On the 22nd of December 2018, The Saturday Paper reported on a new round of strikes by the Indonesian government on West Papua. It has reported that the government used chemical weapons, possibly white phosphorous, on the civilian population. The Indonesian government has denied the allegations of white phosphorous use and civilian deaths as baseless. The Indonesian government maintains that its use of force is for the maintenance of law in West Papua and to stop the armed independence movement by the West Papua Liberation Army.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed the reports of violence in West Papua in addition to the allegations of possible white phosphorous projectiles. It has stated that it will investigate further. Whether white phosphorous was used is an important question, but regardless of this question the issue of state-sponsored violence of any kind by Indonesia in West Papua should be cause for discussion of revision of the extent of our aid programs. When it was alleged that Syrian governmental forces used a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb, the USA responded with the attack of a Syrian air-field. I am not suggesting that Australia should be initiating military operations against Indonesia or West Papua, but I am suggesting that there be some reaction from the political establishment to such obvious injustice.
Indonesia is Australia’s largest recipient of foreign aid. In 2017-18 Australia provided $360 million. In 2016-17 Australia provided $357 million. In 2015-16 Australia provided $379 million. Over the past three years alone this quickly amounts to over a billion dollars in tax dollars.
Australia also offers military and security aid to Indonesia. This includes training and equipping Indonesian forces. The ties between Australia and Indonesia have been tumultuous and have been strained through the years by various crises, such as the Indonesian invasion, occupation and ongoing violence in Timor.
West Papua is a diverse and culturally rich territory, home to some 250 tribes, many of which still live traditional subsistence lifestyles. West Papua was, until 1969 under the colonial administration of the Dutch, despite their having withdrawn from Indonesia in 1949. The Dutch argued for their ongoing control on the basis that West Papua is culturally, geographically and ethnically distinct from Indonesia. In addition to their not playing a role in the Indonesian independence struggle. The Dutch accorded that the West Papuan people should be self-determinant, a right guaranteed by the UN. In 1961 a West Papuan congress, built by the Dutch, voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence.
Within months of the vote and raising of the West Papuan flag, Indonesia had invaded, leading to clashes between Dutch, Indonesian and local Papuan forces. The violence was taking place against the backdrop of the Cold War, at the height of tensions. President John F Kennedy of the USA wrote in April 1962 to the Prime Minister of the Netherlands to request that he relinquish control of the territory to the Indonesians. This was to try and prevent Soviet forces from being garrisoned in Indonesia to support the communist friendly government.
The issue was taken to the UN in 1962, who took control of the territory. One year later, control was passed to Indonesia under the New York Agreement. The West Papuan people were not consulted.
A liberation and independence movement started brewing in West Papua. By 1969, there was widespread resistance to Indonesian rule. The UN determined that a plebiscite be held to determine the future of the West Papuans. The plebiscite was named the ‘Vote of Free Choice’.
The plebiscite was held under repressive conditions. The Indonesian government determined that the West Papuan people were too primitive to handle democracy and therefore only a select group of West Papuans were accorded a vote to represent all of the 1 million inhabitants. The Indonesian government selected only 1,026 representatives. The representatives were threatened with violence by the Indonesian military. Not surprisingly, all 1,026 representatives ‘voted’ in favour of Indonesian control.
It has been noted by historians that the general attitude in Canberra at the time of the control dispute was toward Dutch co-operation with the West Papuans. This position was unable to be pursued due to Australia’s security ties to America, who had taken the opposite stance.
There was outcry from the West Papuan people, a damning report on the vote by a UN official, and every journalist that was allowed to visit the territory had painted a grim picture of Indonesian occupation. Despite this, the UN sanctioned the result and Indonesia assumed legal control over West Papua.
There has been an armed resistance movement since the 70s that calls for self determination and an end to the violence and cruelty that the Indonesian security forces show to the West Papuans. This movement was originally known as the Free Papua Movement, but has since morphed into other political and armed forms. The people of West Papua were treated brutally under the military dictator Suharto. Suharto responded to West Papuan demands for self-determination and attacks on multinational corporations draining the area of its resources with violence. Approximately 100,000 people had been killed in West Papua at the end of his reign. Following his 1998 death, the political space opened slightly. Again, a congress of West Papuans declared independence. Again, Indonesia feared secession and met this with repression. Instances of politically related violence, aimed at Papuan independence activists climbed. A leaked government document confirmed that the Indonesian military was responsible for the assassination of the chairman of the Papuan Council Presidium (the political leader of the Papuan people).
The territory of West Papua has been designated a ‘special autonomy’ status in order to placate the local independence movement. This has just resulted in Jakarta issuing its own dictates and enforcing them against the will of the West Papuans.
Since 2004, journalists have been barred from entering this repressive territory and reporting on the state-led violence. Nevertheless, pictures and videos have emerged from the territory from people with camera-phones. Amnesty International now estimates the deaths in West Papua over the duration of the Indonesian rule at as many as 400,000. The abuses of Indonesian security forces noted by rights groups include torture, unnecessary force against protestors (peaceful or otherwise), killings and forced disappearances.
In 2014 the main actors in the West Papuan independence movement united under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
West Papua is Rich in More than History & Culture
There is a very good reason why Indonesia wishes to maintain its grip on West Papua. Minerals. West Papua is home to the world’s largest reserves of gold and second largest reserves of copper. It follows then that it would be home to the world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine. Grasberg.
Until September of 2018, Grasberg was majority owned by Freeport McMoRan and Rio Tinto. Majority ownership was sold to the Indonesian government firm Inalum for $3.85 billion. The mine is powered by coal and diesel.
Under its current ownership, the environment has been entirely disregarded. A firm has assessed the damage at $13.25 billion. The audit of the site also notes that the mining giant has been clearing thousands of hectares of protected forests and had begun underground mining without environmental clearance, a fact admitted on the McMoRan website. The mine has polluted all of the areas surrounding it. The operators of the mine hold that they are in compliance with Indonesian environmental laws.
But the environmental degradation and extraction of local resources isn’t limited to one mine. The Indonesian government has opened the countryside to destruction for timber production, expansive mining operations and palm oil farming operations. New operations continue to start up and due to poor accessibility combined with institutional corruption, there is very little environmental management or enforcement of regulation. The West Papuan people see little benefit from nickel mining operations, mines generally operate for 5-10 years and the destruction of local waters and ecosystems leaves the subsistence communities with nothing or small monetary gains.
The island of New Guinea is home to the largest swathe of pristine rainforest outside of the Amazon. The island is also home to extensive coral reefs. This means that New Guinea, of which West Papua is half, is home to some of the earth’s most important carbon sinks. The unrestrained destruction of these areas has been noted to be hastening climate change.
The fate of West Papua and its people is therefore relevant to Australia and the world. We continue to sanction the ongoing violence in West Papua because the violence benefits the mining, timber and farming multinationals that operate there. Some of these companies are intertwined financially with the current Australian government through donations and lobbying.
As a large contributor of foreign aid to Indonesia, Australia holds financial sway over the repressive state. In demonstrating its actual commitment to human rights and international development, Australia should use this sway to try and effect some change in regard to West Papua. But, as demonstrated in our continued punishment of East Timor to accommodate oil and gas giants and the complacency in ongoing abuses on Manus Island, it seems unlikely that our government will challenge its donors to effect real change.