Indonesian crackdown on West Papuan independence protest
On Monday, May 2, amid the fallout from the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruling the Australian detention centre on Manus Island unlawful, another momentous thing happened. Further west along the Papua New Guinea north coast, just over the border with Indonesia in the Papuan capital, Jayapura, 1500 people were arrested. It barely rated a mention here.
It was the largest mass arrest of pro-independence demonstrators in Papua, and included the arrest of demonstrators in the regional centres of Sorong, Merauke, Wamena, Fak-Fak and Manokwari. Arrests were made at similar rallies in Semarang in Java and Makassar in South Sulawesi. In all, 1888 people were arrested for demonstrating for independence. Photos and video circulating both on social media and local media show the masses of people arrested in Jayapura and taken to the Indonesian police compound – forced to sit in rows in the heat and made to remove their clothes.
According to local journalist Benny Mawel, reporting for Tabloid Jubi, the treatment of some of those detained was very rough. Activists were separated from the main group and put in cells at the main police headquarters. They were beaten – police stamping on their chests and backs and hitting them in the head with rifle butts. They were threatened with death and stripped of their clothes. The Papua police chief, Paulus Waterpauw, confirmed to Tabloid Jubi that some activists had been injured. The same outlet also reported beatings at the police headquarters in nearby Abepura, where more demonstrators were detained. “They tortured and arrested us at 9am in Lingkaran Abepura. They took us into the armoured truck and told us to raise our hands,” activist Arim Tabuni said. “They beat us on the chest and head, mostly on the chest. So we looked not hurt.” The demonstrators, both male and female, were stripped of their clothes and threatened.
Papuan leader Reverend Benny Giay, who was involved in negotiating the peaceful release of the majority of the demonstrators later in the day, wrote this week that: “Every protest and negotiation effort by indigenous people is met with brutal responses and security operations. In talking about West Papua, the Indonesian government often uses language that obscures past abuses. Papua’s relationship with the outside world is heavily controlled”.
I know all about that. Working there in 2002 as a journalist collecting information for a Quarterly Essay I was constantly harassed, followed, threatened and generally intimidated by the Indonesian military, police and intelligence services. Trying to interview Papuan leaders who were espousing nonviolence as a path to independence at the time was enough to have me tailed, and to fear that those I interviewed would be under threat. The intimidation and surveillance was quite open, down to the simple tactic of a police informant sitting on a bench outside my room at a guesthouse and following me wherever I went, occasionally giving me dagger looks and drawing his finger across his throat in a slitting gesture. It was as subtle as a brick in the head.
Of course, they were noting who I was trying to contact, who I was trying to speak to. It was much worse when I returned the following year, in 2003. There was one incident outside the southern town of Merauke near the PNG border where I really thought a soldier who waved down my hired car and got inside and started threatening me with his weapon was going to kill me in that remote spot. Knowing the United States and Australia would not object, as they were busy fighting the war in Iraq, the Indonesians banned foreign journalists from Papua in 2003. Restrictions remain in place today.
Local journalists are under great threat and intimidation. On Tuesday, media advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) issued a statement condemning the arrest of a local journalist in the Jayapura protests and the prevention of other journalists covering the mass detention. The organisation quoted unnamed local journalists as saying police told them they were under orders to keep journalists away from the site. Police Commissioner Mathius Fakhiri was named as directly issuing the order to remove journalists, who were greeted by about 20 police wielding wooden batons to keep them away. Benjamin Ismail, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said: “We condemn this violence and censorship of local journalists, whose coverage of these demonstrations was in the public interest. President Joko Widodo’s promises now sound emptier than ever. After the recent banning of a French journalist who had been reporting in Papua in a completely legal manner, we now have yet further evidence that the authorities continue to censor and control media coverage arbitrarily.”
Earlier reports by RSF have documented and protested at the treatment of the few foreign journalists who have managed to get into Papua, as well as the harassment and intimidation of their local translators, drivers and fixers. If you ask Indonesian officials, they will say there is no press ban in Papua, you just have to go through the right process. But the complicated, lengthy and often futile series of permissions from anyone within Indonesian foreign affairs, or its police, military and intelligence services, means permission is rarely granted and strictly controlled. President Widodo promised to alleviate this but nothing has changed. Journalists are still getting arrested and deported. If they try to enter on a tourist visa, they are jailed. Local journalists are still harassed, monitored and jailed.
The Indonesian military are so concerned that Papua will be subject to international calls for independence they spy on everybody who takes an interest in Papuan events, politics and human rights. In 2011, leaked documents revealed that even though I hadn’t been to or reported on Papua since 2003 I was on a list of “Foreign Networks/Foreign Leaders in support of Free Papua” held by the Indonesian army special forces group, Kopassus. I came in at No. 9 on the list of Australians. Thirty-one other Australians were named, including then Greens leader Bob Brown at No. 13. The list identified current and former US senators. It also mentioned Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and members of the British parliament, Lord Avebury and Jeremy Corbyn. Also on the list were former PNG prime minister Sir Michael Somare, and former Vanuatu foreign minister Sir Barak Sope. In all, it lists 248 politicians, academics, environmentalists, journalists, artists and clergy, from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, the US, Germany, Finland, Ireland, the European Union, PNG and Vanuatu, calling them “the supporters of Papuan separatists”.
The reasons for the demonstrations last week were to both mark the 1963 annexation of Dutch New Guinea (Papua) when Indonesian troops arrived displacing the Dutch, and to show support for a broad coalition of groups campaigning for independence.
The arrested protesters were also showing support for the meeting of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua in London. The meeting, attended by ministers from Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, the prime minister of Tonga and the group’s co-founder, now British opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, came out with an emphatic resolution: “The UN must be allowed to organise a referendum to allow the people of West Papua to choose between acknowledging the incorporation of their country into Indonesia or voting for independence.” It was the resolution and the high-profile recognition that has been demanded by the broad coalition of groups supporting independence for Papua for years. These groups also demanded that the international community, in the form of non-government organisations, media and international peacekeepers, be allowed access to Papua to monitor the process and the human rights situation.
Australia has made no comment on the declaration, and the Indonesian embassy in Canberra dismissed it in a statement as a “publicity stunt”.
Australia remains silent on both the arrests in Papua, the historical and current abuses by the Indonesian military there, and the calls for UN involvement and a resolution to the ongoing violence and isolation by Indonesia of Papua. Unlike in the late 1990s, when we finally intervened in East Timor and our conservative leaders claimed moral capital for its “liberation” from Indonesian abuses, our moral bank is empty. The Indonesians can always point to Manus and say they only arrested and beat pro-independence protesters for a day or so. Australia does it indefinitely just down the coast. Maybe that was why the story didn’t get much of a run.
Papua, sadly for its long-suffering population, was one of the most intimidating places I have ever worked. I was in Iraq at the height of the American occupation, Sri Lanka at the height of the campaign to crush the Tamils, Burma at the height of the campaign against Aung San Suu Kyi, East Timor and Aceh under the Indonesians, Afghanistan in Taliban-controlled areas. But never have I seen a people more systematically oppressed and isolated than the West Papuans by the Indonesian military and intelligence services. And it is still happening.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Silenced protest". Subscribe here.