West Papuans cry out for freedom

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 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.

Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Chairman, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, commends Arndt’s 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.”

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 author relates the story of being stopped on the road by soldiers who collected an illegal toll.

“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 security forces control the trade of every commodity, from rice to petrol. 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 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 blood money.”

Some time later, Arndt found that the case was still being investigated by the National Human Rights Commission 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.”

“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.

“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.

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 campaigning 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 to telling them what to do, “but with the desire to walk with them in their struggle to shape their own future as the First Peoples of their land”.

This article was first published in Justice Trends, the quarterly newsletter of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, No. 168, March 2018. The Council is the national justice and peace agency of the Catholic Church in Australia. Email or P 8306 3499. Into the Deep: Seeking justice for the people of West Papua is available for $7.50.

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Australian Catholic Social Justice Council

The ACSJC is the national justice and peace agency of the Catholic Church in Australia.

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