World

Carrie Lam withdraws Hong Kong extradition bill. Pro-independence protests in West Papua. Boris Johnson loses parliamentary majority. War crimes in Yemen. By Jonathan Pearlman.

West Papua protest violence escalates

Papuan students rally in Jakarta last week in support of West Papua’s call for independence from Indonesia.
Credit: Andrew Gal / NurPhoto via Getty images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Hong Kong: In a surprising turnaround, the embattled pro-Beijing leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, on Wednesday agreed to withdraw the controversial extradition bill that sparked the special administrative region’s turmoil three months ago. The backdown came just days after an audio tape emerged in which Lam said she regretted causing “unforgivable havoc” and admitted she was stuck between the demands of Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

But Lam’s reversal may not be enough to placate the protesters, whose demands have expanded to include a call for universal suffrage and for her resignation. Several protesters said Lam’s message was “too little, too late” and called for an independent inquiry into the conduct and uses of the city’s police.

“Giving up now is to accede to this ‘new normal’ of repression,” said Brian Leung Kai-ping, a prominent activist whose series of tweets in response to Lam were widely circulated.

Public support for the movement has remained solid, even as authorities have adopted increasingly harsh measures. Disturbing video footage emerged this week showing police attacking passengers and protesters in buses and trains. In one video, riot police boarded a train and beat people with batons and doused screaming passengers with pepper spray. In another, police dragged an apparently unconscious protester across the floor of a busy platform.

So far, more than 1100 people have been arrested.

On Tuesday, Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affirmed the right to deploy troops or declare a state of emergency to end the protests. They again blamed foreign agitators, but also signalled a more conciliatory approach, saying peaceful demonstrations were acceptable.

Lam is now calling for a community dialogue and a review of Hong Kong’s “deep-seated problems”. In the tape that emerged this week, she told business leaders: “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: To celebrate Indonesia’s independence day last month, a group of ultra-nationalists surrounded a boarding house in which students from Papua were living and accused them of desecrating the Indonesian flag. Five soldiers were present and – as seen in footage that went viral – joined the mob, which called the students “monkeys”, “pigs” and “dogs”. Indonesian police then arrived and arrested 43 of the Papuan students.

This incident sparked a furious reaction across West Papua, where dozens of protests have marked one of the strongest pushes for independence in years. Seven protesters and a soldier reportedly died in the clashes, though information has been sketchy due to Indonesia’s move to block phone and internet access and its restrictions on media access. In the city of Jayapura, protesters burnt the local parliament and raised the banned Morning Star flag on government buildings. Indonesia deployed an additional 6000 troops and police to the region. Its police chief, Tito Karnavian, blamed the unrest on “foreign provocateurs”. This was blatantly false, but authorities this week deported four Australian protesters – a move that helped to justify their claim.

The Papuan people now make up about half of the region’s 3.5 million residents due to an Indonesian policy of transmigration. The region was handed by the United Nations to Indonesia in 1963, pending an independence vote. It has been 50 years since the vote was held – it involved about 1000 voters from a population of 800,000, all handpicked by Indonesia.

Jakarta’s military and political elite oppose a referendum, which they fear could encourage separatists in other regions. The country also generates enormous revenue and taxes from the region’s Grasberg copper and gold mine.

Benny Wenda, the exiled West Papuan independence leader, has urged the UN to intervene, noting the latest protests coincided with the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s referendum.

Citing the heavy bloodshed after the Timorese referendum, Wenda told SBS News: “That’s why I am calling [for] UN intervention, because I don’t want this to end up like East Timor.”

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Britain: Boris Johnson won the leadership of his party by assuring MPs he did not want a no-deal Brexit, describing its chances as a “million-to-one against”.

In the past 10 days, Johnson has suspended parliament, lost his parliamentary majority, expelled 21 of his party’s MPs, and called – unsuccessfully – for an election, all to ensure he can potentially proceed with a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson insists he needs this option to try to negotiate a new deal with the European Union ahead of an October 31 deadline for Britain’s departure. Analysts believe a no-deal Brexit could result in shortages of food and medicine and would risk almost 20 per cent of Britain’s jobs.

On Tuesday, the 21 rebel MPs defied Johnson’s threat to eject them from the party and backed an emergency law to stop a no-deal Brexit. The law passed by 328 to 301 votes in the House of Commons. On Wednesday, Johnson called for an early election but won only 298 votes, far short of the two-thirds he needed. Labour abstained, saying it would only support an election after the bill blocking a no-deal Brexit has passed.

Johnson brought on the current crisis by proroguing, or discontinuing, the session of parliament, to limit the amount of time for Brexit to be debated before October 31. The Queen, as is customary, consented. Critics accused him of a coup.

Johnson wanted an early election to win a more favourable majority with which to approach the negotiations. Now, after his run of crushing defeats this week, he leads a minority government as the Brexit deadline looms.

SPOTLIGHT: War in Yemen

Yemen: The war in Yemen began in 2015 and has been described by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Aside from an estimated 70,000 people killed in combat, four-fifths of the population of 29 million requires humanitarian support. It is a crisis that, as the European Union has observed, is “entirely man-made”.

On Tuesday, a team of UN investigators, which included former Australian MP Melissa Parke, released a long-awaited report on the culprits. It found, as expected, that both the Iran-backed Houthis and the Saudi Arabian-led coalition have committed widespread war crimes. These included recruiting child soldiers, using landmines, bombing civilian sites such as markets and hotels, conducting sieges, and committing torture and sexual violence.

The investigators submitted a confidential list of individuals suspected of international crimes to the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They also highlighted another group that has been “complicit” in war crimes: the nations of France, Britain and the United States, which have sold arms to the Saudi-led coalition, and Iran, which has armed the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, using sophisticated Western-exported weapons, have repeatedly attacked civilian areas. The Bellingcat investigative website this week found evidence that these attacks included “double-tap airstrikes”, in which a bombing is soon after followed by a second, as rescue workers and onlookers rush to assist the original victims.

Releasing the report this week, Kamel Jendoubi, the chair of the UN team, said in a statement: “This endemic impunity – for violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict – cannot be tolerated anymore.”

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "West Papua protest violence escalates". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.