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Indonesia on notice – West Papuans still want independence

In a move that is expected to wind Indonesia’s military into a frenzy and which will again start an Indonesian witch-hunt for Australian supporters, a West Papuan petition calling for a vote on independence has been presented to the United Nations’ Decolonisation Committee.

The petition demands a free vote on West Papua’s independence as well as the appointment of a UN representative to investigate reports of human rights violations by Indonesian security forces. The petition was signed by 1.8 million people, or about 70 per cent of the indigenous population,

Indonesian authorities knew that the petition was being prepared and banned it online. But it was still smuggled across the territory, receiving overwhelming support wherever it was able to be presented.

The petition comes following a crack-down on indigenous West Papuan separatists and others over the past two years, including the killing of human rights defender Joberth Jitmau. Jitmau’s suspicious death was deemed by Indonesian police to be a ‘traffic accident’ and was not investigated.

Crimes by police and the military against indigenous West Papuans, include torture, rape and murder, are rarely investigated. When such crimes are investigated, they usually result in light sentences.

Despite the reforms that have been seen elsewhere in Indonesia, West Papua remains marked by the impunity from justice that characterised Indonesia’s often brutal Suharto era. Last year alone, more than 5,300 West Papuans were arrested on charges related to peaceful political protest.

About 40 per cent of West Papua’s population is now non-indigenous, following the Indonesian government’s former ‘transmigration’ program and a subsequent voluntary flow of other Indonesians into the territory. The Indonesian government is now increasing administrative regions in the territory to accommodate more police and army posts for the further expansion of internal migration.

Living standards among indigenous West Papuans have remained the lowest in Indonesia, despite unfulfilled promises of increased spending on education and healthcare. Despite being granted ‘special autonomy’ in 2001 under President Abdurrahman Wahid, in 2003 the territory was divided by the Indonesian government under his successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In 2015, President Joko Widodo released five West Papuan political prisoners and announced that the previously closed territory of West Papua would be opened to journalists and human rights observers. Military commanders immediately contradicted President Widodo’s announcement and the territory was again effectively closed.

In response, the petition for a vote on independence was organized by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), an umbrella organization representing West Papua’s pro-independence organisations, including the small armed resistance movement, the Free Papua Organisation (OPM).

There is widespread international sympathy for resolving the issue of West Papua, but the ULMWP and its petition face an immediate hurdle. West Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia under the sham 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’, in which 1,025 Papuans of about 800,000 declared, at gun-point, that West Papua was part of Indonesia, was recognized as ‘legitimate’ by the United Nations.

Unlike East Timor, which was never legally recognized as part of Indonesia, the UN would have to dissolve or ignore its recognition of West Papua as being part of Indonesia in order to support a vote on independence. Unlike West Papua, Indonesia has powerful friends in the UN, which seek to retain strong economic and diplomatic ties and which therefore limit such an outcome.     

West Papua has few international advocates, with the former colonial power, the Netherlands, having washed its hands of the territory many years ago. Australia has guaranteed that it respects Indonesia territorial sovereignty – code for not raising the West Papua issue – or else face a complete breakdown in that important bilateral relationship. The US has major investments in West Papua as well as wishing to retain good relations with strategically important Indonesia.

Despite the timidity of much of the international community, the West Papua issue remains compelling. After earlier massacres, human rights abuses, including official killings, have remained at a lower but steady tempo for several years, increasing again recently.

The West Papua issue seems, therefore, intractable; achieving a vote on independence faces all but insurmountable difficulties, but circumstances compelling such a vote continue as, or more, strongly than ever. In the middle of this, President Widodo, like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before him, seems powerless to fundamentally improve the lot of indigenous West Papuans, much less prize West Papua from the grip of the police and the military.     

But, as this new petition shows, even in the challenging clandestine circumstances in which it was prepared, after  almost five decades of forced incorporation, indigenous West Papuans overwhelmingly remain opposed to remaining as part of Indonesia.