Independence movement gains momentum

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

West Papua is facing an explosive political situation: Papuan independence leaders have been given more freedom to meet and express their demands than ever before during Indonesian rule, but this is happening against a background of continued political oppression and Jakarta's outright refusal to discuss independence. At the same time, more troops are reported to be arriving in the territory in advance of pro-independence rallies planned for May.

A mass gathering of pro-independence leaders and supporters in Sentani, near Jayapura in February has stepped up the campaign for an independent West Papua. The meeting, attended by 500 representatives from across West Papua, including around 26 activists living in exile in Papua New Guinea, chose the outspoken independence figure Theys Eluay, who heads the West Papua Tribal Council, and Amungme indigenous leader Tom as the movement's leaders. The statement issued by the meeting - the West Papuan Grand Assembly - focuses on the sham 'Act of Free Choice' of 1969 organised by Indonesia to gain international recognition of its annexation of the territory.

The statement says the Act "abolished the rights and political freedoms of the West Papuan people by means of political intimidation, arrests, imprisonment and murder of West Papuans by the military..." and points out how 99.2 per cent of the population were denied the right to vote on their country's future. The statement confirms West Papuans' desire for independence as conveyed to (then) President Habibie in February 1999 (see DTE 43) and commits the independence movement to "pursue dialogue and peaceful and democratic ways to realise the wishes of the West Papuan people in order to secure the agreement of the Indonesian government." (Grand Assembly Statement, 23 -26 February 2000).

A subsequent meeting in April decided to convene the Second Papuan Congress from May 29th-June 3rd. The first Congress, which declared an independent West Papua, was held in 1961 while the territory was still under Dutch control. Its anniversary was commemorated by mass gatherings and flag-raisings last December (see DTE 44).

Theys Eluay has also announced a campaign to popularise the Congress on May 1st, which was marked as a day of mourning and prayer for the victims of human rights abuse in West Papua. Eluay has condemned Jakarta's decision to send more troops to Papua in anticipation of unrest.

Jakarta has tolerated the pro-independence activities - but only up to a point. In what appears to be a continuation of a contradictory policy, the February meeting was allowed to proceed, despite the fact that some independence leaders including Eluay, were on trial for previous independence "offences". Then the police announced that nine independence leaders - again including Theys Eluay - would be charged in connection with three incidents including the December protests and the February Assembly!

The military has repeated stern warnings about the need to clamp down on separatists, while denying that the troop build-up is connected with the increasingly high profile of the independence movement or to combat the armed independence guerrilla forces of the OPM. According to local military commander Lt. Col. Susanto, the recent arrival of 450 Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) troops would help with community development programmes and were replacement, not additional troops. Claims like these which usually accompany the arrival of new troops can never be independently verified.

After apologising for human rights abuses and agreeing to use the name 'Papua' for the territory, President Wahid remains insistent that independence is not an option. He wants Papuans to accept regional autonomy instead. In March he told a group of Dutch businessmen that problems in Aceh, West Papua and Maluku were "in their final stages of settlement". It is hard to see how, when regional autonomy has been widely rejected in West Papua and when the two sides are poles apart on the question of independence.


TAPOL UK Urgent Action

TAPOL, the Indonesia human rights campaign, is asking people in the UK to write to their MPs asking them to sign Early Day Motion 475. The EDM recognises that the 1969 Act of Free Choice was "not a proper act of self-determination conforming with 'international practice'" and calls upon the British government to press the UN to investigate the Act "with a view to carrying out a proper act of self-determination in the territory."

Last year the Dutch government agreed to review the Act (see DTE 44).

UK residents should write to their MPs at House of Commons, London SW1A OAA. TAPOL is also urging people to write to the UK government to press for international action on West Papua. For more details contact TAPOL.

The view of local human rights NGO, IHRSTAD, is that the political situation is deadlocked. The situation will become more explosive if expectations for independence are heightened among West Papua people while the Wahid government continues to ignore the crimes against humanity that Indonesia has committed in the territory. IHRSTAD wants to see a genuine dialogue initiated between Jakarta and West Papuans, a government commitment to legal action on past atrocities, the release of political prisoners and a halt to further detention of people who take part in pro-independence protests. It wants the Indonesian government to open a process of conflict resolution with the peoples of West Papua. In an appeal dated April 5th, IHRSTAD urges the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to use her influence with the Indonesian government to push for these demands. The appeal also lists recent examples of killings, torture and detention, by the security forces. It warns of the worrying emergence of pro-Jakarta militias, formed by the military and police. These appear to be similar to those which wrought havoc last year in East Timor. There are 2000 pro-Indonesia militia in Fak-Fak and 300 in Manokwari, many of them non-Papuan migrants who have been armed with hand- made guns and live ammunition. IHRSTAD says this is a clear indication that the Indonesian government and army are committed to continuing the violent repression of West Papuan people.

(Source: Appeal, 5/Apr/00, Jakarta Post 17&18/Mar/00; Antara 2/Mar/00; Suara Pembaruan 20&22/Apr/00)