With last week’s release by the Indonesian government of five West Papuan political prisoners and more foreign media shining a light on the deteriorating human rights situation in West Papua, Indonesia is under increasing pressure to open the region to the outside world.
The Indonesian constitution and international law supports the idea of exercising rights to peaceful protest without prosecution, but Indonesia’s arbitrary detention of peaceful political activists in West Papua contradicts this. Many West Papuans have been and continue to be jailed for so-called “crimes” and sentenced to three to 15 years — such as Filep Karma, who peacefully raised the outlawed Morning Star flag in 2004 and was convicted of treason for 15 years, and Forkorus Yaboisembut and Edison Waromi, who were among the five released last week, jailed in 2011 on convictions of “subversion” for reading out a “declaration of independence” from Indonesia.
The crime of subversion, which accounts for so many West Papuans still incarcerated, is an old Dutch law reconstituted by Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, on May 1, 1963 — the day the United Nations gifted the territory and people of West Papua to Indonesia. Many West Papuans — and sometimes even their relatives — are arrested by Indonesian authorities for simply attending political demonstrations, being politically active or joining political organisations, or for engaging in civil resistance activities.
The searing indictment on Indonesia’s policies and military practices shows at least 71 political prisoners (on record) still behind bars. The ongoing exploitation of the Indonesian constitution de-legitimises and censors pro-independence groups and maintains offensive restrictions on West Papua’s freedom of assembly and expression.
Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s two terms in office have proven Jakarta’s impeccably futile policy on West Papua. The stalemate continues, with West Papua’s statehood facing a political climate of inaction, denial and marginalisation, with unprecedented challenges of increased division of regencies, increased convictions for corruption to undermine the struggle for self-determination and inadequate action on a culture of impunity.
Well-placed Indonesians in Jakarta claim Yudhoyono believes West Papua should be free but doesn’t want to stand charged with violating his state’s long-standing policy of “territorial integrity”. Jacob Rumbiak, a West Papuan academic who spent years in jail with Waromi, said: “The Indonesian state demands absolute loyalty from its citizens, and its institutions have always been charged with defending its territorial integrity. In the service of those imperatives, anything the international community would consider illegal has always been quietly legalised.”
Although Rumbiak believes Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s President-elect, will be as bound by centralism and territorial integrity as previous presidents, most civil society groups in West Papua welcome Jokowi’s win and his ambitious campaign declaration to allow foreign journalists into the region. The big challenge awaiting Jokowi is tackling the underlying grievances of West Papua’s political status and international pressure on human rights abuses. Until these are addressed, the common saying in West Papua remains: “An old song sung by a new singer”.
Rumbiak was speaking from the Federal Republic of West Papua office in Melbourne Docklands, opened last month by Yarra councillor Amanda Stone. “West Papuans have always rejected the New York Agreement that rendered us Indonesian. It was drawn up by foreigners — principally the US, Netherlands, Indonesia, and Australia … and set up the genocidal conditions for Melanesian West Papuans that are now, finally, being reported on,” he said.
Rumbiak added, “The state we raised in 2011 is what West Papuans have determined they want. It stands on UN principles, not the machinations of a few unprincipled foreign governments. That’s why so many Australians are paying the rent on our office in Docklands — they believe in us, and the future of West Papua.”
Peter Woods, a supporter of West Papua who regularly visits the country, insists Australia’s national interest — and relationship with Indonesia — would be better served if Australian politicians address rather than ignore the Federal Republic of West Papua. “East Timor is a good example. Indonesia’s illegal occupation was eventually overthrown by the East Timorese people and the good citizens of the world, but accommodated by successive Australian governments. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be isolated in the region again. Australia should use its position in the UN Security Council to undo the travesty wrought upon West Papuans 52 years ago.”