The 50-year relationship between Indonesia and its largest taxpayer comes under scrutiny.
By Nithin Coca July 20, 2017
The drama started nearly two years ago, when Setya Novanto, the speaker of the Indonesian Parliament, was forced to resign after being caught trying to extort U.S. mining giant Freeport McMoRan, which was looking to extend its contract in Indonesia. Things heated up again earlier this year, when, alongside nationalist-tinged protests, it looked like Freeport was on its way out. Then, unexpectedly, a deal seemed to be reached. It was too good to be true, and again, today, the situation is unsure. After years of on-again, off-again negotiations between the Indonesian government and its largest taxpayer and longtime partner, things look stuck right where they started, with both sides intransigent and blaming the other.
The relationship between Freeport, Indonesia, and the restive West Papua region where most of Freeport’s mines are located gives a glimpse into the development policies of Southeast Asia’s biggest country, and the still-ongoing challenge of moving on from the brutal legacy of resource extraction and militarism of the Suharto era.
Freeport’s entry into Indonesia came at a critical time, just years after a bloody coup toppled founding President Sukarno and brought to power General Suharto, who would rule for more than three decades. At that time, not surprisingly, few Indonesians had a say in the deal.
“In the previous contracts [negotiated in] 1967 and 1991, Suharto’s administration did not need to accommodate the concerns of Indonesian people, ” said Dr. Zulfan Tadjoeddin, senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Western Sydney. “They pragmatically agreed to the terms they thought were good enough for Indonesia.”
In a poor country with limited infrastructure and little industry, resource extraction was to become a key facet of Suharto’s cronyist New Order regime, who, for all their abuses, did help improve the lives of many Indonesians.
“Suharto’s early development programs concerning basic health, education, agriculture, and rural infrastructures were made possible by the mining and oil boom of the 1970s,” said Tadjoeddin.
Freeport’s operations also helped cement Indonesian control over the disputed region of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. It has, at various times, been controlled by Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia, before it was handed over to Indonesia in 1963, and formally incorporated in a 1969 military-run election in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote for ascension. With assistance from the Indonesian military, with whom the company has also had a long relationship, Freeport began construction of the Grasberg mine in 1970, without the consent of West Papuans.
“Freeport’s operations are historically based on… corrupt ties with General Suharto, and have involved siphoning off huge profits into Western capitals at the expense of the environment, the local people, and Indonesian political integrity,” said Benny Wenda, a West Papuan living in exile and a spokesperson for Free West Papua.
The 1970s and 1980s were a dark time for many West Papuans, who were forced to face a relentless military presence and the massive influx of migrants from wealthier East Indonesia. Revenue from the the mine remained in the hands of Jakarta. In fact, the power of the Indonesian military – key to Suharto’s control – was closely connected to Freeport’s mining operation, with numerous documented instances of human rights abuses at their facilities.
“Freeport is deeply embedded with Indonesian security forces in the region, paying them for ‘security’ arrangements — which basically means crushing local Papuan resistance to Freeport’s operations,” said Wenda. “There’s a sordid history of shootings, arrests and disappearances around the Freeport mine.” Even today, the military gets the majority of its revenues from its business operations, including providing security in West Papua.
One of the key problems stalling negotiations today is that the Suharto regime negotiated Freeport’s last contract in 1991, with the terms not so different from 1969 – heavily tilted in Freeport’s favor and with few environmental and social protections. In 1998, however, during the Asian Financial Crisis, Suharto fell, and today, Indonesia is a democracy, having elected its first president with no direct ties to the New Order, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, in 2015. Jokowi immediately began looking at the Freeport contract as a revenue source to fulfill his massive infrastructure and economic development plans.
“President Jokowi’s administration has been negotiating with Freeport for improving the benefit of the relationship for Indonesia; this is a step in right direction,” said Tadjoeddin.
The question is – what exactly does the new Indonesia want from Freeport, and will they be able to get it? And are the threats to nationalize the operation, or hand it over to another (perhaps Chinese) company rhetoric, or genuine threats?
Unfortunately, human rights and the concerns of West Papuans, who have seen little real progress since 1998, are not factoring into the negotiations so far. Instead, talks are focused on a few key points, namely, revenue — both how much Freeport must pay the Indonesian government, and how much control the company is willing to give the country over its operations. Indonesia’s 2009 Mining Act requires it to divest 51 percent of its Indonesian subsidiary, but so far, only 9.36 percent has been divested.
This is why the company is also playing hardball, shutting down its gold mine in February, and most recently, terminating more than 4,000 striking workers from the Grasberg mine in a move local and global labor unions called illegal.
“First we heard [the] company had terminated 2,000 strikers, not something you see very often, then it went up to 3,000, 4,000,” said Adam Lee, campaigns director at IndustriALL, a global union supporting the fired workers. “It’s very unusual to have a company take that drastic action. We want the Indonesian government to act and force the company to reinstate the workers.”
This demonstrates the complexity of these negotiations. While Freeport is Indonesia’s largest taxpayer, and has been for some time, the relationship is symbiotic. Freeport also depends on its huge Papuan operations for a large chunk of its global revenue – in 2015, 27 percent of the operating income generated from mining operations came from Indonesia. Losing the mine, or divesting such a large chunk of the subsidiary, would be a major loss for the company, which means Indonesia is in a relative position of power – even if it is not quite ready to take full control.
“I don’t think this is about taking over the Freeport mine… as this is simply unrealistic given the business management, financing, and technological challenges,” said Tadjoeddin. “The nationalist-tinged protests and rhetoric are primarily about improving the term of the relationship for Indonesia’s benefit.”
Unfortunately, this may still not be enough to fulfill Jokowi’s development dreams, as the mines are not nearly as profitable as just a few years ago, when global commodity prices were high. In 2013 Freeport reported $18.98 billion in revenue, with nearly $4 billion of that as profit. In 2014, this resulted in a $1.5 billion tax bill to the Indonesian government. Most recent figures are not public, but almost undoubtedly much, much lower.
“Despite the drop in global commodity prices, negotiations will continue, although the profit estimate of the new business adventure will be significantly impacted,” said Tadjoeddin.
Of course, the post-2000s resource boom, driven chiefly by China’s incessant demand for raw materials, didn’t aid most Indonesians. While mining helped Indonesia’s economy grow during the early years of democracy, the wealth was never spread equally. In 2002, the country’s GINI coefficient, a measure of income distribution in which lower values demonstrate greater quality, was 29.57. In 2013, the coefficient had risen to 41, indicating dramatic growth in the wealth of the rich. This was not a big surprise, as analysis of GINI data shows that countries with more natural resources tend to have greater levels of inequality. Indonesia is no exception, having been resource export dependent since its early days as a Dutch colony.
The latest timetable is for a new agreement to be reached in October, covering 20 years. Meanwhile, protests will continue at the mine itself, or, if tensions rise, across Indonesia. Freeport’s relationship with Indonesia has gone through many iterations over the past four decades, and while whatever comes next may be better for the country financially, it will likely leave the majority of Indonesians, like before, in the dust, and further antagonize West Papuans, who will once again be forced to bear the environmental, social, and human costs of national development.
“Another 20 years of Freeport means another 20 years of shootings, police brutality, environmental carnage, and destruction of Papuan livelihoods,” said Wenda.
Only one thing is certain – mining will, as it has since 1970, remain at the heart of Indonesia’s political economy – for better, or for worse.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.
2) Anti-BP protesters gatecrash Hull 2017 lecture to campaign against oil firm and hold minute’s vigil
The speakers took to the stage before the start of the lecture
BYALEX GROVE 17:02, 20 JUL 2017
DEFIANT: The anti-BP protesters
Human rights campaigners disrupted a BP-sponsored lecture organised by the City of Culture team to protest against the oil firm's supposed links to rights abusing regimes.
On Wednesday night, just moments before a talk by Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, protesters took to the floor at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull city centre to stage a spontaneous vigil.
One of the speakers talked about the West Papuans' struggles as he suggested BP are supporting a regime which is oppressing them.
The audience were then invited to join them in holding a minute's silence.
Sam Donaldson, one of those who took part in the vigil, said: "By sponsoring Hull City of Culture, BP is attempting to boost its brand and draw a veil over its destructive impacts on communities and the environment.
"Around the world, BP rakes in profits by working with regimes that routinely abuse human rights.
"To drill for gas in West Papua, BP partners with the Indonesian government which continues to occupy West Papua and repress Indigenous Papuans.
"Tonight, we wanted to shine a spotlight on this injustice and express our support for their struggle.’
According to the group, the people of West Papua face widespread violence and intimidation on a daily basis and a petition has been created calling on the UN Secretary general to appoint a 'special representative' to investigate the human rights situation in the province.
Pelle Hjek, who spoke at the end of the vigil, said: "Hull is one of the UK’s cities most at risk from rising sea levels in coming decades.
"By accepting BP’s sponsorship, Hull City of Culture has helped to promote one of the very fossil fuel companies that is recklessly fuelling global warming, with impacts that will undoubtedly damage our city in the future."
Last year, BP faced controversy in the city when a leaked safety report revealed that damages of up to $45m were caused when a piece of equipment within Hull's chemical plant was not operated correctly.
Fran Hegyi, executive director at Hull 2017, expressed support for BP as a funding partner but also welcomed peaceful protests.
He said: "BP are a major partner of Hull 2017, one of more than 70 funding partners that are enabling us to deliver a 365 day cultural programme that is reaching people across the city and has received positive attention from across the UK and around the world.
"Everyone has the right to protest peacefully and the lecture went ahead as planned."
1) Papua, West Papua need better connectivity: Jokowi
Fedina S. Sundaryani The Jakarta Post
Jakarta | Thu, July 20, 2017| 11:20 am
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has called on his ministers to cooperate with regional governments to boost the construction of infrastructure in Papua and West Papua to help the two provinces expand connectivity with other regions in the country.
Taking these regions out of isolation, West Papua in particular, is essential in order to increase job opportunities and boost human development, the President added.
“We have focused our efforts on expediting infrastructure development over the past two years in order to boost West Papua’s connectivity with other regions in Indonesia,” he said during the opening of a closed-door meeting at the State Palace in Jakarta on Wednesday.
Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Opening up isolation, creating new jobs, alleviating poverty, carrying out more equitable development, and increasing the human development index are part of efforts to overcome challenges in West Papua Province, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) remarked here on Wednesday.
"These are the great jobs that we have to do to overcome the challenges in West Papua, and to improve the welfare of the people in the province," President Jokowi said when chairing a limited cabinet meeting to evaluate the implementation of national strategic projects and priority programs of West Papua at his office.
Jokowi revealed that in the past two and a half years the government has set its focus on accelerating infrastructure development and improving connectivity of West Papua with other regions.
"Connectivity is necessary for West Papua, not only to open the isolated areas, but also to reduce logistics costs and improve the competitiveness of existing local products," the president noted.
Hence, the president requested that the construction of ports,in Sorong, Bintuni, and Kaymana; the development of the ferry dock in Wasior, and the development of several airports accelerated.
"I also ask for the acceleration of the development of strategic roads connecting between the centers of economic development," said the President.(*)
Richard Tuheiava of the opposition Tavini Huiraatira Party said the territory was put back on the list by the UN General Assembly in 2013 because of the terms under which it is administered by France.
While the government of Edouard Fritch maintains that a majority of voters is against independence, Mr Tuheiava said that was not a determining factor.
"No matter how the local government of French Polynesia is trying to seek the delisting of our territory, it will not be successful until French Polynesia will meet really the legal criteria of a self-governing status under the views of the United Nations charter."
Mr Tuheiava said discussions with France at the UN decolonisation committee were yet to start because Paris keeps boycotting the proceedings.
He said France does meet its obligations towards New Caledonia which is also on the decolonisation list.
As in Papuan society, so also in churches, there are members who opine that the western part of New Guinea has the right to be an independent state. There are also members who consider this region the provinces of the Republic of Indonesia. But how is the attitude of the several church leaders?
Seen from a theological point of view it is the duty of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to unify the faithful. That’s why bishops and pastors think they are not allowed to take side with one of the two attitudes mentioned above, and against the other. However, the real-politics in West Papua makes it impossible for churches to remain neutral and hide their position.
Recently, leaders of three Papuan churches (GIDI, BAPTIST and KINGMI), whose members and leaderships are predominantly native Papuans gathered as “Ecumenical Work Forum of Papuan Churches”, released a pastoral letter condemning the ongoing violence and discrimination against Papuans. These church leaders said to their faithful that because of so many cases of violence, detentions, tortures and killings of civil Papuans, “there is no future for the Papuan nation within the Indonesian system.” As far as I know, the Catholic Church seldom or even never made such a clear statement. Why is that the case?
In the Catholic circle, people often say, “Of course the Church will not frankly support the call for Papua’s independence, but we unanimously raise the injustice that occurs.” This statement needs to be scrutinized. First, the question of Papuan independence seems to be a political subject. But the distinction between politicians’ concern and the church’ concern has lost its relevance from the moment we ask whether or not every nation has a right to own a country. Many Papuans think about themselves as a nation and not as a tribe within the Indonesian nation. Their decolonization process was interrupted by manipulative international politics and Indonesian military infiltrations in 1960s. This complicated historical process, combined with military oppression, human rights violations, marginalization, and resources exploitation caused their integration into the Unitary State of Indonesia more like a colonial occupation than decolonization. With respect to that reality, isn’t it an injustice that Papua is not yet independent, hence should not it be part of the church’ concern “to raise jointly the injustice that occurs in Papua”?
Non-violent struggle for Self-determination
Culturally, Papuans belongs to Melanesian culture and not Malay as other tribes in Indonesia. It also has different historical trajectory. While Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, Papua remained under the Dutch rule until 1963. The Papuans, who wanted their independence as much as other colonized nations in that era, were promised by the Dutch authorities to have its independent nation state by 1970. At the same time, Indonesia, who claimed Papua as part of its territory, gained support from its allies, leading to the New York Agreement 1961 which stipulated the transfer of administration of Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia. It also stipulated that Indonesia would organize a UN supervised referendum no later than 1970 through which the Papuans could decide to join Indonesia or have their independent state.
The referendum did take place in 1969. However, the referendum is in fact a legal defect for two reasons. First, the way it was carried out was contrary to the agreement of one man, one vote. The referendum was in fact an agreement made by 1,025 men and women selected by the Indonesian military administration. Instead of voting, they raised their hands or read from prepared scripts in a display for United Nations observers. Second, the UN General Assembly made the result legally binding, without taking cognizance of the abuses reported by the UN delegates themselves (Drooglever 2005, Saltford 2003).
My argument is: as long as the indigenous Papuans don’t get what is due to them in justice, any development and material relief from Indonesia cannot extinguish the fire of independence struggle. It keeps burning in the heart of each of them. More and more Papuans, including the Christian ones, get involved in non-violent struggle. They realize that arms struggle only means harm and suffering. Hence they fight in Mahatma Gandhi’s manner: no violence, ahimsa, a resistance strategy that delivered India from the evil of colonialism.
The Catholic attitude
The church does not only consist of bishops and other clergy. According to the Jayapura Diocese after its pastoral synod in the seventies, “We are the Church”. Nevertheless, we may hope that the pastors are good shepherds who lead the way and march in front of the flock. To the church as a whole –both leaders and members—the prophetic mission has been entrusted to blame, criticize and correct abuses, for the purpose of bringing back the faithful and the society into the right direction.
In Papua when representatives of other churches heavily and loudly protest as part of their prophetic mission, people ask: “Where is the voice of the Catholic church”? Oftentimes its voice cannot be heard, because Catholic leaders prefer to speak with the responsible “dignitaries” of army, police and government in private meetings. Many Catholic bishops and pastors consider such a talk more effective than protesting publicly. They are also convinced of their duty to build bridges between two opposing parties. But whether such a private talk is more effective than a loud protest that resounds in the media is questionable. The worsening of the human rights situation in the recent years does not prove that this “Catholic approach” is more effective.
I think in order to play an important part in the Church’s prophetic mission, the Catholics and their leaders must speak publicly and very loudly against every human rights violation in West Papua, while at the same time, on one side, respecting the political conviction of each parish member and citizen, either pro-Unitary State or pro-independence, and on the other, explaining why an aspiration for independence is something genuine, especially when pursued without violence: ahimsa.
Father Nico Syukur Dister, OFM is Professor at the “Fajar Timur” School of Philosophy and Theology in Jayapura,
Even though his Dutch is still as fluent as ever, it is doubtful whether Theo van den Broek (70) can still be called a Dutchman. After spending 40 years in Papua (Indonesia), he has a new homeland.
“I went to Papua as a missionary Franciscan brother. I have never stopped working with the people in Jayapura and other places, standing side by side in their struggle for political, economic and social justice. In Papua I became the person I am today and Papua will be the place where I will die. I am no longer a Franciscan brother – I have married a Papua woman – but I have never dissociated myself from the social mission of the Church in Papua.”
Over the years van den Broek has developed an intense and intimate connection with the people of Papua, first as a missionary brother and later as the lay man he is today. It is this connection that embodies the essence of how he looks at the concept of ‘caritas’.
In 40 years’ time he witnessed how this connection between church aid worker and the community he serves has changed drastically, and not always for the better.
Isolation and connectedness
Theo said, when he came here, back in the ‘70s, missionaries came from far away and settled in extremely isolated communities, deep in the interior. “Where public transport stopped, you had to walk through forests and marsh land. Though I coordinated social work of the diocese of Jayapura, and stayed in the provincial capital, I visited many of the outposts”.
Communication with the outside world was difficult then. Twice a day, there was an SSB (Single Side Band) radio connection. Today, communication by road and by internet has greatly improved. It means that even in the smallest village you are better connected to the world, to your family. But it also means that the connection you feel with the people you have come to serve can become less personal, less intense, and less strong.
Besides that, most of the missionaries who come to Papua today come from other parts of Indonesia. “They have, naturally, a more Indonesian perspective on Papua, which is different,” he said.
From the beginning, van den Broek recognizes the sensitive political aspects of the social work the Church engages in and urges church authorities not to turn a blind eye to issues of justice.
“When Papua was integrated into the Indonesian nation in 1963, the local population had no say in the process. Up until today they feel neglected, by Indonesia, by the Dutch, by the US. For them aspects of poverty and underdevelopment, which are huge, cannot be dissociated from the political injustice they experience and their struggle for self-determination. Of course, neither the church nor I ever took sides in this struggle for independence. But I have always defended the people’s right of self-determination. And I have always insisted with church leaders, that church building and missionary work includes the politically more difficult and sensitive struggle against injustice.
During my years as head of the Human Rights Commission of the Jayapura diocese, until 2005, I managed to convince the church of this. Personally, it was totally impossible for me not to speak out against the many cases of discrimination, arrests, murders and disappearances.”
Caritas against all odds
For van den Broek, in essence ‘caritas’ means staying with the community you have come to serve and allowing yourself to become a part of that community.
Whatever the odds. “Ever since Soeharto there has been an organized influx or transmigration of Muslims to Papua, to the extent that the local mainly Christian population has become a minority today and has lost all economic and political control over their own lives. We have always stood up and spoken out against this marginalization.
Of course Indonesian authorities and the army didn’t ‘like’ this. Some of my colleagues and myself, we were blacklisted as being ‘anti-government’ and ‘anti-nationalistic’. Essentially what they told us was to ‘shut up’. What can you do in that case? For a couple of days I changed my modes of transport, looked around more carefully. But then again, if they want to find you, they will, whatever measures you take.”(*)
Necessity to act
Van den Broek’s full time involvement in the church’s human rights work started in the mid ‘90’s, on a day a small group of villagers desperately wanted to speak to the bishop, but the only one present was van den Broek.
“They had travelled from far. They didn’t know who to turn to anymore. People in their village had been shot, others had been beaten up, locked up in containers… They were desperate and wanted to talk to the bishop, who wasn’t there. There and then, as head of the Diocese office at that time I transgressed the limits of my formal authorities and I decided to investigate the human rights violations they shared to the fullest.
Anyway, after I communicated with the bishop, he agreed most heartly with my decision. This resulted in the first human rights report ever to be published by the Church in Papua, in 1995. I knew this was politically very tricky and sensitive. But at the moment the villagers confronted me, a few essential things coincided. There was the immediate confrontation with the sufferings of the people in front of me; there was the decision I had once taken to be at the service of the people in Papua; the knowledge that you are part of the Church and that this gives you a position that you can influence things. There was my own spirituality as a Franciscan, my option for the poor, that allowed me to be touched and disturbed by the eyewitnesses. All this resulted in feeling of solidarity and responsibility and a necessity to act.”
The moral necessity to act and to speak out, as an expression of caritas… Van den Broek points out that it is increasingly difficult to do fulfill this commitment as a church organization. “The new pope is a true inspiration. But narrow financial ties of the church with the national government and with the corporate industry pressure social organizations of the church not to be too critical, to be risk aversive and not to speak out loudly against social and political injustice. And the shift the Church took under Benedictus XVI to pay more attention to devotion and less to societal issues, hasn’t helped either.
That’s why a conference as this one here in Vught can help us to feed and strengthen our own spirituality of caritas, to deepen our connectedness to the sufferings of others and to make sure that human rights and justice remain an essential part of the Church’s pastoral work.”
New elites, more migrants
When van den Broek analyzes Papua’s current situation, he comes to the conclusion that the huge amounts of government spending and the legislative efforts to regulate the autonomy of Papua have not improved the lives of the common people of Papua.
“Unfortunately national Indonesian budgets for Papua, meant to develop the province, have created a Papua elite that has enriched itself with government money and enhanced internal tensions. On top of that these riches have only attracted more migrants. So even though there is an autonomy law for Papua since 2001, the discrimination against the local population, which has now become a minority, has only increased.”
No need for big cathedrals
Today van den Broek is an independent aid worker. In the past 10 years he worked for several NGOs in Papua as well as Eastern Timor, often in management positions. At the age of 70, after 40 years ‘in the field’, his main message to professionals and organizations who strive to work in the spirit of caritas is ‘to live and to stay with the people you serve’. Van den Broek: “There is no need to build big cathedrals or to appoint high level church officials. Just live with the people, stay for longer periods of time than just a few months, listen carefully to what they share with you and base your efforts of development and justice upon their knowledge, their experience and their sufferings.”(*)
A campaigner for West Papua says the New Zealand government should be speaking out about the treatment of pro-independence demonstrators by Indonesian police.
More than 100 Papuans - mainly members of the West Papua National Committee, or KNPB - were detained between 30 June and 6 July in Nabire, following a protest march to the city's police station to demand the release of one of the group's activists.
The Indonesian government denied that the protesters were arrested and said they were all returned to where they had come from after signing a declaration that they would not violate law and order.
However, the New Zealand campaigner Maire Leadbetter said the demonstrators were held against their will, interrogated and in some cases beaten.
She said the Indonesian government was still detaining people who set out on peaceful demonstrations, a tactic she described as an assault on freedom of expression.
"It's shocking and our government should be standing up and saying far more than they are doing. I have written to Gerry Brownlee - the minister of foreign affairs about it this week," said Ms Leadbetter.
2) WHY PACIFIC AND MĀORI COMMUNITIES ARE RISING UP FOR WEST PAPUA
JAMES BORROWDALE JUL 18 2017, 9:20AM
The independence movement is largely ignored by wider—whiter—New Zealand society.
Like apartheid South Africa, I kept hearing. For a long time, the horrors behind the curtain thrown up by South Africa's racist government weren't widely known in this country. It wasn't until the 1981 Springboks tour that the small band of activists, who had all the time been committed to the cause, were able to turn that affair into a nation-splitting episode—and to put increased international pressure on the regime.
West Papua hasn't had its Springboks tour yet; it is often called the world's forgotten occupation. Indonesia has held formal control over West Papua since 1962's New York Agreement granted the South East Asian superpower the former Dutch colony, with the promise of a fair vote on self-determination by 1969. That never arrived: 1969's Act of Free Choice, in which just 0.2 percent of the population voted—under extreme duress—determined that West Papua was to remain part of Indonesia, a country with which it had no linguistic, cultural, or racial links.
Ever since, the repression of the indigenous population has been ruthless. The figure of 100,000 people killed by Indonesian security forces is commonly cited, but estimates run as high as 500,000. Mass killings of Papuans in the tribal highlands in the 1970s met the criteria for genocide, the Asia Human Rights Commission reported. And the brutality continues: a 2016 report conducted by the Archdiocese of Brisbane titled We Will Lose Everything contains reports of atrocities committed throughout 2015, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and firing on peaceful protestors. Methods of torture, another reportclaims, include rape, slashing with bayonets, and electrification.
Clearly, something horrific is happening—and has been for a long time—in the South Pacific. New Zealand's response? Successive governments, perhaps wary of aggravating an important trading partner, have refused to dispute Indonesia's territorial borders. The media hasn't done much better—VICE NZ was one of just a handful of outlets to cover a visit to New Zealand by Benny Wenda, the leader-in-exile of the West Papuan independence movement and a man twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, earlier this year.
He's a man with a fascinating tale to tell—a childhood spent on the run in the bush, horrors witnessed, arrest, escape, a life-long commitment to the cause of his people. And it's a story that is percolating at some political level, with 11 New Zealand MPs across four parties now signatories of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua declaration. Where, then, I wondered, were the profiles in the Saturday newspapers, the coverage on Sunday-night current-affairs shows?
Benny Wenda (centre) and Dr Pala Molisa (to his left) with Ngāti Whātua members at Ōrakei Marae. Image: Clare Harding/Free West Papua.
Dr Pala Molisa, of Victoria University's School of Accounting and Commercial Law, is a long-time supporter of West Papuan independence. Addressing why the New Zealand media is reluctant to take on the story of the subjugation of an entire people, happening so close to home, he says, means confronting an "uncomfortable thing". "It shouldn't be too controversial [to say] today that black and brown lives, when you look at the patterns—socioeconomic, police shootings, mass-incarceration—are devalued when compared to white lives."
Molisa is from Vanuatu, a country that also had to fight for its independence from colonial rule. He bemoans how dependent Pākehā awareness is upon coverage in established media: "Most of our educated Pākehā population is highly reliant on mainstream media. As long as [West Papua is] kept out, that'll affect the amount of participation."
Professor David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre has, as a journalist, been reporting on West Papua since the early 1980s, and finds the lack of interest "puzzling". A veteran journalist ("I think I've got a reasonable handle on what is international news"), he wonders why the majority of the press has for so long largely ignored West Papua.
"It has so many elements that have resonance with New Zealand—indigenous issues, land issues, development issues. And in the past we've had an affinity with the people of the Pacific, going right back to the nuclear-free policies, which were very intertwined in Polynesia with indigenous self-determination."
In the wider Pacific, at least, there is some momentum gathering. In March this year, seven nations—Vanuatu, Tonga, Tuvalu, Palau, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands—addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, raising concerns about human rights abuses in West Papua.
"Within their suffering we see our own."
Māori, too, have been vocal about West Papua. When Wenda visited Auckland, he was welcomed onto Ōrākei Marae by Ngāti Whātua. Wayne Pihema, a Ngāti Whātua Board Trust member who helped organise the hui, says shared experiences of colonialism motivated the invitation to Wenda to speak. "We've got somewhere in our genetic history a memory of that kind of experience… We can relate to people in West Papua as being part of the Pacific and being indigenous Pacific people like us. Within their suffering we see our own."
Oceania Interrupted is an Auckland-based group of Pacific and Māori women who use visual and performance art to raise awareness of the suffering of West Papuans. The group, which has included women from as many as 13 different Pacific ethnicities or nations, has staged 10 of the 15 "artistic interventions" it plans to hold—15 years being the mandatory prison sentence for raising the West Papuan Morning Star flag within the Indonesian-occupied territory.
In a similar fashion to Pihema, spokesperson Leilani Salesa calls the group's duty to West Papua an "ideological commitment", one borne of a sense of Pacific solidarity. “ he ocean is what binds us together, the ocean is our sea of islands… the ocean is what our ancestors conquered."
Salesa, though, highlights the role that Pākehā activists have played in raising awareness, singling out veteran campaigner and writer Maire Leadbeater: "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't know who I know and what I know."
I put it to Leadbeater that Māori and Pacific groups within New Zealand are now taking the lead, something she said was "amazing". "I see it in the context that the interest in West Papua has extended so much through the Pacific recently. Communities here are linking up with really strong movements in the Solomons and Fiji, and to some extent in Tonga and Samoa, and so on. It's really important people here are getting engaged because they are in touch with their families in those countries, and it's those countries that are actually taking action at the moment—it's not New Zealand, unfortunately."
While it's great, Leadbeater says, that impetus comes from Māori and Pacific communities, it's important there is wider—and whiter—support. "Look at the tino rangatiritanga movement in this country: it's always had strong allies in the Pākehā community, hasn't it? And that's always been important to the success of campaigns."
“The anti-apartheid activists would've felt like they were just spitting into a cyclone...you just need to keep having faith."
She remains upbeat about the effect protest and public opinion have on government action, citing her previous research that, she says, proves the Government is attuned to public opinion on Indonesian activity, especially as it has related to atrocities committed in East Timor and, to a lesser extent, in West Papua. "You think the Government is not taking any notice, but they do have to take account of public opinion and the stronger it gets the more they have to take notice. [But] you can't expect people to identify with an issue they've hardly ever heard of."
Molisa, too, is optimistic. "What gives me faith, to put it in that historical perspective, is that this is in the early stages, and the anti-apartheid activists would've felt like they were just spitting into a cyclone. If you look at the long arch of history, that tells you that you just need to keep having faith because these sorts of things have a way of building in ways you can't expect."