New hope for Papuan independence
West Papuans battling for independence have new hope after recent events propelled their deadly but usually hidden struggle into the global spotlight.
Risky activist ventures undertaken by pro-independence organisations have made headlines in Australia and Indonesia in the past months, especially three young West Papuans who jumped the fence of Australia’s Bali consulate as world leaders including Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrived for an APEC meeting.
But it was in New York a week earlier that Papuans and commentators alike say the independence cause made history.
In a United Nations General Assembly speech for which many West Papuans had waited decades, a head of state – Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil – for the first time called on the UN to reconsider Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.
Mr Carcasses denounced the 1969 ‘act of free choice’ used by Indonesia to justify taking control of the territory and called for the appointment of a UN special representative to investigate West Papua’s political status.
West Papuans have been fighting for independence since the the widely condemned 1969 UN-brokered process.
Mr Carcasses’s speech is also seen as further boosting one of the major advances of the West Papuan independence movement in recent years – a decision by the Melanesian Spearhead Group of Pacific nations to consider giving it formal membership.
While some commentators warn independence hopes in West Papua can be dangerous – and have proven so over decades of failure and violence – others say a game change is unfolding.
‘West Papua’s time has come’ is how Canberra-based West Papuan leader Rex Rumakiek puts it, while Peter King, professor of government and international relations at Sydney University, acknowledges ‘the whole thing has got to a new international level’.
And hope is rising also on the ground in West Papua, customary leader Yohanis Goram tells AAP from the northern-western West Papuan city of Sorong.
Despite facing treason charges and potentially years in jail after co-organising a prayer meeting in support of the recent Indigenous Freedom Flotilla, Mr Goram says ‘not only me but all Papuan people’ are very happy at the Carcasses speech and hoping for more international action.
But Australia will not be providing it.
A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told AAP the government ‘notes’ Mr Carcasses’s address but believes the ‘best way to ensure a secure and prosperous future for Papuans is by improved development and governance within the Indonesian state through the full implementation of special autonomy’.
The recent media and political attention on West Papua was kicked off with a secret venture by the Freedom Flotilla sailor-activists into Indonesian waters during August and September.
That focus was prolonged during a row over the treatment of a group of West Papuan activists involved with the flotilla who fled to Australia and were swiftly moved to Papua New Guinea by a new federal government keen to sell its border protection policies to Indonesia.
Then the three Bali-based West Papuans swung the spotlight their way, jumping the fence of Australia’s consulate in Bali ahead of APEC. Their departure from the consulate in disputed circumstances – the men claimed staff threatened to call Indonesian police – sparked another controversy.
Three Australian crossbench senators have spoken up for the activists and against the government’s treatment of them, with Greens Senator Richard Di Natale claiming the consulate’s alleged actions had ‘put the lives of these three brave young men in grave danger’.
Just as Mr Abbott was saying West Papuans were better off under Indonesian rule and Australia would not provide a platform to grandstand against Indonesia, new research claimed tens of thousands of West Papuans had been killed under Indonesian rule.
Such violence is one of the reasons some experts warn West Papuan hopes carry the danger of increased suffering.
Deakin University Indonesia expert Damien Kingsbury says the geopolitical lineup is so powerfully on Indonesia’s side that a ‘critical’ event – equivalent to the Aceh tsunami or East Timor’s Dili massacre – would be needed to push the international community to act concertedly on West Papua.
‘It’s going to have to be a pretty major event, and what that probably implies is significant loss of life,’ he said.
Sydney University West Papua expert Jim Elmslie doubts West Papuans will stop aspiring to independence, even if hopes can only be ‘slender’. Facing genocide and dispossession, he says, West Papuans experience a yearning for independence.
University of NSW international and political studies associate professor Clinton Fernandes says independence activists have exaggerated hopes that hijack attention which should be placed on the poverty, disease and illiteracy in the territory.
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