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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

West Papua and the Pacific Islands Forum

West Papuan leaders are in Auckland at the moment to lobby Pacific Island leaders for the recognition of the West Papua situation and human rights abuses under Indonesian law. An estimated 100,000 Papuans have died under the occupation of West Papua by Indonesia, and the human rights situation there is dire.

West Papua used to have independent status as a nation. The Dutch used to administrate the region, but Indonesia invaded in 1961 to claim the territory. In 1969, the United Nations supervised the Act of Free Choice, in which little over 1,000 of the 700,000 people voted to join Indonesia. The marginal involvement of West Papuans in this vote has placed the region under contestation ever since, and West Papuans have responded to Indonesian occupation by engaging in guerrilla warfare.

Human Rights Watch released its "Violence and Political Impasse in Papua" report in 2001. The report includes human rights abuses from both sides, including cases where Papuan militants have attacked non-Papuans. However, the report is clear in its recommendations that Indonesia needs to examine the human rights abuses that are occurring as a result of the Indonesian government's inability to settle the autonomy issue. Many human rights groups have reported widespread torture and abuse of Papuans that are suspected of being part of the autonomy movement. The region is difficult for journalists and human rights observers to enter due to tight Indonesian control. West Papuans who raise the independence flag currently face 20 years imprisonment, and graphic videos emerged earlier this year of Indonesian forces torturing West Papuans with hot rods to the genitals. Human Rights organizations and members of West Papuan independence movements that have been exiled due to their opinions detail a vast network of surveillance that makes democratic dialogue difficult. Documents emerged earlier this year from the Indonesian Special Forces (called Kopassus) that detailed a list of academics, journalists and activists that called for human rights monitoring under the notion that they were enemies to Indonesia for supporting West Papuan independence. Amnesty International found in its 2011 report that freedom of expression was suppressed, including a case where journalist Ardiansyah Matra was found dead and the imprisonment of more than 100 political activists.

The Pacific Island leaders have traditionally backed West Papua, which was a member of the South Pacific Commission from 1947 to 1962. Many of the exiled West Papuan activists live in the UK or Vanuatu. Yet activists cite pressure from the Australian and New Zealand governments in their desire to trade with Indonesia as a key factor in why there has been little recognition. West Papua is home to valuable minerals and forestry, a factor that was also influential in the lack of support initially shown for genocide in East Timor. While West Papua was recognized as a province in 2003, the problems have continued.

Indonesia has much to gain from a re-examination of their governance. The experience with the growth of the internet in circulating information regarding conflicts means that the West Papuan situation will be difficult to keep a lid on for much longer. While the Pacific does not have an Al Jazeera, information leaks and the Middle East experience signals that we are now entering a new era where the trade of nations will be dependent not only on the view of their governments, but the view of the citizens from within. This move to an image economy is signaled by the wide embrace of cultural tourism by nations globally, functioning as a form of economic public relations that will be crucial in a rocky and transforming economic environment. It is absolutely in Indonesia's interests to look at how this issue might be better resolved, and a good beginning would be through dialogue. The West Papuan leaders that are in Auckland currently are not calling for anything particularly radical - first and foremost dialogue, closer monitoring of human rights and observer status at the UN, which considering they are ethnically and culturally a very different group than the Indonesians and the colonization is so recent they should be granted. They are, by all rationales, much closer culturally to the country next door: Papua New Guinea. We live in a very different environment now to the imperialist push of the 19th century, and Indonesia either must manage its dissent by allowing people to have their say or the inevitable result is more ongoing conflict, which really is not good for anyone. I am not suggesting severing trade with Indonesia by any means - they have a lot of people there that would benefit from it and have in many ways had the short straw in a global economy that favors the production of goods at lower and lower rates. However, considering the fuss that the NZ government has made over Fiji, a diplomatic nod or prod seems prudent. So far, the Green Party is the only political party with a stance on this issue.


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