First published in Justice Trends, the quarterly newsletter of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, No. 168, March 2018.
After more than 50 years of repression, the indigenous people of West Papua hold on to the belief that one day they can reclaim their country.
While thousands of Papuans have been beaten, jailed, raped and murdered for standing up for their rights, Papuans young and old continue to risk danger by publicly campaigning for their freedom from Indonesian rule, which began as a result of a fraudulent and unjust process enforced by the Indonesian Government and supported by other countries, in particular the United States.
In the latest Catholic Social Justice Series paper, Into the Deep: Seeking justice for the people of West Papua, author Peter Arndt recounts his personal experience of meeting West Papuans in their homes and villages, and describes the importance of faith and solidarity in their struggle for justice.
Peter Arndt has been executive officer of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 2001. Over the last three years, he has travelled several times to West Papua and the Pacific as part of his commitment to deepening solidarity with marginalised and oppressed peoples.
In his introduction to Into the Deep, ACSJC Chairman, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, commends Arndt’s deeply moving account of the sufferings of the indigenous people of West Papua.
“He shows how he has come to understand their indomitable desire for self-determination and to recognise how the Gospel calls him to walk beside his friends on their journey,” Bishop Long writes.
“That deep reflection on Gospel values and Church teaching is what makes this publication so inspiring. Peter places his friends’ experience in the context of the Scriptures and looks deeply into the Church’s teachings on justice and asks what he must do. He discerns the answer with clarity and courage.”
In the paper, Arndt notes that the vast majority of Papuans are Christians and their faith sustains them in their resistance to Indonesian occupation, with many public acts of resistance taking the form of prayer gatherings.
“It’s worth noting that, as much as their faith strengthens Papuans in their struggle, Indonesian soldiers and police often respond by denigrating and mocking their Christianity,” he writes.
The paper describes numerous examples over many years of the violence and cruelty perpetrated by the Indonesian police and military and the survivors’ stories of pain, humiliation and fear. Despite assurances that incidents of violence and killings would be investigated, “no Indonesian soldier or police officer has been held accountable for the dreadful deeds committed”.
“The survivors have not only been deprived of justice for the violence inflicted on them, but in the intervening years they have continued to suffer. “Those who have continued to speak out … are deprived of employment opportunities and pensions.
“Survivors are also subject to harassment and intimidation by various arms of the Indonesian security apparatus.
“This constant surveillance and repression induce a constant state of fear within the community. It’s a nightmare that never ends, an open jail you can never leave.”
The author relates the story of being stopped on the road by soldiers who collected an illegal toll from his group.
“The military and the police not only bring violence and the threat of violence to the Highlands and every other part of West Papua. They also exploit the land and its people for monetary gain.
“Our Papuan colleagues told us how the various arms of the security forces control the trade of every type of commodity in the Highlands, from rice to petrol. We were told that the various military and police units divide different types of commodities in particular districts between themselves and operate what is effectively a protection racket.
“They also operate their own businesses, including brothels, trade in pornography and alcohol and illegally sell wildlife, including West Papua’s iconic birds of paradise.”
In the aftermath of the killing of four young men following a pre-Christmas vigil, security officers approached family members offering large sums of money to settle the case and keep them quiet. “It was effectively blood money.”
Returning to that area some time later, Arndt found that the case was still being investigated by the National Human Rights Commission, Komnas Ham, and no-one had been held to account for killing the four boys. “That remains the case to this day, despite repeated assurances by the Indonesian Government that resolving the case is a high priority.”
The families have refused to take the money and when asked what they want if there is to be justice for their boys, one of the fathers spoke for them all: “The only justice we want is freedom!”
“It is clear to me that when they spoke of freedom, my Papuan sisters and brothers not only wanted an end to the violence that constantly surrounded them. They clearly wanted an end to Indonesian occupation of their lands and an opportunity to live as Papuans with their own languages, culture and religion rather than as Indonesians.
“Many Australians, Americans and Europeans seeking to support the people of West Papua baulk at any form of support for a political objective. I have heard people of good will who say that they cannot be involved in political action and so restrict themselves to human rights advocacy. Some advise Papuans that self-determination is an impossible dream and that lesser goals should be sought.
“I am immensely troubled by any approach that actively discourages Papuans from seeking freedom in the way they want it.”
The paper also describes the way Papuans are marginalised by the waves of Indonesians who have migrated from places like Java, Flores and Sumatra. In some cities, the indigenous Papuan proportion of the population is now a little over 36 per cent.
“In the more remote regions, Papuans still are in the majority, but the trend is clear: as more Indonesians arrive, Papuans are destined to become a smaller and smaller minority in their own land.”
At the same time, Papuans are discriminated against in the provision of education, health services and employment.
“We were told that nepotism by Indonesian employers and public service bosses meant that those Papuans who did have good qualifications often missed out on getting jobs. Papuan business operators complained that the military and the police would often squeeze them out of lucrative opportunities in order to make money for themselves.
“It is rare to see Papuan-owned businesses in the big cities like Jayapura. And those that support affirmative action are quickly stigmatised as ‘separatists’ by the Indonesian state, a label that can mean you wind up dead, dumped by the side of the road, one more ‘mysterious killing’.”
The authorities discourage the wearing of traditional dress and the performance of traditional cultural activities and the use of local languages is declining, while mosques are being erected in large numbers to cater for the rapidly growing population of mostly Muslim Indonesian migrants.
“In several places, we heard about the rising incidence of violent conflicts between Papuans and Indonesians. The police invariably favour the Indonesian participants in these disputes and brawls.
“There are claims that some Indonesian authorities are actively supporting and encouraging Indonesian migrants to attack Papuans and their property.”
Despite the danger of publicly campaigning for their self-determination, support is growing for the organisation formed in 2014 to advance the cause of West Papuan freedom internationally, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).
The leaders of seven Pacific nations spoke in the UN General Assembly in 2016 about human rights abuses in West Papua and supported a statement calling for a report on human rights abuses at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2017.
ULMWP leaders are now seeking support for their cause in other parts of the world and are aiming to get support for a self-determination referendum, beginning in September 2017 when ULMWP leaders presented a UN official with a petition from well over one million Papuans.
Papuans from every part of society, from customary leaders to the student movement, see the need to unite in support of their leaders in the ULMWP to capitalise on the gains that have been made since 2014.
Arndt emphasises the importance of solidarity with the people of West Papua, not with a view telling them what to do, “but rather with the desire to walk with them in their struggle to shape their own future as the First Peoples of their land”.
“My solidarity acknowledges that they are the true experts on their situation and it respects their leadership of the work to overcome their oppression.
“I am also being accompanied by my Papuan sisters and brothers on the journey to reconstruct my own understanding of the world and my life and my participation in cultivating a social order founded on love. Into the deep we are called, into deep solidarity with Christ crucified and risen, into deep solidarity with each other in our suffering, into the deep waters of Merdeka – Freedom!”
For more information:
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, email email@example.com, phone (02) 8306 3499.
Peter Arndt, Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Archdiocese of Brisbane, phone 0409 265 476
Into the Deep: Seeking justice for the people of West Papua (Catholic Social Justice Series No. 82) is available from the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council for $7.50. Phone (02) 8306 3499, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
RIMBINK PATO: And at the same time we see our role as a player in some of the issues that affect the Southeast Asia and pacific region altogether, such as human trafficking, people smuggling and money laundering, and issues like that, which are impacting some of the economies in Southeast Asia. And what we want to harness in this (APEC) is trade and investment for us as a country, because of the resources we have, and how we can utilise that opportunity with the connections that we will build, or the connections that we have with the APEC economies to filter the connectivity to the smaller islands of the pacific, leaders of whom we have all asked them to visit, so that they have the opportunity to engage with 60 percent of the world's major trade and investment leaders.
JOHNNY BLADES: A lot of Papua New Guineans seem to be wondering what benefit do they get from their country hosting this big leaders summit. Where's the payoff for them?
RP: Well, Papua New Guinea is the leader of the Pacific. Papua New Guinea has a role to play in the South East Asia region, and of course the world is inter-connected. These are the world's economic leaders who will promote trade and investment in our country. And if we're going to have that linkage to the rest of the Pacific, as a big brother of the rest of the Pacific Island nations, then we want to showcase that by utilising this opportunity to grow our country, grow our economy, bring prosperity for our people, and then security and stability for our region by these leaders coming to our country. And I think there's a huge potential because we have the resources, where there must be feasibility. Our country needs to be seen, needs to connect globally, and here is an opportunity that is not to be missed. So if there's any misgiving, there shouldn't be, because the positives are yet to come.
JB: Can PNG afford to host this summit?
RP: Yes we can. We have a budget, we have a programme in place. All the preparations are underway. We will be able to look after the seven to ten thousand people who will visit our country during the APEC event. We are ready. And of course, if we need any help - as you will find in major APEC summit meetings - the APEC economies stand together. And of course our great friends, New Zealand and Australia, are making a contribution because this is an event for the Pacific. We're going to create a legacy for the Pacific because it's going to showcase our connectivity, our friendship, our brotherhood. Clearly, if there are any shortcomings in the area of security and all that, we've had the collaborations necessary because our interests are mutual.
JB: As a regional leader, PNG has an obligation to advance the interests of the pacific Islands, and one of those of course is action on climate change. Is enough being done, from your point of view, from the likes of Australia and New Zealand? Australia is still flirting with coal, and of course in your own country, deforestation is a big issue, it's a big driver of carbon emissions, isn't it?
RP: Well climate change is a major issue for the world, and it's a greater issue for the Pacific islands, because we are not the ones that have created the impact that it has on humanity. So what we want to do is in the APEC event we want to talk about climate change. It’s one of the key issues there, and what we're doing and how the world can connect. That's why we've asked the rest of the Pacific Island countries, their leaders to come so that each of them can tell their story in their own way to the leaders of the world. And I've been actually speaking to many of the leaders of the AEC economies and my counterparts around the world to ensure that they have that link so our message gets carried because the impacts of climate change are unique to each country. It's not the one and the same. Of course we will work with Australia and New Zealand, and we have supported for example New Zealand in its campaign for non-permanent security membership in the UN, because one of the key strategies of the New Zealand government then was climate change, and still remains.
JB: PNG has some of the biggest tracts of rainforest in the world, combined with the Indonesian side (of New Guinea), and it's a global concern that those forests are really being cleared at a great rate. There's a lot of unsustainability. Can't more be done, from PNG's side?
RP: Well, speaking for my country, REDD-Plus is a major issue, but our focus is there. We're intent on pursuing a policy which will protect our forestry resource. These are issues for example that Papua New Guinea can't deal with alone. We need multi-lateral frameworks, such as the WTO, or the United Nations systems, because globally and multi-laterally we can take steps which will align the activities of the member states of the UN and multi-lateral agencies to work together to find solutions which will serve not only individual countries, but also bring about sustainable development which will also ensure the conservation of the forest, the oceans.
JB: But isn't it really just in your government's hands, about how much forestry goes on in the country? There is much illegal logging, according to the Governor of Oro province and others; and there's the fraudulent SABL (Special Agricultural Business Lease) system... this has been going on for years and it hasn't been stopped.
RP: No, that is not entirely correct. The government has taken steps. There's been an inquiry into the SABL issuing of licenses and harvesting of logs, and the leases. So in terms of what we can do, government has taken proactive measures. There's a policy which has coming through the Minister for Forests which is specifically aimed at addressing those issues. And in some of these cases, we need the evidence, we need the specifics by those that have it to bring it forward. And some of these are very isolated cases where the statistics don't come out clearly, the data isn't available, yet individual politicians - because of the political points that they might score - they go on Facebook and make an issue where none exist. So if it is an issue, then it's taken out of context, and as a purpose which is not intended does more damage than good for the province or for the districts in which the issues arise.
JB: PNG is the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead group. Are you concerned about the divisions that are spilling over between Fiji and Solomon islands over the West Papua /Indonesia issue?
RP: Well I'm not sure that there is such a major issue. The Melanesia Spearhead framework, the document which sets up the Melanesia Spearhead Group is very clear as to what it can and cannot do. And one of the restrictions, reservation of the Melanesia Spearhead Group constitution is non-interference with the sovereignty of sovereign states. And PNG's policy - and I cannot speak for Fiji or Solomon Islands - our position has always been that then provinces of Papua and West Papua are an integral part of the republic of Indonesia, and the Melanesia Spearhead Group is not the forum by which these issues can be raised. There are other mechanisms, such as the UN framework, where if there's an issue of concern it can be raised there. Clearly if it's to do with human rights, that's an issue that we can address together, and we will work with Indonesia to address it.
JB: Because a lot of grassroots communities in Melanesia are deeply worried about what's happening on the Indonesian side. What can PNG do about that?
RP: Well PNG is a constructive partner to Indonesia, and we're willing to work together, and Indonesia understands our position. If there are issues in relation to alleged breach of human rights, we need the evidence so this can be pointed out, and there are mechanisms for resolution of those concerns. Coming back to the issue of the Melanesia Spearhead Group, the MSG is not the forum in which those issues can be addressed. Our jurisdiction is limited in what we can discuss. But clearly it is a concern.
JB: But this membership issue - the United Liberation Movement for West Papua's application for full MSG membership - has dragged on. Will it be resolved soon?
RP: There is a process and the application was the subject of recent discussions. And the criteria for membership is being worked on, and we the foreign ministers (of MSG) will look at it, make the appropriate recommendations to the leaders. The leaders will then make a decision as to what the outcome (will be). We will follow the process. And the competence of the MSG under its structure is very clear. They can only deal with those questions for which they have the authority to deal with. And at this point, there is no authority permitted by the MSG constitution which allows membership of non-sovereign states, or loose entities, as it were.
JB: But you've got New Caledonia's FLNKS Kanaks movement as MSG members already.
RP: When the constitution was framed, it was framed for that purpose, so that was a unique case in itself. They are already members in the organisation. But as to whether the constitution will be amended to permit other membership, because of the restricted nature of its language, that's something for the leaders to canvas.
JB: So you don't think the rift between Fiji and the Solomons is all that bad, you're not worried about the future of the group?
RP: Well these are typical of Melanesian peoples, they have their differences. But there's a time to party together and get together and shake hands and move forward. So I think those rumblings will come to an end. Of course we had those with Fiji, Australia and New Zealand at the Pacific Islands Forum some years back, but PNG was taking a role to resolve those issues, and see where we are, we are together now. So I can see a future where all these issues will be resolved and we'll be together as one united force in Melanesia.