Today, December 1st 2011, one of the world´s forgotten tragedies has made the headlines at last. 50 years ago today, the independent nation of West Papua raised its new national flag the Morning Star and sang its new national anthem. Once a Dutch colony, freedom was granted, but short lived. Only months later Indonesia invaded the fledgling nation and began what has been 50 brutal years of killing and oppression. The world has been standing still ever since, with the US, Australia and Britain colluding with successive dictatorial regimes in Indonesia for control over the vast wealths held beneath the fertile soils.
Estimates of those killed range from 100 000 up to 400 000 out of a total population of some 3 million. The scale of the catastrophic conditions within West Papua has been so great due in part to the severe restrictions placed on foreign journalists and aid workers as well as the strategic military and economic collusion between Western global powers and Indonesia. Despite the overwhelming forces against the indigenous population however, the struggle continues to this day.
Why then has the world´s superpowers and nearest regional power Australia turned a blind eye on the pillage and murder of Papua?. The very companies involved in massive resource extraction including Freeport, Rio Tinto and BP are reliant on the Indonesian government maintaining control. When West Papua was threatened with annexation by Indonesia in the early 1960s, a US-led agreement allowed Indonesia to oversee a transitional period whereby a referendum would be held to determine the nation´s future. Meanwhile, Indonesia awarded the rights to mine the land to US company Freeport-McMoran under the guidance of Henry Kissinger, who would later join Freeport’s board. The multimillion-dollar Freeport contract was signed in 1967, albeit sealing the fate of West Papua two years before they were given a vote on whether to remain part of Indonesia.
The UN “Act of Free Choice” referendum required by international law gave every adult Papuan the right to vote to determine their own future. Given that the deal to exploit their resources was signed earlier, this was a vote Indonesia could not lose.The Act saw just 1,025 pre-selected people allowed to vote, out of a population close to 1 million under threat of violence. The US could not afford to see West Papua break free from Indonesia, as secret telegrams from the US Embassy reveal.
“The Act of Free Choice (AFC) in West Irian is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the GOI, cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it”.
Freeport and Rio Tinto collude with the Indonesian military to protect their mining interests and the Australian Government is involved with joint military training exercises with the infamous Kopassus secret police who have been charged with human rights abuses in West Papua. In 2008, the Norwegian government blacklisted Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto because of the environmental damage caused by the company and liquidated its entire $1bn investment for what it claimed was “grossly unethical conduct”.
Mining interests have given international legitimacy to Indonesia’s oppressive colonial rule. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that the very power´s who are perceived to guard the rights of the minority (America, Britain, United Nations) have colluded over decades with an oppressive Indonesian regime who have suppressed the helpless Papuan population in order to maintain control of the enormous natural resources. Perhaps control over natural resources has historically been a battle of exploitation, but today, the fact that it is the US that is the worst perpetrator makes global industrial capital awash with the blood of innocent men, women and children the world over. If people think recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have anything to do with human rights and terrorism, think again.
The people of West Papua have been waiting 50 years to have the world respect their most basic of rights – freedom of speech and freedom to determine their own future. There may be hope however, having seen the events unfold in nearby East Timor. Indonesia seems to be heading towards allowing greater autonomy for certain regions, but progress has been slow. With such massive wealth beneath the ground, Papua is the biggest revenue provider for the Indonesian government and with foreign investment controlling much of the mining industry, the drive towards supporting the free will of the Papuans may not come from heads of states anytime soon. President Obama, visiting Indonesia last month, confirmed US support of Indonesian sovereignty over the territory, and even remarked that he was “sure” the Indonesian government had human rights as a high priority.
It can only be hoped that the 50th anniversary of the raising of the Morning Star brings deserved focus back upon West Papua and the calls for justice and freedom for such an oppressed population will not once again be washed away in the blood and silt of colonial oppressors and global economic interests. The diverse, complex and utterly beautiful Papuan region deserves the autonomy to start a new chapter in its tragically short history.
# Thanks to all my friends in the blogosphere for their insights and inspiration. A special mention to NAJ Taylor from the University of Queensland for his outstanding contribution to the complex issues involved in this case.