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The Hidden Tragedy of West Papua

Under Indonesian rule, tribes endure torture, rampant HIV.

By Guy Warrington 21 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Guy Warrington is a freelance photojournalist. He lives and works in Vancouver.

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Human rights activist Carmel Budiardjo. Photo G. Warrington.

"Of course the police are just as good at torturing as the army. Some of the cruder forms [include] putting a table leg onto the foot of somebody and then somebody heavily dancing on the table, which can be extremely painful. So, I mean torture is routine."

Carmel Budiardjo was in Victoria recently to speak about the little known tragedy unfolding in West Papua. In spite of harsh measures by Indonesian authorities to subdue the island's indigenous peoples, they continue to cling to the dream of self-determination.

The dense tropical rainforests and towering mountain ranges of West Papua are home to more than 300 distinct tribes, including some uncontacted peoples. Located 250 km north of Australia, and bordered by the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, the island as a whole contains the second largest rainforest in the world outside of the Amazon. Forty-three years ago, West Papua was annexed by Indonesia. Since that time, large-scale military operations, massacres, land seizures and cultural assimilation policies conducted by the Indonesian government have placed Papua's extraordinary ecosystem and cultural diversity at risk of disappearing.

Budiardjo is the founder of TAPOL, a human rights organization that focuses on issues affecting Indonesia. In 1995, she won the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the alternative Noble Prize, for her work as a human rights advocate. Imprisoned for "political offences" after Suharto seized power, her husband spent 12 years in jail without trial or charge; she herself spent three years in jail before being released in 1971.

While in Vancouver, she sat down with the author to discuss the grave situation facing the peoples of West Papua.

Betrayal and bloodshed

In 1949, Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands. West Papua, however, remained a Dutch colony. In 1961, after repeated failures to secure West Papua as its own through the United Nations, Indonesian President Sukarno threatened to annex West Papua by force. President Kennedy feared that American resistance to Indonesia's wishes might move the country to embrace Communism, so in early 1962 he supported talks between the Netherlands and Indonesia.

These negotiations led to the New York Agreement and obligated Indonesia to hold a United Nations sponsored election on Papuan independence. After occupying the island in 1963, Indonesia promptly re-named it West Irian. By 1969, they held the now condemned plebiscite, the Act of Free Choice. Utilizing widespread intimidation and invoking a dubious voting method, Indonesia defrauded Papuans of their right to self-rule. In July of 1969, a declassified telegram from the U.S. Embassy stated: "The Act of Free Choice (AFC) in West Irian is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained." In spite of the serious concerns raised by some members of the international community regarding the vote, the U.S. signalled disinterest in the matter. The UN General Assembly took note of the results, which formalized Indonesia's control of the region.

It has been estimated that 100,000 Papuans (about 10 percent of the population) were killed by the Indonesian military after they took control of West Papua. In a recent Associated Press article, human rights monitors put the death toll at approximately 200,000.

The question of whether Indonesia is committing genocide has been raised.

HIV and 'crimes against humanity'

In 2004, Yale Law School produced a report exploring the application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in relation to the Papuan question. It concluded that the actions of the Indonesian government, "taken as a whole, appear to constitute the imposition of conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the West Papuans. Many of these acts, individually and collectively, clearly constitute crimes against humanity under international law."

Throughout the island, Papuans face not only arbitrary arrests and detentions, but also disappearances and summary executions. After their arrest by security forces, people are frequently tortured. Those who challenge the government face beatings, electric shock, and being skinned alive. The Yale report also revealed that the Indonesian military has utilized aerial bombardment and deployed both napalm and chemical weapons against villagers, killing thousands. Indigenous Papuans now face a new threat: AIDS.

A 2005 report, published by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, alleged that the military has been involved in supplying HIV/AIDS-infected prostitutes to the region. Currently, the province of Papua has the second highest number of AIDS sufferers in Indonesia, after Jakarta. With the number AIDS cases doubling in just four years, and the systematic discrimination against Papuans in government-sponsored AIDS education programs, many villages have virtually been wiped out.

An activist working on the Papua issue, who does not wish to be identified, stated that a Papuan representative characterized the AIDS issue this way: "Even if we are successful politically in helping the people of West Papua, it may be too late because they are already dead of AIDS anyway."

Canada's relationship

After a failed coup attempt swept General Suharto to power in 1966, between 500,000 and one million alleged Communists (PKI) were slaughtered throughout Indonesia. Despite the fact that Indonesia has had one of the bloodiest histories of the late 2oth century, many western nations have been reluctant to suspend trade or arms shipments, or to end military co-operation.

Canada is no exception. Not only has the Canadian government been a critical political ally of Indonesia by attempting to block United Nations resolutions condemning its actions in East Timor, but it has sold military equipment to the regime.

Between 1990 and 1999, against the backdrop of ongoing human rights violations in East Timor and West Papua, Indonesia imported $24.8 million worth of military goods from Canada. From 2000 to 2002, Canada continued to supply military goods to Indonesia.

Though official Canadian policy requires close monitoring of arms sales to countries involved in conflict or human rights violations, Canada has exported arms and other military equipment to other countries with dubious human rights records, including Columbia, Nigeria and Turkey.

Indonesia continues to be an important Canadian trading partner, with bilateral trade in 2005 totalling $1.64 billion. British Columbia took in 19 per cent of all of Indonesia's exports to Canada -- a total of $120 million US. In 2001, B.C. exports to Indonesia totalled $69 million US, accounting for 23 per cent of all of Canada's exports to Indonesia. There are currently more than 60 Canadian companies with resident offices in Indonesia, many from British Columbia and Alberta.

For the peoples of West Papua, rich natural resources have become a curse.

Displacements due to military operations, massive resource extraction projects and transmigration programs have put considerable stress on the population. As the Yale report outlines, in some areas the infant mortality rate is above 60 per cent, and an average life expectancy is 30 years.

Divide and conquer?

"The basic problem with West Papua," says Carmel Budiardjo, "is it's an occupied country, and that this is not recognized by the world at large."

Any understanding of the grim situation there, she says, begins with the fact that West Papau is rich with natural resources, and is "hugely wealthy -- far wealthier than other parts of Indonesia." The biggest company operating there is Freeport-McMoRan Co., an American company based in New Orleans that operates the largest gold and copper mine in the world. "Most of that wealth goes to Jakarta and it does not go to the West Papuan people. The West Papuan people were not involved in the decision to give [Freeport] concessions," notes Budiardjo. She points out that the Suharto regime and Freeport actually inked a contract for its mining operations in West Papua in 1967, before the Act of Free Choice.

In fact, says Budiardjo, Indonesia's leaders have short-circuited the special autonomy officially granted West Papau by Indonesia five years ago. "One of the provisions of this law," she explains, "was the establishment of the Papuan People's Assembly, with approximately 42 members, and made up of all Papuans. One of the things that this law says is that if there is any change with regard to the actual structure of the province, then [the Papuan People's Assembly] has to be consulted. Now this has not happened."

In the last few years, West Papua has been divided into two provinces. "There's the province of Papua and then another province which is called Irian Jaya Barat. Of course this decision to divide Papua into two provinces was done without consulting [the Papuan People's Assembly], so it was in violation of special autonomy."

To make "a tragic situation doubly evil," says the Sydney University report, the Indonesian army often cynically pays for military operations with the special autonomy funds set aside for Papuan health and education programs.

Closed access

As the HIV epidemic in the existing population coincides with a large influx of Indonesians, West Papuans, says Budardjo, are becoming ever "more marginalized." If the present rate of assimilation continues, argues human rights advocate John Rumbiak, Papuan culture, "will be extinct" in 10 to 20 years.

"The basic strategy" of the Indonesian government, according to Budiardjo, "is to hang on to West Papua -- and they know it's almost like a life and death struggle, because the Papuans are not happy. They don't want to be part of Indonesia."

Telling this to the rest of the world is made more difficult by the fact that foreign journalists and NGOs are often denied entrance to West Papua.

Lately, an investigation into the shootings near the Freeport mine by the Papuan human rights organization ELS-HAM and the local police, alleged the possibility of Indonesian military involvement in the high-profile killing of foreign workers, including Americans. As a consequence of publishing this information, says Budiardjo, ELS-HAM is now facing a massive defamation lawsuit brought by the Indonesian army, which threatens to destroy the human rights organization.

Additionally, notes Budiardjo, the United States pressured Indonesia to quickly resolve the case regarding the killings, partly so that relations could be normalized and arms sales and U.S.-sponsored military training could be resumed.

Bringing hope to so tragic a place, says Budiardjo, really is a question of information. "People really have to know much more. We're always obstructed by the fact that there's so little in the press. Of course people should pressure their government to get their diplomats to go and visit West Papua."

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