Last month, video footage circulated online showing members of the Indonesian security forces brutally torturing Papuan civilians, including burning the genitals of an elderly farmer. It seems as far as West Papua is concerned, some things never change.
Earlier this year, the US administration announced the re-establishment of military ties with Indonesia’s Kopassus special forces – the same forces implicated in the atrocities of East Timor. Leaked Kopassus documents released last week, have heightened fears that Indonesia’s claims of military reform – a condition of the US deal – are without foundation. The documents show that Kopassus continue to engage in “murder and abduction” and include a target list of “enemies of the Indonesian state”, including West Papuan church leaders, political and student activists.
Last year I travelled to West Papua to film an undercover documentary about the independence struggle. I found a land where the remnants of the Suharto era very much live on into the modern day – far from the image of democracy that Obama painted in his speech to the Indonesian nation.
Reports of human rights abuses by the security forces against the indigenous population have constantly trickled out of the territory. Human rights groups estimate that 100,000 Papuan civilians have been killed by the Indonesian security forces since West Papua was colonised in 1969. Papuans argue that the continued ban on foreign media and human rights groups from entering the region is evidence that the Indonesian authorities are hiding something far more sinister. Last year the International Committee of the Red Cross was expelled from West Papua, and it has not been allowed to return since.
In West Papua it is not uncommon for people to receive prison sentences of up to 15 years for raising their national flag. Even events here in the UK can land Papuans a jail sentence. Last year, two men were jailed after taking part in a peaceful demonstration supporting the launch of a West Papua lobby group in the British parliament. Whatever definition of democracy the Indonesian government claims exists in West Papua, it is not one that any of us would be familiar.
The challenges facing West Papua are vast. Despite being a land rich in natural resources, it remains the least developed and poorest part of Indonesia. Freeport, the world’s largest gold and copper mine, part-owned by British-Australian firm Rio Tinto, is located on tribal lands close to Puncak Jaya, the highest island peak in the world. BP also has its feet in West Papua, too, operating a natural gas plant in Bintuni Bay. It is an irony that in a land so rich, the Papuan people remain so poor.
Obama’s refusal to publicly raise the West Papua issue during his visit to Indonesia disappointed many. The Indonesian government have shown no desire to enter into meaningful dialogue with the Papuan people, and bitterness and resentment are threatening to boil over. Many Papuans believe only UN intervention and a rerun of the 1969 referendum will solve the decades-long conflict.
If the horrors of East Timor are to be avoided, then the US and other western governments need to give West Papua the attention it deserves. Obama’s mother, a cultural anthropologist who spent much of her life helping those marginalised in society, would expect nothing less.