Marni Gilbert & Maire Leadbeater: Stand up for West Papua

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Indonesia has been getting away with human rights abuses, write Marni Gilbert and Maire Leadbeater

Indonesia has marginalised the indigenous population by encouraging migration from its more populous area. Photo / Getty Images
Indonesia has marginalised the indigenous population by encouraging migration from its more populous area. Photo / Getty Images

It has been controversial right from the time of the first pilot project five years ago, but our Government seems set to continue giving aid to the police in Indonesian-controlled West Papua. Does anyone seriously think that a course about community policing can transform a police force whose modus operandi is intimidation and brutal force?

Although it is little publicised, New Zealand also trains Indonesian military officers at our Defence Force Staff and Command College. In 2011 we trained an officer from Kopassus, the feared Special Forces. Last month 11 Kopassus men stormed a Yogyakarta prison and gunned down four detainees. That was just the latest in a horrific list of crimes which includes the 2001 assassination of West Papua's charismatic independence leader Theys Eluay.

It took an appeal to the Office of the Ombudsman before we could extract information about whether New Zealand considered the human rights record of the Kopassus officer before accepting him.

But the answer was quite straightforward - no human rights screening was done.

West Papuans have been campaigning for freedom since the 1960s when the Dutch plan to prepare the country for independence was derailed. Western nations and even the UN chose to stay on side with Indonesia and turn a blind eye to a fraudulent "act of free choice" in 1969. Only a little over 1000 handpicked and threatened men took part in a vote that has since been fully discredited.

Indonesia's harsh repression has resulted in a death toll of at least 100,000, and a refugee flow of more than 10,000. Today the youthful leaders of the peaceful resistance movement describe their land as one big prison where no activist or human rights defender is free from surveillance or the punitive actions of the police and the military.

Indonesia has marginalised the indigenous population by encouraging migration from its more populous regions to the extent that the Papuans may now be a minority in their own land.

In remote areas there are regular reports of mass deaths through a combination of malnutrition and untreated communicable disease.

Church and traditional leaders repeatedly call for dialogue between the Indonesian authorities and representatives of the Papuan people. They want this process to be mediated by a third party - perhaps a Pacific neighbour such as New Zealand.

West Papua is in a black hole of media obscurity since Indonesia bars almost all international journalists, although some manage to visit clandestinely and some brave "citizen journalists" circulate reports and videos on the internet. The Pacific tour of British-based tribal leader Benny Wenda in February helped to turn the spotlight on West Papua. In Wellington Speaker David Carter banned Benny from speaking on parliamentary premises, thus ensuring good media attention and exposing the Government's "see no evil, hear no evil" approach.

Importantly, Benny's visit helped to reignite the West Papua debate in Melanesia. It is now probable that the Melanesian Spearhead group of nations, which includes New Caledonia's independence movement (FLNKS), as well as Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu will grant West Papuan representatives official observer status when it meets in June.

In a break with the past, several prominent Papua New Guinea politicians are urging their Government to take a strong stand for improved human rights across the border in West Papua.

Fiji rightly claims our attention, but why not West Papua where human rights violations are off the scale? For one thing it is the only territory in the Pacific to have long-term political prisoners. At the end of March there were at least 40 political detainees, many of whom have been subjected to torture and forced confessions. Most have faced charges of treason but this is code for actions such as raising the banned Morning Star flag or to leading a demonstration calling for a self-determination referendum.

Fortunately there is a promising new international campaign to publicise this situation. Indonesian, West Papuan and international NGOs have just joined together to launch papuansbehindbars.org, a carefully documented account of all of those serving sentences for non-crimes or undergoing interrogation.

Our group will make the campaign to free West Papua's political prisoners a priority.

The Government faces a choice. Stand up for West Papuan rights and work with the Melanesian nations as they stir to action. Or continue business as usual with Indonesia - training the forces of oppression and shunning West Papuan leaders.

Marni Gilbert and Maire Leadbeater are members of West Papua Action Auckland.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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