Many Australians wouldn’t know this, but not far from our shores is a struggle for freedom. By definition it is also a struggle against colonial oppression that has been waging for over half a century. Denied a genuine say in their future, the people of West Papua are currently engaged in a series of protests expressing their plight as a people suffering from systemic and long-term human rights abuse.
These latest protests, and there has been a long line of them, were triggered by the arrest of 43 Papuan students in Surabaya who were falsely accused of desecrating the Indonesian flag. The demonstrations quickly spread to occupied West Papua where demands for a vote on independence have grown.
In the interim, however, West Papuans just want to see Indonesian troops withdrawn from the area and for people across the globe to understand and take their situation seriously.
The latest episode has been so concerning that the United Nations Human Rights Office has condemned the violence in Papua, calling on Indonesian authorities to restrain nationalist militias that are targeting protesters and cease the intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and student activists.
Across West Papua Indonesian police, military and militia are out on the streets. Several Papuans have been shot dead and scores of people have been arrested. With internet access restricted across the province it is impossible to know what the situation truly is.
So, what is behind all of this? After the Second World War and the collapse of the Dutch overseas empire, the newly formed Republic of Indonesia claimed all of the Dutch colonial territories in the Malay Archipelago, which included Papua.
In 1969, following was has been widely condemned as a corrupted democratic process, Papua was formally annexed by Indonesia.
Since then, a number of protests and actions aiming at achieving independence has occurred across Papua. Unfortunately, these actions are not widely known across our country. Which leads me to highlight how important it is for Australia to finally take a stand and cease its complicity.
For decades, the approach of both sides of politics in our country has been one of silence all in the name of so-called national security. No one wants to upset Indonesia, a nation of 265 million people, by supporting the creation of an independent Melanesian state in our region. Arguments range from concerns that such a state would be a de-stabilising factor, potentially creating a new refugee crisis, to fears that it would severely damage our delicate relationship with our northern neighbour.
It’s almost like East Timor has taught us nothing.
Sadly, with an intransigent Australia, the probability of continuing human abuses in West Papua is high. We are nation that ‘picks and chooses’ what human rights issues it will be concerned about – all in the name of not wanting to offend. It’s like hearing an act of domestic violent next door and turning up one’s stereo.
However, it is important for anyone who cares about injustice to remain outspoken on this issue.
I am proud that the Annerley Branch of the Australian Labor Party has joined the growing number of people who are taking a stand, and a commitment, to express solidarity with the people of West Papua, even when our Party – to its shame – is silent. Even during a recent visit to Indonesia, Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Senator Penny Wong, was quiet on the recent upheaval to our north. To date, the Senator has also refused to reply to correspondence from the Annerley Branch on this issue.
Regardless, the Annerley Branch and many others in the wider labour movement are deeply committed to international justice, no matter how ‘complicated’ or ‘difficult’ the issue is for Australia.
Let me be clear. Our friends in West Papua should be able to lead safe lives where their human rights are respected and, importantly, where they can have a say over their future – even if that say leads to political independence.
For anyone concerned about human rights, the struggle of West Papua is indeed our struggle. We cannot forget them, we cannot give up, we cannot be silent.
To find out more about West Papua visit https://www.freewestpapua.org/