Smoke rising from burning homes, a church destroyed, villagers trekking miles on foot seeking safety, soldiers patrolling the jungle and military helicopters buzzing aloft. Ilaga in the highlands of West Papua is the war zone in our region.
This is the Indonesian military's Operation Nemangkawi, rapidly looking like the most intense offensive the territory has seen in decades. The latest new troop deployment was a 400-strong detachment from the battle-hardened 315/Garuda Battalion, given the name "Satan troops", for their former role in East Timor.
New Zealand is more than a bystander - our Government repeatedly endorses Indonesia's sovereignty over West Papua and has defence ties with Indonesia.
On April 26 an Indonesian intelligence chief, Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, was killed and the Free West Papua Movement or TNPB-OPM claimed responsibility. President Joko Widodo promptly gave orders to the military and police to hunt down every member of the group responsible. Then the Government announced that the armed movement would be designated as "terrorists".
As always it is the civilian population who bear the brunt, and reports describe a new wave of displaced people seeking shelter in the forest, in churches or neighbouring towns. The estimate of those displaced in the highland over the past two years is in the tens of thousands and NGOs reported some 400 deaths from health impacts. Facts are hard to verify as Indonesia excludes most journalists and outside humanitarian agencies and even limits the internet at crucial moments.
The broad definition of terrorism under the Indonesian counter-terrorism law gives the security forces wide powers to detain suspects without charge and hold them for lengthy periods with no trial. In a region where pro-independence sentiment and passive support for the armed resistance runs deep, the "terrorist" label is a new tool for repression.
The May 9 arrest of Victor Yeimo, international spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee or KNPB is ominous. KNPB is committed to peaceful dissent and its campaigns for a new self-determination referendum rely on petitions and "parliament of the streets".
Yeimo's organising role has landed him in prison previously but this time the Police Chief's rhetoric includes the threat that he will "grow old in jail". He faces a multitude of charges including treason related to his role in organising and addressing a 2019 anti-racism demonstration in Jayapura. Apparently he was on the police wanted list for releasing "information that could give rise to public unrest" and speaking about independence. There may be additional charges as interrogations continue.
Indonesian lawyer Veronica Koman ,in exile for her outspoken support for Papuan rights, has referred Yeimo's case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Ever since it took over the Melanesian territory in 1963, Indonesia has faced a determined but poorly armed guerrilla resistance. In the past couple of decades, Indonesia has also been challenged by a peaceful movement for change involving students, church people and tribal leaders.
As was the case when Indonesia occupied East Timor, there is also a strong solidarity movement, notably in the Pacific, which works to expose Indonesia's colonial occupation of West Papua and the way in which Western nations, including New Zealand, facilitated its takeover.
Once a Dutch colony, West Papua should have become independent like its neighbour Papua New Guinea. But deals in New York and a fraudulent 1969 referendum put paid to that.
In 2019, large scale Papuan anti-racism protests broke out across Indonesia and West Papua in response to egregious racial taunts and threats directed at Papuan students studying in Indonesia. The "Papuan lives matter" theme struck a chord around the world and among ordinary Indonesians. But hope was short-lived as Indonesia arrested dozens of the leaders of the anti-racism demonstrations and the pandemic took centre stage.
I was happy to hear Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta speak out publicly about human rights abuses against the Uighurs in China and also to state that New Zealand would approach human rights in a "consistent country-agnostic manner".
Now is the moment for her to speak out in support of the rights of the tormented indigenous West Papuan people and insist that Indonesia honour its undertaking to facilitate a UN fact-finding mission.
It should also be the moment to at least suspend our defence ties to Indonesia – the regular officer training exchanges and the export of arms including military aircraft parts, rifles, pistols and silencers.
• Maire Leadbeater is a member of West Papua Action Auckland.