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Issue #1913      May 4, 2020


Last month, Central Jakarta District Court convicted six Papuan activists of treason for holding a peaceful protest outside the Indonesian Presidential Palace in August of last year.

The protest, organised by the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua, was in response to armed raids by Indonesian police on the dormitories of Papuan students. The activists consider the raids to have been made without any legitimate justification, and that they were instead a racially motivated attack.

The six activists convicted – Surya Anta, Arina Elopere, Charles Kossay, Deno Tabuni, Isay Wenda and Ambrosius Mulait – have been held in prison since the August protest. Some of the actions considered treasonous by the court were waving the West Papuan independence flag, singing pro-independence songs, and making speeches calling for a referendum on independence.

The sentences handed to each of the activists were eight or nine months’ imprisonment; this includes time already served during the trial, which means they are expected to be released within a few weeks. This strange juxtaposition of what is typically considered a highly serious charge (treason) and a seemingly mild punishment, gives the impression that the trial has been politically motivated, opportunistically balancing a justification of the police’s actions against the activists and the Indonesian government’s harsh opposition towards the West Papuan independence movement with a cautious attitude to growing unrest against the government’s oppression, exploitation and genocide in its Papuan colonies, both amongst the Papuan peoples and the Indonesian left.

Indonesia declared independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, which would be formally acknowledged by the Dutch government in 1949. The Dutch, however, continued to occupy West Papua for another thirteen years.

During that period, the left around the world campaigned for Dutch occupation to end and generally promoted Indonesia’s claim to the territory. The reason was that, at the time, the other half of the island of Papua was occupied by Australia as a territory. Many believed that if West Papua – with its small population, limited economic and political infrastructure, but immense natural resources – became independent, it would be forced into an exploitative relationship with Australia or other powers (similar to what we have seen with Timor-Leste), and perhaps even be annexed by Australia.

An assumption was also made by many that the Sukarno government of Indonesia, which had many progressive characteristics and had good relationships with the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China including adopting some Soviet-inspired policies, would also adopt a Soviet-inspired progressive minority nationalities policy, and allow the peoples of West Papua self-governance and freedom of cultural expression. This hope would, tragically, never manifest.

The United States, hoping to pull Indonesia away from its leaning towards the Soviet camp, aimed to win Indonesian favour by pressuring the Dutch government to relinquish its claim to the territory. In 1962 a deal was signed between the Netherlands and Indonesia, on the basis of a temporary period of Indonesian administration followed by a plebiscite of the West Papuan people, to be held in 1969, on the question of whether to remain part of Indonesia.

From 1965-66, the Indonesian military, led by the extreme anti-communist Suharto, conducted mass killings of communists (real and claimed) throughout Indonesia. At least half a million and possibly over a million people were killed, with the support and assistance of Western governments including the US and Australia. In 1967 Suharto formally removed Sukarno from the presidency and imposed himself as president, beginning a three-decade dictatorship, which Suharto himself dubbed the “New Order.”

Thus when 1969 arrived, there was little hope for the planned plebiscite to be conducted fairly. The military government selected from the population of over 800,000 Papuans just over a thousand people to gather, surrounded by armed soldiers, to vote on the question of independence by a show of hands. Many that were present later said that they had been threatened with violent reprisals against their families should they not vote against independence. The Indonesian authorities reported a 100 per cent vote against independence, and labelled this sham plebiscite the “Act of Free Choice.” Shockingly, the UN hastily moved to recognise the vote as legitimate and permanent. The Indonesian government has since refused to hold another vote, and activists calling for a new plebiscite have been routinely harassed by police, fined, and imprisoned.

Since then, the Indonesian occupation has brutally repressed the West Papuan people and robbed their land. As many as half a million killings have been attributed to the Indonesian military occupation, and many more have been subjected to torture and rape.

The CPA calls for the Australian government to support the right of West Papuans to self-determination, the release of all political prisoners and for the Indonesian military to withdraw. There must be a new referendum!


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