West Papua Rising

‘When I was in prison,’ says West Papuan independence activist Jacob Rumbiak, ‘I prayed for my torturers. And for the Government. And for the military. I prayed for their hearts. This made me strong. It was a bad experience, but it will be important in future times.’ And times are changing fast in West Papua. The collapse of the Suharto military dictatorship, coupled with the imminent independence of nearby East Timor, have created a political ‘opening’ in which support for secession is strong in as many as seven Indonesian provinces.

The former Dutch colony of West Papua was invaded by Indonesia in 1963 and recognized by the UN as its province of Irian Jaya in 1965. As many as 300,000 West Papuans have been slaughtered by the Indonesian military since then, while the rich natural resources of the huge island West Papua shares with Papua New Guinea have been ruthlessly exploited and its environment terribly damaged.

All the evidence suggests that the people of West Papua still want independence. In December last year the banned ‘Morning Star’ national flag flew right across the country to mark the 39th anniversary of the first, unilateral declaration of independence. Earlier in the year 50,000 people attended a second ‘Peoples’ Congress’ to promote representative discussions with Indonesia.

International press coverage of Indonesia has focused on internecine conflict, most recently on the island of Borneo – and on the possible ‘disintegration’ of the Indonesian state. Jacob Rumbiak sees things differently. ‘Maybe once people believed in the Indonesian Government. Not any more,’ he says. ‘We work with groups that have a democratic soul, a human-rights soul. Independence is psychological, territorial, but also environmental... I mean, if we have destroyed the environment, that’s a new kind of colonization – so what’s the point of talking about independence?’

He is conscious, too, of the mischief that might easily be made between the indigenous Melanesian population and the 800,000 Indonesians ‘transmigrated’ there during the past 15 years – although many are now returning to Java. ‘We shall have rules for all West Papuan citizens,’ he insists, ‘and we’ll try to use these rules so there are no problems like the ones they’ve been having in Fiji.’

Now strategic alliances are needed, both internationally and within Indonesia itself, to increase awareness and support for West Papuan independence. ‘We must respect those in the world who love each other, who give help... When we are independent we will talk to other colonizing governments and say: “Not like this!”’

New Internationalist issue 335 magazine cover This article is from the June 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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