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Reach For The Morning Star

West Papua

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--Picture caption--
Theys Eluay's supporters celebrated after political charges against him came unstuck in February 2000. Charged again in May 2000, Eluay was assassinated by some of his accusers the next year.

After nearly three weeks in West Papua, Chris Richards concludes that West Papuans are well on their way to freedom - but it's too early to celebrate yet.

My last day in West Papua starts in the same place as my first: in Sentani, 36 kilometres west of Jayapura. And once again I am in a crowd outside the house of the assassinated leader Theys Eluay – this time to commemorate the independence-day flag raising. There is singing and clapping, as the Morning Star flag flaps in the wind above our heads. Rows of seats outside the house are filled with hundreds of people. The streets are full of hundreds more.

The armed forces arrived last night by the truck-load. Now they casually walk the streets with guns slung across their shoulders. Some, with cameras and camcorders, are taking pictures of the crowd. I say hello in Indonesian to two. As I pass, one asks the other: ‘Do you like her?’ After the indiscriminate rapes I know the military have committed here, the hair rises on the back of my neck.

The young West Papuans standing next to me say the military presence here is an attempt to stir up unrest. We watch five soldiers sit down, then clap and sing with the crowd. The military are Theys Eluay’s likely assassins, so their presence is indeed provocative.

With missionary zeal, a church leader talks about the need for non-violence. He wears a tie asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ (Not wear a tie like this, I think.) I ask the young West Papuans whether peace will be maintained today. They say yes, peace is good. But if it cannot deliver independence soon, they must use other means.

Papua Council head Tom Beanal arrives after the military men leave. The Council knows that every time the crowd takes up arms this will be used to justify the military presence in the country. Its members do a remarkable job, trying to stop the people from reacting with violence, but it is an uneasy peace. Tom Beanal tells them to reject Indonesian legislation that gives the country partial autonomy, and he calls for full independence. ‘We will die defending that position,’ he says. He means: be killed – but do not kill.

That West Papuans deserve independence seems to me indisputable. Their country was handed to the Indonesians in a shameful referendum held at gun-point: a sham overseen by the international community through the United Nations. Since then, its wealth has been plundered by transnational corporations, by the Indonesian Government and by military generals. Even now that hundreds of thousands of West Papuans have been killed, even after thousands more have died, West Papuans will go on asserting their independence.

Like Theys Eluay. Watching the independence-day celebrations here in front of his house, with swarms of troops in the surrounding streets, I can’t help thinking that his assassination was no isolated incident. It is a climax, introducing a new era of more confident brutality towards the West Papuans. As a priority, the military intervention in West Papua must be stopped. Most leaders I’ve spoken to in West Papua are calling for demilitarization – but from where I’m now standing at this moment that prospect is remote.

The head of the Papua Council, Tom Beanal.
Photo: Chris Richards

Papua Council heavyweight Willy Mandowen is more positive in his outlook. He thinks that the very reason why the military wants to hold on to West Papua contains the solution to the problem. That reason is, quite simply, money. His answer is to set up a special trust fund to pay the military, so that they can be transformed into servants of the State. Over time these payments would gradually be reduced. With an expected three trillion extra rupiah ($300 million) promised to West Papua by new autonomy legislation, it sounds like a possible option. But would the Indonesian army really obey West Papuan orders? And what about more immediate funding priorities: roads, schools, houses and hospitals?

Leaders like Willy Mandowen are clearly trying to develop solutions more appropriate to their country than mere carbon copies of governance and administration from the developed world. They will need more time and assistance to develop these skills, which are so central to the capacity to govern. That this assistance is currently coming from transnational corporations highlights a worrying deficiency in the work of international non-governmental organizations.

As to the legacy for a new democracy, helped from birth by corporate sponsorship and assistance, only time will tell. I’m still unclear about BP’s role here. The independence celebrations are over, and as I’m travelling to the airport to leave the country I pull out a copy of a letter I have in my bag. It’s addressed to Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri, urging her to set up an impartial, independent investigation into Theys Eluay’s death. It is signed by eight members of the US Congress. BP consultant Dennis Heffernan spent 20 years in US politics. I asked him if the help BP gives to West Papuans also extends to lobbying for a letter like this. ‘It may,’ he replied.

Whatever its origins may be, this letter is a victory for West Papua, and has been greeted as such. For, more than anything else, it is international appreciation of their situation that is most needed now. International pressure on Indonesia to stop the military madness. International assistance to build the capacity to govern. International understanding that West Papuan separatists are not terrorists. And international support for a new referendum to allow the West Papuans to say freely what is in their hearts: ‘We want independence – and we want it now.’

Because time is running out. Papuans now make up less than 1.5 million of West Papua’s 2.5 million people. In some urban areas they are already outnumbered. West Papuan leaders say that the non-Papuan population is growing faster than the Papuan. While the official transmigration policy of the Indonesian Government is being wound down, many people are still being attracted to migrate here. One demographer inside the country estimates that the non-Papuan population could triple within the next 10 to 15 years. If these predictions are correct, the longer Indonesia can keep the UN from conducting a referendum, the greater will be the number of non-Papuan Indonesians entitled to vote, so the less likely a majority vote for independence will be. Sustained international pressure for such a vote is needed now.

The longer Indonesia can keep the UN from conducting a referendum, the less likely a majority vote for independence will be

That is why Rahel, a university student, has come to the airport to say goodbye to me. She has wrapped some gifts in newspaper, including a wonderful worn string bag, which I suspect is her own. When I say I cannot take it, she insists. I am kept waiting at the airport counter. The people behind me move to another queue where the processing of passengers is brisk. The staff say nothing’s wrong, but give no explanation for the delay.

Alarm grows on Rahel’s face. After half an hour, an activist I know appears in the crowd, watching me at the counter. Rahel must have rung him. He’s a law student, and his presence confirms what I fear. I prepare to be arrested. First, my notebooks. Rahel takes them. With the slight of a magician’s hand they disappear down the back of her pants. Smiling at each other, I give her the contacts to ring if I’m taken into custody.

Then suddenly, after three-quarters of an hour, my ticket is processed. Rahel gives me back the books. I am on my way. I leave my momentary anxiety behind me. But it has been a salutary reminder. For it is not only death, torture or arrest that many West Papuans must regularly confront. It is also the constant fear – the unknown terror – that hour by hour assaults them all.

We should not leave them to live like this.

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