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By Jim Elmslie
NM has kept a close eye on West Papua as pressure in the breakaway Indonesian province builds. Long-time Papua watcher Jim Elmslie explains why the situation has escalated – and may get worse in coming months
Two seminal events have shattered the uneasy status quo in West Papua: a labour strike at the Freeport mine, and the declaration of an independent West Papua at a landmark mass meeting of Papuan nationalists, the Third Papuan Congress.
Papuans are in a weak position to effectively pursue any policies that would improve their situation, or move towards the desired goal of many — independence. In fact their situation continues to deteriorate as more non-Papuan migrants arrive and the militarisation of West Papua continues unabated.
By 2010 the indigenous Melanesian population comprised slightly less than half the total population of 3.6 million. Military repression has contained, but done nothing to abate, Papuan resistance to what many perceive to be their “slow-motion genocide”.
It is hard to disentangle the history of the Freeport mine from the larger history of West Papua since the Indonesian takeover.
Indonesia took West Papua by diplomacy backed by military force: a force that no other country, including Holland, was ultimately prepared to oppose. President Sukarno and his successor, President Suharto, felt fully entitled to the riches of West Papua, won in the face of adversity.
The greatest of these riches has been the Freeport mine, the most valuable mining operation in the world. It was imposed on the Amungme people against their will and has been dominant in the political economy of West Papua ever since. The Freeport mine is very much a metaphor for the occupation of West Papua by the Indonesians and developments at the mine site cannot help but have profound effects across the entire country.
The status quo at the mine has been irrevocably transformed by the miners’ strike.
Blowing up the diesel and concentrate pipelines and blocking the mine access road has not only temporarily crippled the mine; it has permanently weakened the company. Once the epitome of aggressive American capitalism, it is now a victim of its own success, beholden to many forces and actors beyond its control which threaten the very survival of the company in Indonesia. Whether it be Papuan tribesmen, Indonesian unionists, theTNI or nationalist politicians in Jakarta, many people are out to get Freeport.
This phenomenon loosely coincides with the world-wide movement against authoritarian regimes (such as the Arab Spring) and against capitalist excess (such as the Occupy Wall Street movement). These movements have at least partly been fueled by the technological revolution that has thrown up new forms of communication such as the internet, mobile phones, Facebook and You Tube. Whereas Freeport and West Papua have always been hidden by their remoteness, they are now no more remote and disconnected from the rest of the world than anywhere else. What has worked in the past will no longer suffice.
Similarly the shooting by the TNI of unarmed protestors after the Third Papuan Congress did not take place in a vacuum. Within minutes of the first shots being fired news reports were being sent out by SMS, followed by mobile phone calls, emails, Facebook postings and uploads on You Tube.
Organisations around the world, such as Human Rights Watch in New York, were quick to condemn the shootings.
In Australia, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale moved a motion in the Senate calling for an end to military aid for Indonesia — a motion that now will have to be taken seriously as the Greens hold the balance of power in the Australian Parliament. There was no public condemnation of the shootings and associated human rights abuses from the Australian government, reflecting its extreme reticence to criticise Indonesia and the fragility of the relationship — at least over the issue of West Papua.
Other countries were not so constrained. Lord Avebury, Vice-chair of the UKParliamentary Human Rights Group, said, “this appalling display of excessive force has no place in a modern democracy”. In the US, Congressmember Eni Faleomavaega, well known for his outspoken support for West Papuans’ human rights, wrote a letter to the Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Dino Patti Djalal. Faleomavaega expressing his concerns about the Congress shootings and calling for the safety, “humane treatment” and immediate release of Forkorus Yaboisembut.
The geo-political importance of Indonesia, as a “moderate” Islamic nation, emerging economic force and potential bulwark against growing Chinese power, tended to mute further negative comment.
While the old status quo has been shattered with the strike and the Third Papuan Congress, no new equilibrium is in sight. In fact by 4 November the workers’ strike had coalesced with the Papua peoples’ political demands when tribesmen joined the strikers at the Freeport blockade and successfully fought back police attempts to break through. The tribesmen were drawn in by the strike and, armed with spears and arrows were expressing their own grievances over land rights, pollution and (lack of) compensation from the mine.
This was a seminal event in the political evolution of West Papua wherein all of the different agendas — and different sets of players — have come into play together at the political and economic heart of West Papua: the Freeport mine.
Freeport will probably (but not certainly) reopen in the coming months and resume production, but the mine and the company will now live forever in the shadow of the events of the past six weeks. The next attack will always be hanging imminent: maybe tonight; maybe never. But the illusion that the mine is safe and secure is gone forever. It is, for the time being, a defenseless victim which can be brought to a grinding halt at will. The security bought with the tens of millions paid to the TNI and police has proved to be no security at all; on the contrary those payments have made the mine even more vulnerable. All those billions seem up for grabs now.
Politically West Papua is in an even more chaotic and dangerous stalemate. Papuan aspirations for independence are being expressed ever more openly, defying the guns and threats, defying what most observers would see as logic: that independence seems an impossible dream. The Papuans believe that God is on their side; that history will vindicate them; that, like East Timor, their day will come and their imprisoned nation will one day be free.
Simultaneously the Indonesian nationalist position has hardened: the Papuans are seen as traitors trying to break up the nation and deserving of armed response, of death. Against this there are elements of Indonesian society that are considerably more flexible and nuanced in their understanding of the West Papuan conflict, exemplified by leading academic researcher, Muridan Widjojo, who has co-authored an important study on West Papua which strongly advocates negotiations.
Indeed, by 10 November even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was starting to talk about dialogue, but with such restrictive preconditions — predictably the non-negotiability of sovereignty, but also the centrality of Special Autonomy — that many Papuans may baulk at participation, sensing another pointless exercise in propoganda. Meanwhile the real power continues to reside with the military in West Papua, which clearly views separatism as a traitorous threat to national sovereignty and negotiation or concessions as a sign of weakness.
As the currents that are rippling across the rest of the world inexorably flow through cyber space and into the computers, smart phones and consciousness of Papuans, the scene is set for an ever-bigger confrontation. The trends are ominous, and the process structurally violent.
Other nations, particularly Australia (as near neighbour, Indonesian military ally and home to the most significant foreign based corps of pro- free West Papua supporters — both Papuan and non-Papuan) are being drawn into this struggle. Just as Australia was drawn into the East Timor struggle, against the fervent wishes of both the conservatives and the Labor Party, Australia is now involved in West Papua.
If nothing else the Lombok Treaty signed in 2007 makes Australia a virtual military ally of Indonesia. One purpose of the treaty was to suppress support for West Papuan separatism, particularly in Australia. Official Australia is, therefore, directly participating in the repression of the Papuans, as it participated in the Indonesian occupation of East Timor with military cooperation and diplomatic support. This reflected the view within Australia’s foreign policy establishment that erroneously saw East Timor’s status as an Indonesian province as final (as they now see the status of West Papua). Eventually the Australian public rejected this position over East Timor; the same is likely to happen over West Papua as an understanding of the situation there filters out.
However the cards unfold the situation in West Papua will likely get much messier and more violent. The possibility of a quiet genocide occurring is real. Australia must come to expect this and realise that the future relationship between Australia and Indonesia will be forged in how our respective nations deal with this difficult and traumatic conflict, not through trade deals and jaunts to Bali. In this context, the call by Senator Richard Di Natale to cut military ties with Indonesia is the best immediate policy response available and should be widely supported.
- West Papua at Boiling Point: Strike at Freeport Mine (westpapuamedia.info)
- Papuan state leaders warn Papuan not to be provoked on 1 December (westpapuamedia.info)
- AWPA: Increasing tension in West Papua (westpapuamedia.info)
- Report by GKI on Third Papuan Congress and Declaration of Independence (westpapuamedia.info)