May 21, 2020

Uprising in West Papua

By John Martinkus
Image of families joining the widespread movement of people fleeing the violence across the mountains in 2019

Families join the widespread movement of people fleeing the violence across the mountains in 2019

The petition for independence that the world has ignored

On 25 January 2019, Benny Wenda, exiled leader of the political arm of the West Papuan independence movement, handed a petition signed by 1.8 million West Papuans to the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in Geneva. The actual hand-signed document, weighing more than 40 kilograms, had been collated and smuggled across the border to Papua New Guinea over a period of months in 2017. Representing more than 70 per cent of the West Papua and Papua provinces’ population of 2.5 million, it requested the relisting of West Papua on the UN committee for decolonisation, from which it had been removed in 1963, and a UN-supervised independence vote.

Getting the document to the UN had resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of key Papuan activists. Yanto Awerkion, a local leader of the West Papua National Committee (or KNPB), was held in jail for eight months without trial for supporting the petition. More recently, the offices of the KNPB and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) in West Papua were raided and key activists arrested. Five activists were arrested during a raid on 15 January 2019, reportedly because the authorities discovered their involvement in the petition. Three remain in prison on charges of treason.

But getting the document together under the noses of the Indonesian military and intelligence was only the start. Once the document had been transported out of the country there was another problem: actually getting it tabled. In September 2017, Benny Wenda tried to table it at the UN’s decolonisation committee in New York. The chair of the committee, Rafael Ramírez, declined. “I am the chair of the C24 and the issue of West Papua is not a matter for the C24,” he said. “We are just working on the countries that are part of the list of non-self-governing territories. That list is issued by the general assembly.”

He added that the decolonisation committee supported Indonesia’s claim to the territory and that the issue of West Papua could not be on the agenda. As the Guardian reported, the Venezuelan diplomat was blunt in his rejection: “The special committee on decolonisation has not received nor can receive any request or document related to the situation of West Papua,” he said, “territory which is an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia.” The Guardian went on to note that Indonesia’s representative to the UN, Dian Triansyah Djani, was a vice-chair of the decolonisation committee.

It was a blow to the West Papuans, both inside and out, who had tried so hard under very difficult and dangerous conditions to compile this petition and say to the UN that after all these years they wanted their case revisited. The point was made over and over again that the UN-sponsored Act of Free Choice had been rigged, that the tiny proportion of the population who had been allowed to vote – less than 0.2 per cent, according to Wenda – had been intimidated. The Papuans had tried to get the issue back on the agenda, but they had been rebuffed. They had to find another way.

Benny Wenda and his international supporters continued to try to find a way to present the petition to the UN. The chance finally came on 25 January 2019. With the help of the delegation from Vanuatu, Wenda was included in their group, which was scheduled to meet Michelle Bachelet in Geneva. He was able to present the 40-kilogram document to Bachelet, who said she had no previous knowledge of its existence. Her response was positive. She was pictured with Wenda, smilingly receiving the massive tome containing the original signatures demanding the UN put the issue of West Papua back on the decolonisation list in order to eventually oversee a referendum and to appoint a delegate to West Papua to investigate human rights abuses.

Her spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, said that Bachelet had informed the Vanuatu delegation that the UN Human Rights Office “has been engaging with the Indonesian authorities on the issue of Papua, including the prevailing human rights situation, and has requested access to Papua”.

To Wenda and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the result was historic and a major step forward. In a statement issued after the handover, Wenda said:

The people of West Papua have been crying out for support for over 50 years. The time for the UN to hear this call is more urgent than ever as the world witnesses another humanitarian crisis happening in the highlands of West Papua … Today, thousands of civilians in the region of Nduga are fleeing from the Indonesian military, escaping air-strikes and chemical weapons. Whilst children die from starvation, the Indonesian military block all aid or investigation … And to the people of West Papua, thank you. Today is a proud moment to represent your voices – thank you for never giving up and for courageously coming to the streets and flying the Morning Star flag, despite the brutality you face … Thank you for your patience, your strength and your spirit. Thank you to so many of you for having the courage to sign the historic People’s Petition – your voice is now in the hands of the UN. We are making progress, together, in unity.

The Indonesian response was not quite so generous. Indonesia’s delegate to the UN said Vanuatu had “deliberately deceived” Bachelet, according to Associated Press. Indonesia “would never retreat to defend and protect” its territorial sovereignty. After this, the UN repeated its request to send a delegation to West Papua and initially the Indonesian president agreed. But the visit still has not gone ahead. A request by NZ diplomats to send representatives, particularly to Nduga, in 2019 was rebuffed, and no other diplomats have been allowed to visit the area. Australia did not even protest the ban and did not request to visit the province.

Following the tabling of the petition, the various groups from outside and inside West Papua working towards a referendum and eventual independence met in the capital of Papua New Guinea. They held a rare press conference on 31 January 2019.

The event was significant in that it was the first time all the different groups had met and agreed on a joint communique.

The message was simple: they supported the continued fighting in the highlands, they supported continued civil protests in the towns and villages against the Indonesians, and they supported and called for the involvement of the UN to oversee a referendum for West Papua. Although Wenda admitted they had no control over those fighting in the highlands, his acknowledgement and approval of their struggle symbolised a shift in the mood of the Papuan groups who had long advocated for peaceful change. It was in effect a declaration of war.

The message resonated with some PNG leaders, tired of dealing with a seemingly endless West Papuan refugee problem on their border. A few prominent politicians, including the governor of Port Moresby, weighed in, saying the UN had a responsibility to help them deal with the latest influx of Papuans fleeing the fighting in Nduga. The communique also met with some support from PNG MPs, a few of whom mentioned they would pursue it in parliament.

The diplomatic struggle continued in August 2019, when a Papuan delegation attended the Pacific Islands Forum held in Tuvalu. According to the ABC’s Pacific Beat, “Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum have urged Indonesia to take action over their concerns at ongoing human rights violations in West Papua. The final communique of the Forum … also called on Jakarta to finalise the timing of a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to allow for a report to be prepared ahead of next year’s leaders meeting.”

But the Indonesians, of course, voiced their objections to the very presence of West Papuans at the forum. A spokesman told the Guardian that “Jakarta was ‘not at all happy’ West Papua had been included on the formal agenda for the forum leaders’ meeting in Tuvalu, and warned the move would establish a precedent for interference in other countries’ domestic affairs”.

Slowly, slowly, with the help of a few Melanesian island nations, the West Papuan cause and the push for a referendum was getting back on the international agenda. But while this happened, another round of violence was beginning.

On 19 August the massive protests, involving thousands of people, started in Jayapura and the towns of Manokwari, Sorong and Wamena. They quickly escalated to violence, with government buildings burnt down and even the airport briefly seized by protesters in Sorong. The scale of the protest and the determination of the protesters not to back down in the face of the usual security services response were unprecedented.

Thousands took to the streets. They were chanting calls for independence, waving the Morning Star flag, condemning the institutional racism in Indonesian society that had labelled their students in Surabaya monkeys.

But there was more, so much more, behind the protests. The entire sentiment of disenfranchisement, of marginalisation, oppression and brutalisation by Indonesian society, suffused the protesters. More than fifty years of it. It was like a dam of emotion and frustration had been breached and the Papuans flowed out onto the streets, an unstoppable flood. The Indonesians flew in more troops. They shut down the internet in West Papua, as well as all mobile phone coverage, landline phones and even ATM access. They were losing control, and they did not want anyone in the outside world to see it.


The Road: Uprising in West Papua by John Martinkus is published by Black Inc. Out now.

John Martinkus

John Martinkus is a four-time Walkley Award–nominated investigative reporter on the Asia and Middle East regions. His books include A Dirty Little WarTravels in American Iraq and Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh.

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