Since August 2011, two peaceful protests have taken place in the West Papua province of Indonesia.
At the pro-independence rallies near Jayapura attended by around 20,000 people, a total of 5 people have been shot dead by police aggressively seen dispersing the crowd. It has been reported that over 300 people were arrested in the raids. Similarly, at a month-long strike at the Grasberg mine complex – jointly owned and operated by Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto and the American miners Freeport – a total of 7 people have been killed by Indonesian security forces. It is estimated around 12,000 workers are presently on strike at the mine.
Last night the AFP reported that an Indonesian police chief was shot dead:
According to a report filed with West Papua Media, the Indonesian government are satisifed with the use of force at the protests:
“The police raided the rally because it was considered as a coup d’etat,” Djoko said. “They declared a state within a state and did not recognize the president of Indonesia.”
Australia has a long history with the people of West Papua, culminating in a decision by the John Gorton government on May 29, 1969. As I argue below, Australia betrayed the people of Papua at that time, and now Prime Minister Julia Gillard must seriously consider issuing a formal apology to its indigenous people.
How Australia neglected the Papuans
New Guinea, geographically as well as historically, is Australia’s closest relative. Separated from the mainland during the last glacial period, the waters filled in what now separates them: about 152km of the Torres Strait.
While Australia and New Guinea both have enviable mineral stores, economic and political exploitation has left the latter as home to many of the poorest people on Earth. New Guinea is also an island of two histories.
The eastern half forms the independent state of Papua New Guinea – a status it has enjoyed since breaking from Australia in 1975. With its natural resources of oil and industrial metals, Papua New Guinea has long been exploited for its minerals by Australian firms at places like Ok Tedi and Bougainville.
The western half of New Guinea has had a lesser-known but equally tragic history centred around the Jayawijaya Mountain, home to the Amungme, and farther downstream, the Kamoro people. As with much of East Asia, the indigenes were under Dutch rule when a geological expedition in 1936 located a significant ertsberg (ore mountain) deep in the southwestern highlands. World War II intervened, and the Japanese claimed Indonesia and some of the western parts of New Guinea.
Following defeat in the war, the Japanese were marshalled back to their home territory, and Dutch colonialism resumed. Importantly, when Indonesian independence was obtained from the Dutch in 1949, few knew of the ertsberg (mineral ore) hidden deep in West Papua’s wilderness.
The Dutch began a ten-year Papuanisation programme in 1957 that would see West Papua handed back to the indigenes, and would create the independent state of West Papua around 1972.
Despite multiple territorial claims, the ore mountain lay dormant for over 20 years.
On March 6, 1959, the New York Times reported the presence of alluvial gold in the Arafura Sea just off the coast of West Papua. Reminded of their earlier discovery, Dutch geologists were said to be returning to the ore mountain, now simply known as Ertsberg.
The indigenes, meanwhile, as part of their programme toward independence, established a Papuan National Council and provisional government as well as their own military, police force, currency, national anthem, and flag. At the time, West Papua’s independence was due before the United Nations Decolonisation Commission, and representatives took part in various cultural and political activities throughout the region. By December 1, 1961, the West Papuan “Morning Star” flag had been raised alongside the Dutch for the first time. Many assumed that independence was imminent.
Unbeknown to both the indigenes and the Dutch, US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold was negotiating directly with Suharto – at the time an Indonesian army general – for a small group of its experts to prospect this ore mountain. The path into West Papua through Suharto promised to be fruitful for Freeport, since its board was stacked with the Rockefeller’s Indonesian oil interests who already were versed in the general’s way of doing business. An exploration agreement was reached, and soon after a geologist from Freeport was forging his way through the wilderness toward Ertsberg.
West Papua was about to change hands again.
Armed with Chinese and Soviet weapons, as well as an increasingly public friendship with the communists, Indonesia declared war on the Netherlands. To protect Western interests from the threat of communism, on August 15, 1962, the United Nations and the United States orchestrated a meeting between Dutch and Indonesian officials during which interim control of West Papua was signed over to Indonesia.
Six years of UN interregnum followed, after which a plebiscite would decide whether to form a separate nation or integrate into Indonesia. All 815,000 West Papuans were to vote in an Act of Free Choice.
To ensure a favourable outcome, the Indonesians worked to suppress Papuan identity. Raising the West Papuan flag and singing of the national anthem were banned, and all political activities were deemed subversive. Indonesia ruled through force, for self-interest. Alarmed by ongoing media reports, on April 5, 1967, in the British House of Lords, Lord Ogmore called for a UN investigation. By early 1968, with Suharto having assumed the presidency of Indonesia, a US consular visit almost unanimously agreed that “Indonesia could not win an open election” in West Papua.
West Papua still wanted its independence.
In a desperate attempt to secure West Papua’s right to self-determination, two junior politicians crossed the border into Australian-administered Papua and New Guinea on May 29, 1969. They carried damning evidence of Indonesian repression; the hopes of a yet-unformed nation rested on the politicians reaching the UN. As Australia and its allies were amenable to Indonesian control of West Papua, the two were imprisoned upon crossing the border until after the referendum.
Their brave plea silenced.
Between July and August 1969, less than a quarter of one per cent of the population – some 1,026 West Papuans – signed the country’s freedom over to Indonesia. The election, held under the aegis of the UN, was far from an act of free choice. The following day West Papua was declared a military operation zone, the local people’s movement was restricted, and expression of their national identity banned under Indonesian law.
Poor, neglected West Papua.
Who gained from Australia’s betrayal of the Papuan people?
Today the social and economic condition of the indigenous Amungme and Kamoro poses fundamental human rights concerns. Although Freeport-Indonesia directly or indirectly employs a large number of West Papuans and is regularly Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer, in 2005, the World Bank found that Papua remained the poorest province in Indonesia. With a marked rise in military personnel and foreign staff has come a number of social issues, including alcohol abuse and prostitution such that Papua now has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Indonesia.
Indonesian control of West Papua has been characterised by the ongoing and disproportionate repression of largely peaceful opposition. Few sustained violent interactions have occurred; however, in one major conflict in 1977, more than 1,000 civilian men, women, and children were killed by the Indonesian military in Operasi Tumpas (“Operation Annihilation”) after a slurry pipe was severed and partially closed the Ertsberg mine.
While the level of violence is difficult to establish, academics at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney maintain that up to 100,000 West Papuans may have been killed since Indonesian occupation.
They call what’s happening to West Papua “slow-motion genocide”.
What can Australians do now?
Australians must pressure their local MPs to call for an international inquiry into the killing of 12 Papuan civilians during peaceful protests since August 2011, as well as discussing the prospect of Australia issuing a formal government apology to the Papuan people for putting an end to their legitimate claim to sovereignty in 1969.
For further information, see my series of four essays on West Papua, published on Al Jazeera over the past month. Or check West Papua Media.
Follow NAJ Taylor on Twitter: @najtaylor