22 December 2007

The land where the morning star dares not shine

By Marguerite Finn

On 1st December each year, a little ceremony takes place in a far off land. A flag is unfurled depicting the morning star and, for a few short minutes, a country dreams of what is must be like to be free. This year, the peaceful raising of the flag resulted in the immediate arrest and imprisonment of eight people. The morning star must not shine on West Papua.

It all stems from a broken promise which should have been fulfilled by 1st December 1970, the day when West Papua, a former Dutch colony, expected to become an independent state.

The Republic of Indonesia was created in 1949 when the Dutch granted independence to its colonised peoples. They retained West Papua, concerned to protect its Melanesian population and their distinct cultural characteristics. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it carefully prepared the territory for independence.

The Indonesian government had other ideas. Backed by powerful Western allies, it laid claim to all the former Dutch territories – including West Papua – and the Dutch, bowing to pressure from the United States, entered into negotiations. In August 1962, an agreement was concluded between the Netherlands and Indonesia under which the Dutch were to leave West Papua and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) for six years, until a national vote could be conducted to determine Papuan preference for independence or for integration with Indonesia.

Almost immediately, Indonesia took over the administration from UNTEA and the oppression of the West Papuan people began in earnest. A sham referendum was held in 1969, when just over 1,000 'representatives' hand-picked from a population of over a million, voted in the so-called Act of Free Choice to remain with Indonesia. The UN, bowing to the will of the US, UK and Australia, accepted the result. The West Papuans lost their independence. Today, Indonesia continues to exert its control through brutal repression and military occupation.

Imagine a land of incredible beauty and natural wealth: mountains, lakes, tropical forests – the last frontier in the battle for the environment. Imagine too, huge reserves of oil and natural gas, copper and gold and forests of timber – you can see how attractive such a land was to rapacious Western mining companies.

The US mining giant, Freeport McMoran was the first to get in on the act – followed closely by companies such as Esso, Shell, BP and RTZ. These multinationals struck a deal with the Indonesian military to depopulate and disinherit the Papuan people whose traditional rights to the land extended back millennia. Freeport McMoran established the world's largest gold and copper mine by destroying an entire river system in what had been a pristine rainforest providing hunting land and rich fishing for the local people. The Indonesian Government embarked on a policy of 'transmigration', funded by the World Bank, bringing in 'settlers' from other densely populated regions of Indonesia.

These newcomers forced Papuans off their lands, displaced Papuan businesses and assumed administrative control in what had been Papuan-controlled territories. Native languages, customs – even native clothing - were prohibited, reducing Papuans to a marginal existence, where they continue to experience killings, arbitrary arrests, rape and torture at the hands of the Indonesian military.

In what looks more and more like state-sponsored genocide, West Papuans have the lowest life expectancy in all of Indonesia. Access to clean water is a problem for seventy-five percent of the rural population. Not content with removing these basic human rights, the Indonesian government is targeting women in rural communities with a 'family planning' programme – using a dubious method of injectable contraception which the World Health Organisation fears may actually facilitate AIDS transmission and other communicable diseases. More than fifty percent of children under five are malnourished – all this in a land of plenty.

I was working in Australia in the 1960s at the very time when the West Papuans were being defrauded of their lands, yet I knew nothing about it. It has taken me decades to realise the enormity of what happened then while the world looked the other way.

Yet there may just be time to prevent the disappearance of the West Papuan civilisation. There are three things one can do immediately:
  1. Before 26 December 2007, sign the petition to the Prime Minister calling on him to urge the Indonesian Government to free political prisoners in West Papua.

  2. Ask your MP to persuade the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to put pressure on the Indonesian Government to halt the genocide of West Papuans.

  3. Contact the Free West Papua Campaign.