When Petitions Actually Matter: West Papuans Risk Their Lives to End Indonesia’s Occupation

by Connor Woodman

22 August 2017

West Papua protest at Pasifika 2014

Just another clicktivist petition pushed by corporate NGOs with no connection to grassroots struggle? Not this time – West Papuans are risking beatings, arrest, and even death to sign a petition for their right to self-determination, coordinated with international support networks. The story of the mass movement against Indonesian occupation is finally starting to be heard.

May 30, 2017. Yanto Awerkion, a regional leader of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) – a street-based civil disobedience group with sections across West Papua – takes the stage at an event in Timika. The event is promoting a petition calling for the UN to promote human rights and self-determination in West Papua by supporting a referendum on independence from Indonesia. Hundreds of Papuans have gathered to pray for the campaign to collect signatures by hand across the country.

As Yanto steps to the front of the crowd, Indonesian police and military surround the compound, smash through the gates and begin confiscating all signs of West Papuan identity and independence: the Morning Star flag, pro-independence banners, and cultural Papuan attire. As Yanto is arrested, other Papuans sit down, singing hymns and giving prayers, putting on a dignified display against the shock-troops of one of the world’s oldest military occupations.

Yanto is thrown in jail, where he remains.

Yanto is but the latest victim of the Indonesian occupation, which stretches back to 1963. He faces charges of ‘makar’ (treason), which can carry up to 15 years in prison. In 2004, Filep Karma was convicted for raising the Morning Star flag and remained in prison for eleven years. Many other Papuans aren’t so lucky: Theys Eluay, leader of the Papua Presidium Council, was strangled to death by members of the Indonesian special forces in 2001. Extra-judicial killings and mass shootings are a chillingly regular occurrence: in December 2014, at least four Papuan teenagers were shot dead and 17 injured by Indonesian security services at a protest of 800 Papuans performing a traditional indigenous waiti dance. A year after the massacre, and with no charges or convictions of Indonesian officers in sight, Amnesty International condemned the “culture of impunity” surrounding the Indonesian police and military.

These incidents are but a smattering of the deluge of abuse washing across West Papua. KONTRAS, the leading Indonesian human rights group, recorded 1,200 incidents of “harassment, killings, torture and ill-treatment” of West Papuans in 2015, under the supposedly reformist President Joko Widodo. One recent report documents, in meticulous detail, many of the recorded shootings, beatings and mass arrests suffered by West Papuans since 2014. The list feels endless.

This crack-down follows a clear logic of repression: the mass movement in West Papua is gaining in unity, organisation and ability every year. In December 2014, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) formed, with the help of the Vanuatu government, bringing together nearly all the main Papuan independence forces for the first time in half a century – an occurrence described by Papua-specialist Jason MacLeod as “the most significant event in the history of Papuan resistance”. This unity is the result of the “determined, civilian-led, mass-based, unarmed resistance” which has been growing in the country over the past two decades, particularly since the violently crushed Papuan Spring in 1999-2001. This exciting development marks the context in which the petition comes.

Several groups – the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, National Parliament of West Papua, West Papua National Committee and West Papua National Authority, all under the ULMWP – are coordinating mass demonstrations, cultural celebrations, civil disobedience actions and international lobbying efforts to free their country from 50 years of Indonesian rule. Pemalangan actions – blockades – for example, have been documented at 14 of West Papua’s 28 palm oil plantations, which cause deforestation and indigenous land displacement. International efforts have led to the formation of the Pacific Coalition for West Papua, eight Pacific Island states which formally support West Papua’s right to self-determination – an unprecedented leap in international diplomacy for the Papuan cause. Indonesia has been leading a furious effort in the Pacific to roll back this progress, utilising ‘chequebook diplomacy’ to bribe key regional powers into betraying the Papuan struggle, which has wide-spread support amongst Pacific civil society. So significant are the gains, that the Jakarta Post published an editorial this month noting the movement’s “relentless” progress and bemoaning that “at almost every turn, we are being outmanoeuvred by campaigners who want to see Papua separate from Indonesia”.

Papuans – and the Indonesian government – pay close attention to their sources of international support. In 2008, the International Parliamentarian for West Papua was launched in London. Thousands of Papuans demonstrated in support, and two of the Papuan organisers of these rallies, Buchtar Tabuni and Sebby Sambom, were arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison by Indonesian courts. After a historic gathering on West Papua in the UK parliament in 2016, Indonesian dispatched a high-level delegation to the UK to convince peers, MPs and policymakers of the virtues of the Indonesian occupation. KNPB, for its part, issued a statement thanking the organisers of the London meetingThe petition which Yanto was arrested for supporting will be swum 30 hours up Lake Geneva at the end of this month. Thousands of Papuans have been posing for photos backing the swim, and risking severe repression to stage mass public signings.

The last time there was a mass petition campaign inside West Papua, in support of the ULMWP’s bid to become members of a sub-regional Pacific organisation, hundreds of Papuans were arrested – many of whom were tortured – and one tribal village chief from Yahukimo, Obangma Giban, was shot dead by Indonesian security forces. In the end, over 55,000 signatures were successfully smuggled out of the country. Activists “travelled the length and breadth of the country – by ship, plan, car and on foot – to collect each of those signatures”.

A similar effort is underway right now inside West Papua. The campaign for a referendum on self-determination – denied to Papuans for so many years since the sham vote in 1969 which legitimated the Indonesian take over – is reaching a higher level every month. Given the UK’s long-standing support for Indonesian rule – militarily, diplomatically and economically – it’s time the UK Left stood in real solidarity with the awe-inspiring anti-colonial struggle of the indigenous Papuan people.

You can sign the petition here. Please share widely with your networks. See the Free West Papua Campaign for more ways to get involved.

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