West Papua is Indonesia’s Palestine.
August 16, 2010
John Ondawame is right. West Papua is on the verge of a “total intifada” (Ben Bohane, ‘West Papua warns of intifada against Jakarta’, Sydney Morning Herald, August 7 2010). Intifada means to “shake off” in Arabic. It has become a word used to describe the desire by Palestinians to free themselves from foreign occupation. The question is what kind of intifada is and will take place in West Papua? Will it be like the recent Palestinian intifada, led by a resurgent Hamas? An uprising of fury waged through political terror. Or will it be like the 1987 Palestinian intifada, a largely unarmed insurrection?
West Papua is the Indonesia’s Palestine. Papuans consider that their land has been occupied without their consent. Freedom of expression is prohibited, foreign journalists banned, migrants continue to pour into the country, and the police and military keep a repressive lid on boiling Papuan anger. It is also a modern day Avatar. Papuans are defending their land form the exploitative practices of resource extractive industries. For the Papuans theirs is a struggle for survival.
However, unlike Palestine and the film Avatar, resistance to the Indonesian government’s rule has overwhelmingly been through civilian based movements. Only last month, for instance, 20,000 plus people – students, women, young people, religious leaders, NGO activists, traditional chiefs, farmers and even members of the Majelis Rakyat Papua, West Papua’s indigenous senate – all converged on the capital and occupied the provincial parliament for two days to pressure the Papuan political elite to hand back Special Autonomy, a package or policy, finance, and legislation designed to give Papuans a measure of self-rule. After ten years of broken promises and still born hopes, Papuans concluded Special Autonomy had failed. It is a news story that should have been covered by every major media outlet. But here in Australia we heard next to nothing.
Now, as Bohane writes, Papuans are feeling abandoned by their Melanesian kin. At the recent Pacific Island Forum, Vanuatu tried to raise the West Papua issue but Papua New Guinea’s political leaders blocked the discussion. Again. The Australia and New Zealand governments also failed to raise their voice for on behalf of Papuan rights. Again.
Some Papuan leaders are now talking about making the territory ungovernable through mass civilian based non-cooperation with Jakarta. How long civil resistance continues depends not only on the tactical and strategic choices made by Papuan leaders. In part it also depends on whether solidarity movements in the region, including inside Indonesia, can raise the political and economic costs so that political leaders and foreign companies feel compelled to agree to what Papuans have been demanding for years: political dialogue with Jakarta and the international community about their grievances.
Will the international community support the Papuan’s right to rise up for freedom? Or will they send the same message they sent to the Kosovo Albanians? That international intervention and the goal of independence will only come about when there is armed struggle and mass violence. Surely we can all do better than that.
(The writer lectures in political science at the University of Queensland.)