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CJ Werleman

Why isn't anyone talking about what's happening in West Papua, Indonesia?

The Indonesian military has put West Papua under a total communications lockdown [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 September, 2019

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Comment: The international community has a responsibility to intervene immediately in West Papua, where Indonesian forces are violently cracking down on protesters, writes West CJ Werleman.

With the world fixated on both India's move to undermine democracy and human rights in Kashmir, and China's effort to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, little attention has been given to Indonesia's latest effort to exert its rule in the country's eastern province of West Papua.

Last week, a video emerged showing Indonesian security forces and armed militias shooting at peaceful protesters in the eastern province of West Papua, even as they ran with hands held above their heads.

Six people were killed, with another two bodies discovered later in the nearby jungle, according to multiple sources.

Indonesia's escalating violence in the Papuan territory comes after a video went viral on social media showing Indonesian police storming the dormitory of West Papuan students in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, located on the eastern edge of the country's most populous island, Java.

The violence erupted on 17 August, the day Indonesia celebrates its independence from 300 years of Dutch colonial rule.

The students were not only peppered with tear gas after allegedly "slandering" the Indonesian flag, but also with racist slurs such as "animals" and "monkeys". 

In response, Papuans took to the streets in Jayapura last week to protest against both the police forces' heavy-handed response, and Indonesia's occupation of West Papua. But in response to that, Jakarta deployed more than 1,000 troops to the province to quell the unrest.

Since then, the Indonesian military has put the territory under a total communications lockdown, which Jakarta claims is necessary to prevent the circulation of "fake news" and restore order. In reality, this constitutes a transparent ruse to prevent Papuan voices being heard around the world, a technique not unfamiliar to authoritarian rulers elsewhere. 

These fears are well founded, given the man put in charge of quelling the unrest in West Papua is the infamous General Wiranto

Indonesia has long used repressive and violent measures in West Papua to crush independence and liberation aspirations, similar to India in Kashmir; Israel in the Palestinian territories; and now China in Hong Kong.

Nearly 60 years ago, West Papuans announced their formal independence from the Dutch by raising their flag and singing their national anthem on 1 December, 1961.

Less than a year later, however, Indonesia invaded and declared the territory its own, forcing The Netherlands to hand the territory to a provisional United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) on 1 October 1962, which effectively handed West Papua to Indonesia but with one notable condition: Papuans would be granted a referendum before 1969, so that they may vote to determine their own future.

With the Cold War superpower rivalry reaching its zenith, however, the United Nations lost interest in the fate of West Papua, and Indonesia took advantage of the international community's indifference by holding a sham referendum in 1969, one that allowed only 1,022 "handpicked" Papuans to vote, all of whom "chose" to integrate with Indonesia.

Since then, Indonesia has waged a ruthless and relentless campaign to crush the pro-independence movement known as "Free Papua," with the Indonesian military killing an estimated 200,000 to 450,000 civilians during the past six decades, an effort that has been described by two Australian academics as a "slow motion genocide."

The events of the past week, however, have convinced many that the Indonesian military is readying to use the same level of violence and terrorism it used in the lead up to the independence referendum that was held in Timor Leste, or East Timor, two decades ago.

These fears are well founded, given the man put in charge of quelling the unrest in West Papua is the infamous General Wiranto, who was indicted by the United Nations in 2003 for carrying out crimes against humanity in Timor Leste during the 1999 referendum period, a charge that included 280 murders and 10 major attacks.

Jakarta has not only refused to extradite Wiranto but also has appointed him Chief Minister for Security. This week, Wiranto dismissed questions about civilian casualties in West Papua by telling reporters, "It's up to us whether to announce the victims or not."

Benny Wend, an exiled West Papuan leader, told SBS News in Australia that his former home is on brink of "becoming the next East Timor," adding that the situation is "becoming worse and worse."

Worryingly, Wiranto looks ready to mete out the same kind of violence he used against pro-independence activists in Timor Leste two decades earlier, with more and more disturbing accounts trickling out the province, despite the communications ban in place.

On Thursday, a 23-year-old West Papuan man gave a harrowing account of how he and his friends were kidnapped by pro-Indonesia militias and made to stand in front of armed Indonesian soldiers, who readied to kill them.

Worryingly, Wiranto looks ready to mete out the same kind of violence he used against pro-independence activists in Timor Leste

"Troops came and they opened their guns, ready to attack, to shoot," the man told SBS News. "They talk to the civil militia and say, 'Take the car for the bodies, go.'"

Their lives were spared only because local Papuan police officers had arrived on the scene to "diffuse the situation."

The United Nations and the international community has a responsibility to intervene immediately to prevent the kind of violence that resulted in the deaths of approximately 50,000 East Timorese during the period of Indonesia's occupation and repression there, particularly as it failed in its role as administrator over West Papua a half-century ago.

That
 historic failure continues to invite unrest and potential genocide there again today, and the time for action has come. 

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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