What about a WPexit?
West Papuans deserve the chance to vote to leave Indonesia
It is now more than 50 years since Indonesia took over what had been briefly declared as independent West Papua in 1961. Time enough for the Papuans to have happily embraced the benefits of being part of Indonesia, one would have thought. However West Papua, the Western half of the island of New Guinea, commonly referred to as ‘Indonesia’s restive Papua’, or ‘troubled Papua’, has had continuing demonstrations and protests against Indonesian rule, usually suppressed with brutality by Indonesian military and police.
At the recent United Nations General Assembly, seven Pacific Island nations – Solomon Islands, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, Palau and Vanuatu raised their concerns about Indonesia’s actions in West Papua, and some even used the F word – freedom. Predictably, Indonesia responded angrily as it always does to any questioning of its rule over the western half of the Island of New Guinea. Some of the Melanesian nations are also advocating for Melanesian West Papua to join the group of Melanesian nations called the Melanesian Spearhead Group – again in the face of opposition from their powerful neighbour, Indonesia.
On a visit to West Papua in August this year, as the guest of a Papuan women’s group (Soliditaras Perempuan Melanesia Papua Barat – Melanesian Women’s Solidarity West Papua) it was easy to see why Papua is described as ‘restive’ and ‘troubled’. Most of the Papuans I spoke to had suffered some form of discrimination or harassment, some had been tortured and imprisoned by Indonesian military or police, and many had relatives who had been killed. In general they felt the Indonesian government, although paying lip-service to cultural diversity, was trying to destroy Papuan cultural identity by the transmigration program, and, in various ways, killing the Papuan people. People spoke of unexplained deaths they attributed to poisoning, the disembowelling of people thought to be separatists, hit and run killings and unprovoked shootings by police and military. This perception meant that they were always in a state of fear for themselves and their families. I found this quite shocking. Although I do not think that my government (Australia) always has my interests at heart, I am confident that it is not trying to physically eliminate me and my ethnic/cultural group.
The takeover of West Papua by Indonesia involved both violence and duplicity. In the 1960s, the US, Indonesia and reluctantly, Holland signed an agreement (the New York Agreement) about the fate of West Papua. Under this agreement, ‘all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals to participate in the act of self-determination’ i.e. to decide whether West Papua would be integrated into Indonesia or would become independent. Prior to the referendum, Indonesia sent its military in to overpower and intimidate the indigenous population, and organised what they called the ‘Act of Free Choice’ (which has become known among West Papuans as the ‘Act of No Choice’). In this mockery of democracy, only 1,025 Papuans (out of a population of about 800,000), selected by the Indonesian military were allowed to vote. The vote itself was by a show of hands, surrounded by Indonesian soldiers, with Papuans voting under extreme duress – threats by the Indonesian military against their families and themselves if they voted against integration.
In one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the United Nations, it acquiesced in Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua via this sham ‘Act of Free Choice’. Australia disgracefully facilitated this when, at the request of the Indonesian Government, Australian officials detained two West Papuans, Clemens Runawery and Wim Zonggonao, who were en route to inform the United Nations that the coming vote in July –August 1969 would not be free and fair. The United States also, with its acceptance of the invasion of East Timor, let morality and justice fly out the window when expediency knocked at the door. Declassified documents released in 2004 by the US Congressional Research Services indicated that the US government was aware that between 85 – 90 per cent of Papuans opposed Indonesian rule and a free vote (1969) would have resulted in West Papuans’ independence.
The incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia has left a bitter legacy of mistrust and feelings of betrayal, and the methods used by successive Indonesian governments to quell dissent and consolidate ownership of the considerable natural resources have only exacerbated these feelings. The lack of accountability for atrocities committed by Indonesian security forces is both a reason to fear and a major source of bitterness.
The Pacific Islands nations’ statements should be a wake up call to the UN to rectify the unjust decision to accept the ‘Act of Free Choice’ as a democratic expression of the will of the West Papuan people. The UN really failed West Papua – it’s time to make amends and hold a fair, UN-monitored referendum on self-determination for the West Papuan people. With UN troops present to avoid the kind of bloodbath that happened after the East Timor independence ballot if the West Papuans did indeed vote for WPexit.