OPINION: By Veronica Korman
When outsiders think of Papua, it may be to puzzle over why protests there seem never-ending. They may assume the main frustrations of Papuans stem from poverty and lack of development.
That is true to some degree. However, the main reason is simpler and neatly illustrated by comparing two figures: In early May, 2109 Papuan independence protesters were arrested by police – and that number is more than double the 1025 who were press-ganged into legitimising Indonesia’s rule of Papua through the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”.
Despite our Indonesian Embassy in the United Kingdom denying in The Guardian that the arrests took place, the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute documented them all, and holds the names of every one of the 2109 demonstrators. Compare the figure with the 1025 who cast ballots in what Papuans refer to as the “Act of No Choice”, out of an estimated population of 800,000 at that time.
This is the historical reality that underpins today’s grievances about state violence, environmental degradation and suppression of free speech in Papua.
Until it is addressed, the protests will continue and the numbers will continue to add up. As of May the figure stands at 2282 peaceful demonstrators detained by police, according to the institute’s records.
International attention to this ongoing historical injustice is not going away either.
Earlier this month, Papuans took to the streets en masse to support the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and its bid for admission as a full member of the regional intergovernmental organisation, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). They also wanted to send a message of support to the International Parliamentarians for West Papua, due to meet the following day in London.
At that meeting, more than 100 parliamentarians and lawyers from a score of countries announced the Westminster Declaration, rejecting the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” as a gross violation of the right to self-determination, and calling for an internationally supervised vote in Papua.
Besides attendees from our neighbors, Papua New Guinea and Australia, representatives came from several Pacific nations, France, the United States, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Czech, the Netherlands and, perhaps most notably, British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who declared his support for “the right of people to be able to make their own choice on their own future”.
I am not one of the purported millions of non-Papuan Indonesians hurt by Corbyn’s declaration, according to “An open letter to Jeremy Corbyn from Indonesia” published by the United Kingdom edition of The Huffington Post recently. In fact, many of my fellow Indonesians share my concern, and take action through solidarity organisations such as Papua Itu Kita ( Papua is us ).
As an Indonesian, let me tell you why we’re upset by what’s going on in Papua. Freedom of expression is being systematically suppressed.
Proud of our national anthem, we’re sickened to learn that police tarnished it when they kicked and beat six peaceful protestors who refused to sing it while under arrest on April 12 in Papua’s Yahukimo district police station.
We’re worried for a young Timika man, Steven Itlay who faces a possible life sentence for treason after leading a mass prayer in a churchyard last month in support of the ULMWP.
We’re angry that two people were arrested on April 25 when they were delivering a notification letter about the upcoming demonstrations to Merauke police near the border with Papua New Guinea. Likewise, about the 41 people arrested in the Papuan capital of Jayapura on May 1 for distributing leaflets calling for peaceful demonstration. The list goes on.
As long as violence, unlawful arrests, and long prison terms for “treason” are used to suppress freedom of expression in Papua, the argument made by the Indonesian Embassy in Australia ( The Jakarta Post, May 9 ) that Papuans benefit from Indonesian democracy will fall flat.
Whether or not one supports independence for Papua, the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under the Constitution, must be upheld.
Freedom of the press is another cornerstone of democracy under threat when it comes to Papua. Local journalists have faced harassment and violence, and Papua was mostly off-limits to the foreign media until President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised easy access in May 2015.
Foreign journalists are nevertheless still being refused visas, or face long screening delays, restrictions on locations and being chaperoned by intelligence agents while in Papua. One London-based journalist recently had to wait 18 months to be granted a visa.
In October last year Johnny Blades and Koroi Hawkins of Radio New Zealand faced the absurd demand that they provide six recommendation letters from contacts in Papua.
France 24 TV correspondent Cyril Payen’s documentary on Papua last year so angered the government that his application to visit again was refused in January.
When journalists do visit, their interviewees can face intimidation, as with three Papuan activists led by Agus Kossay, arrested by police after they met with French journalist Marie Dhumieres last October.
The year before, Martinus Yohame was kidnapped and later found dumped in the sea in a sack with his hands and feet tied, tortured and murdered after meeting French Arte Television journalists Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat.
Development groups ousted
Over recent years, international development organisations have been forced out of Papua, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid, and Peace Brigades International.
Oxfam UK was ordered out last December, even after Jokowi’s declaration of openness.
The ULMWP is the umbrella for many organisations across Papua and has a legitimate political and cultural mandate to represent the Papuan people. The organisation holds observer status, and the Indonesian government holds associate member status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group.
If the government undermines and criminalises the ULMWP, it disrespects the MSG as a diplomatic forum.
If, however, the government is seriously committed to the MSG, it should take up the MSG’s offer to mediate a peaceful dialogue between the government and ULMWP.
President Jokowi has claimed there are no problems in Papua. Yet his actions said otherwise last week when he sent a barrage of government figures to do damage control in London: deputy speaker Fadli Zon, coordinating minister of politics Luhut Pandjaitan, and national counter-terrorism agency head Tito Karnavian all tried to damp down talk about Papua’s problems while in the UK.
Last month Luhut also went to Fiji and PNG to discuss Papua.
Sending these senior figures overseas on a face-saving mission, and sending proxies such as former East Timor president José Ramos-Horta to Papua is simply avoiding the root of the problem.
Last century, former Foreign Minister Ali Alatas described East Timor as a “pebble in the shoe” for our nation’s diplomacy. Papua will continue to be a thorn in our side until we finally listen deeply and engage in dialogue about Papuan aspirations, including self-determination.
Veronica Korman is a public interest lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta) and a participant in the Papua Itu Kita (Papua is Us) movement.