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What’s Happening in West Papua? Struggle for Self-Determination and Freedom Hinges on a Vote

PHOTO: Students demand the freedom of West Papua province in a rally in East Java province in 2013. (AFP: Juni Kriswanto)

PHOTO: Students demand the freedom of West Papua province in a rally in East Java province in 2013. (AFP: Juni Kriswanto)

The ongoing struggle for independence and self-determination continues in the Indonesian province of West Papua, as 44 West Papuans were arrested by Indonesian police, while thousands peacefully protested throughout the Papua region. As RNZ reported, demonstrations throughout the provinces of Papua and West Papua took place in support of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. This movement seeks full membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an intergovernmental organization whose members include Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and the Kanaks of New Caledonia. The Liberation Movement has observer status in the MSG.

Last year, Indonesia was granted associate member status in the MSG, a move which the protesters oppose, arguing that membership is intended for Melanesians. Further, the southeast Asian nation has opposed the Liberation Movement’s political campaign on behalf of West Papuans, and is lobbying the other nations to fend off West Papuan independence. Indonesia reportedly has support from Papua New Guinea and Fiji to become a full member of the group, and just gave $5 million to those countries for cyclone relief assistance, according to RNZ. As The Jakarta Globe reports, the movement will lobby in London next month for an internationally monitored vote on West Papuan independence from Indonesia.

The longstanding situation of West Papua — a struggle for independence since Indonesia took control of the area from the Netherlands — is a case of a “secret genocide,” according to the University of Sydney.  The Diplomat has reported that the West Papuan fight for self-determination against Indonesian military occupation has resulted in as many as 500,000 deaths over the years. And civilians and political activists with suspected ties to the separation movement have been tortured and murdered.

West Papua occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea, which lies 300 km (186 miles) from the northern part of Australia. The independent nation of Papua New Guinea is located in the eastern portion of the island.

Formerly a Dutch colony known as Dutch New Guinea, West Papua consists of the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. Its indigenous people are Melanesian like those in other nations in the area. After the Second World War, there was a dispute with the Netherlands over whether West Papua would become an independent nation or an Indonesian province, according to Cultural Survival.

In 1961, the people of West Papua declared independence and raised their flag, according to Global Voices. In 1962, the Indonesian military occupied and annexed the land — with 30,000 people killed in a process of brutal quelling of political dissent — and in 1969 Indonesia proclaimed West Papua one of its provinces, renamed Irian Jaya. The process came about through a sham vote known as “The Act Of Free Choice,” as The Diplomat reported, in which only 1 percent of the West Papuan population was allowed to vote on whether it wanted Indonesian rule. Those who were allowed to vote were intimated by the military, some with guns placed at their heads and “given the ultimatum – vote for Indonesia or be killed.”

The West has supported Indonesia’s brutal military crackdown by supplying weapons, military support and funding through the World Bank, according to Cultural Survival. One of the most resource-rich regions of Indonesia, West Papua is also heavily militarized and its people are poverty-stricken.

The West Papuan movement for self-determination is gaining grassroots support among Melanesian nations and internationally. The Free West Papua Campaign has asked supporters to post photos online under the hashtag #LetWestPapuaVote.

“When I was a child my village was bombed by the Indonesian military and many of my family were killed. Later, I began to campaign peacefully to free my country from Indonesian occupation. For this ‘crime’ I was arrested, tortured and threatened with death,” says West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda on the Free West Papua Campaign website. “I managed to escape to the UK, where I now live in exile. My people are still suffering. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, raped and tortured. All we want is to live without fear and for West Papua to become a free and independent country.”

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