West Papuans swimming for freedom

West Papua
Indonesia
Switzerland
Minorities
West Papua: campaigner Yanto Awerkion, who was arrested in June this year for gathering signatures on a petition. Image from Benny Wenda.
West Papuan campaigner Yanto Awerkion, who was arrested in June this year for gathering signatures on a petition. Image from Benny Wenda

Could you swim for 30 hours? Right now, a six-person swimming team is preparing to do exactly that, relay-style, across the 69 kilometres of Lake Geneva. On Monday 28 August, they will set off across the water, carrying a message from more than 160,000 people to the UN’s headquarters on the far shore.

The swim is supported by the Free West Papua campaign, and aims to raise the profile of the Indigenous West Papuan people’s ongoing struggle against Indonesian occupation. The international petition that the swimmers are delivering – which can still be signed online – calls on the UN to take action to end human rights abuses in West Papua and give the people of that region the vote for self-determination that they were denied in 1969.

This petition shows the growing level of international support for the cause of West Papuan freedom, leading the Jakarta Post to conclude that the ‘campaign for an independent Papua has been relentless and has made significant gains in past years’. To understand the significance of this, just look at how the Indonesian government has responded: by banning the petition across the whole of the country. Anyone signing the petition in Indonesia – and especially in West Papua – risks state violence or arrest.

Yanto Awerkion, of the West Papua independence group the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), was arrested on 23 June by Indonesian security services during a rally and prayer session promoting the petition. He remains behind bars, but this hasn’t stopped him from releasing a video online about his experiences. Despite the risks, thousands of West Papuans have been signing the petition.

Related: Find out more in our magazine special on West Papua’s struggle (available online)

Joel Evans, founder of Swim for West Papua, said, ‘West Papua has been hidden from the public eye for nearly half a century. Hundreds of thousands have died, been tortured, arrested, beaten and imprisoned. Indonesia is trying to cover up a genocide, with the help of its Western allies.

‘We hope this swim can penetrate the shadows and assist the Papuans in their struggle for basic self-determination and liberation. Doing this swim requires us to recognise our shared identity as human beings.’

Benny Wenda, a Papuan tribal leader, spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and refugee with asylum in Oxford, England, said, ‘This swim is a historic moment in our long path to freedom. The swim team are helping to shine a light on one of the world’s longest and most brutal military occupations, and tens of thousands of West Papuans in my homeland are willing them on and signing the petition despite risk of arrest and torture.

‘The actions of every one person can make a difference, and West Papuans need international solidarity work to help the world hear our cry for freedom.’

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