West Papua independence conflict
A Papuan activist with his forehead painted with banned separatist flag the "Morning Star". (Image: AP/Trisnadi)

Last week, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was in Jakarta to sign Australia’s long-awaited free trade deal with Indonesia. Already our most important security ally in the region, Indonesia is now set to become a trade partner of comparable significance. But throughout the eight months of negotiations, violence has escalated in the Indonesian province of West Papua, with allegations surfacing that the Indonesian National Armed Forces (aka Tentara Nasional Indonesia or TNI) deployed a chemical weapon, white phosphorous, on civilians.

In response to the worsening situation, which includes cases of torture, UN human rights experts have issued an unprecedented declaration condemning a "culture of impunity" surrounding human rights abuses in the region. More than ever, the conflict appears to be mirroring another from our recent past: the Indonesian genocide in Timor-Leste.

Late last year, The Saturday Paper published images of Papuan villagers with severe chemical burns consistent with the use of white phosphorous, in the remote highland region of Ndgua. Tensions in the area were already high, due the continual presence of the TNI, who accompany Indonesian road workers constructing the Trans Papuan railway. Violence broke out after locals took part in a flag raising ceremony in support of independence (flying the Morning Star flag is an arrestable offence), which left 31 Indonesian workers dead.