largest army in Southeast Asia. Papuans are quickly becoming a minority in their own country, if they are not there already. Former Indonesian intelligence chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono recently called for the forced removal of some two million indigenous Papuans to the island of Manado in apparent response to a Dec. 1, 2020 reaffirmation of West Papuan independence, first declared 59 years earlier on that date.
The pro-independence coalition known as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) on its national independence day raised the outlawed Morning Star flag and named a provisional government headed by interim President Benny Wenda, who was arrested and tortured by Indonesia but now lives in exile in England after escaping from custody 18 years ago.
“This is racial ethnic cleansing, a genocidal fantasy at the highest levels of the Indonesian state,” President Wenda said in a recent statement.
The occupation of West Papua is driven by greed and fueled by deep-seated racism that depicts the tribal peoples of the nation as subhumans incapable of self-government, a concept that even penetrates Indonesian textbooks. The chairman of an organization tied to Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently referred to a prominent West Papuan human rights defender as a “monkey,” a common racial slur among Indonesians.
Similar expressions of Indonesian racism sparked demonstrations throughout West Papua in 2019, as did the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out throughout the US and the world last spring and summer. Such demonstrations have been met by the Indonesian state with lethal force and lengthy prison terms. In recent days, 13 West Papuans were arrested and charged with treason for campaigning for an independence referendum, while two others were arrested for displaying the Morning Star emblem on a bracelet and a bag, according to the Free West Papua Campaign. Indonesia has placed tight restrictions on media and human rights observers in West Papua, severely limiting the information available to the world.
According to the 2016 report of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, “The situation in West Papua is fast approaching a tipping point. In less than five years, the position of Papuans in their own land will be worse than precarious. They are already experiencing a demographic tidal wave.”
Jakarta-based human rights activist Mas Wibowo said that tipping point has come.
Wibowo called on “all countries of the world and the UN [to] immediately intervene in overcoming the extermination of indigenous Papuans and the extermination of all natural resources in the land of West Papua.” Papuans are demanding international recognition for peace talks and a legitimate UN-sponsored referendum on their status. West Papua is rich in natural resources and home to virgin rainforests threatened by Indonesian plans to build new roads into the forests.
“The Indonesian government through its military security forces kills and shoots dead indigenous Papuans every day,” Wibowo said.
Protection of the environment will be a priority of a free West Papua, Wenda said upon assuming the interim presidency. ““Embodying the spirit of the people of West Papua, we are ready to run our country. As laid out in our Provisional Constitution, a future republic of West Papua will be the world’s first green state, and a beacon of human rights – the opposite of decades of bloody Indonesian colonisation.”
Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Papuans have been killed or disappeared in the conflict since Indonesia assumed control in 1963 under UN administration, with a referendum slated to follow six years later. United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold had recognized West Papua’s independence aspirations before dying in a mysterious plane crash on his way to the Congo in 1961, just months before West Papua declared its independence.
In 1969, Indonesia organized a plebiscite on the status of West Papua under the auspices of the United Nations, known with painful irony as the “Act of Free Choice.” In it, just over 1,000 Papuans were held by force for two weeks without contact with their families or the outside world and threatened with violence if they did not accede to annexation by Indonesia. There was no recorded vote, only a purported show of hands in assemblies of literal captives surrounded by armed Indonesian soldiers.
Nevertheless, the UN recognized the farcical colonial assemblies as the expression of self-determination rights by West Papua, with only scattered international dissent at the UN. Although a 1969 report by the US embassy cited UN officials on the ground who said 95% of Papuans opposed Indonesian rule, the United States was aligned with the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Suharto at the time, and offered no objection to the annexation of what the regime renamed West Irian.
US military assistance to Indonesia was suspended through most of the Clinton Administration in response to international revulsion over Indonesia’s genocidal war on East Timor, whose annexation the US was virtually alone in the world in recognizing. Military ties have increased since then, beginning with frequent military training exercises with the Hawaiian National Guard but recently expanding to combat training for elite Kopassus troops on the mainland with US special forces. US military ties to Kopassus had been restricted due to the elite force’s role in human rights abuses. An additional 450 members of an elite Indonesian battalion have been deployed to Indonesia this month.
Even before the formal annexation of West Papua, Indonesia conducted aerial bombing and other scorched earth tactics against a resistance initially only armed with bows and arrows. The armed wing of the ULMWP, the West Papua National Liberation Army, has held its own for decades, but the beleaguered nation of West Papua will have to rely on international solidarity as much as its own determination and ingenuity to win freedom from a nation 100 times its population. Current and former parliamentarians from at least 15 nations have joined Papuan calls for an independence referendum, including Catalonian President-in-Exile Carles Puigdemont and former British labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. Former Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghín Ó Caolain called on the Irish government in 2001 to “state publicly its support for self-determination for the people of West Papua.”
“We indigenous Papuans ask you all for moral and social responsibility to save us from the genocide of indigenous Papuans and ecocide in the land of West Papua,” Wibowo said.