It was not in the headlines, but our neighbourhood has had its own 'Arab Spring'. The Melanesian people of Indonesian-controlled West Papua, have shown the same determination to pursue non-violent struggle as their counterparts in Egypt and Syria.
A 5000 strong Papua National Congress took place over three days in a Jayapura field ringed with menacing armoured riot control vehicles and heavily armed police and soldiers. It was led by Forkorus Yaboisembut, the Chair of the Papuan Customary Council, who is highlighted on the Indonesian military's leaked watch list of dangerous 'separatists'. As the Congress came to an end on October 19, Forkorus read a Declaration of Independence first penned in 1961, prior to the Indonesian take-over of the territory. He then announced that he had been elected to be the "President" of the "Democratic Republic of West Papua".
As the gathering began to disperse, the military began firing from their assault weapons and launched themselves on the crowd, arresting and beating some 300 people. Forkorus was forcibly arrested along with his "Prime Minister" Edison Waromi and they and three others now face charges of treason. Dozens were injured, many with gunshot wounds, and up to six people were killed. The first death to be confirmed was that of a law student Daniel Kadepa who was shot in the head as he tried to flee.
Many terrified delegates tried to seek refuge in the nearby Catholic Seminary. Fr Neles Tebay, a prominent advocate for peaceful dialogue, has supplied a detailed account of the violent disruption and brutality displayed as the soldiers invaded the sacrosanct mission complex.
Terrified students were tear-gassed and threatened at gunpoint while one Franciscan brother was taken into custody despite the serious injuries he sustained in the attack.
A menacing security force presence is also ongoing in the remote Timika region, location of Freeport McMoran mine, where an American multinational makes vast profits from the largest recoverable reserves of gold and copper in the world. About 8000 workers have been on strike since September seeking to lift their wages from the current hourly rate of around NZ $1.80 to $3.60 to parity with the wages paid to Freeport's workers in other parts of the world.
Petrus Ayamiseba, one of the striking workers, was shot dead by the Indonesian police on October 10, provoking Papuan outrage and an unprecedented level of international union solidarity for the Freeport workers. Since then at least three others have been killed in the area by unknown assailants. Rather than conciliation the mine management has resorted to hiring contract workers as scabs.
Freeport McMoran has had a dream run for over forty years. The first contract negotiated with President Suharto gave the mining company virtually free rein as well as generous tax concessions. This was in 1967 when Indonesia did not even have formal control over the territory. In 1969 Indonesia pulled off a self-determination fraud by conducting a so called 'Act of Free Choice' ( known as the 'Act of No Choice' to the indigenous Papuans). Just over a thousand Papuan men took part out of a population at the time of nearly one million.
The Freeport mine has always been synonymous with violence and grave human rights abuses, as well as environmental destruction and the abuse of customary land rights. Amungme and Kamoro tribal people have had little recourse but to watch as the mine took over their lands and 'decapitated' their sacred mountain.
In the last few years, especially since some western mine employees were gunned down on the mine access road, the company has come under international scrutiny. However, the Jakarta Government is no hurry to interrupt the flow of taxes, dividends and royalties from Freeport, its biggest taxpayer.
There is an ongoing controversy around the way in which Freeport pays out millions of dollars so that Indonesian military and police forces can provide its security. Direct payments to individual police officers were supposed to have stopped, but the National Police Chief Timur Pradopo revealed in October that these payments of 'lunch money' continue. The security forces have a direct stake in a level of ongoing insecurity, a factor many believe underlies much of the violence in the area.
Following recent events, Indonesia has sent in yet more police and tried to justify the scandalous actions of its security forces as necessary to deal with "separatism".
Why has New Zealand made no public statement condemning this latest crackdown? Our Government Superannuation fund and other Crown Financial Institutes invest in Freeport McMoran. Both Government and the Superannuation Fund Board have so far resisted all calls to follow the ethical example of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund which divested from Freeport in 2006.
The New Zealand Minister of Defence recently talked about increasing our defence ties with Indonesia by extending the training we currently offer to Indonesian officers and hosting some 'higher level' visits of Indonesian personnel. We also have an NZAID training programme for the mainly migrant West Papua police. We promote community policing' a non-confrontational model that is about as far from current Papuan police practice as it is possible to imagine!
The buzz word is "engagement" - if we talk nicely the military and police will learn not to open fire on unarmed civilians and Freeport will improve its human rights and environmental standards. Instead we should go with the tide of history, and start listening to West Papuan leaders who want us to support their call for peaceful dialogue
* Maire Leadbeater is Spokesperson for the Indonesia Human Rights Committee.