Earlier this month, Indonesian forces reportedly burned down villages and conducted mass arrests across the province of West Papua. VICE spoke to Independence leader Benny Wenda about reports of worsening repression.
According to Wenda, the attacks took place in the region surrounding the West Papuan mountain town of Timika, where troops burned down a village named Banti on January 14, forcing many villagers to flee into the jungle. It was the second such incident in the week, as earlier reports told of up to 116 villagers being arrested and tortured in the town of Utikini.
Benny Wenda, who received these reports, labeled these actions as a "collective punishment" dished out by Indonesian forces in response to the shooting of two Indonesian officers and a Freeport mine security guard in the Timika region on January 1.
The Indonesian army and police have dispatched 500 personnel into the area to pursue a group of men, led by Ayub Waker of the West Papua liberation army (TPN), who they claim carried out the shootings. While Papua police chief inspector general Yotje Mende told the Jakarta Post that only 13 people had been detained as part of the raid on Utikini.
These are the latest incidents in a continuing cycle of violence in the restive region of West Papua, since Indonesia began its occupation 53 years ago.
"We are under constant watch by the Indonesian military, who are on the lookout for more excuses to kill us," said Wenda, international lobbyist for the Free West Papua Campaign. "There are over 40,000 Indonesian soldiers in West Papua and that figure is increasing."
A West Papuan protester risks his life by raising his national flag in front of Indonesian riot police.
According to Wenda the extra troops are being sent into the Timika region in an attempt to "draw the world's attention away from the five West Papuan children who were murdered by the Indonesian military last month."
On December 8, five high school students were killed in the town of Enarotali, after Indonesian security forces allegedly shot into a crowd of 800 West Papuans. The crowd was protesting a scuffle that occurred between troops and children putting up Christmas decorations the previous evening, which resulted in a 13-year-old boy being beaten by officers. Up to 20 other civilians were also injured in the incident.
On January 14, the National Police Headquarters announced they have set up a fact-finding team to investigate the shootings. The team has been established under the orders of Indonesian president Joko Widodo, who called for the investigation during a visit to the province on December 27.
This tragedy and the response of Widodo, who was elected last July, have dashed hopes that he will bring about promised improvements and ease political tensions in West Papua. Wenda believes that Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, will continue in the same pattern as previous governments, occupying the resource-rich region and repressing the people for financial purposes.
"What kind of president allows the murder of five children by his military and does not even make a single statement until there is a lot of international pressure for him to do so?" Wenda questioned. "I don't believe that Jokowi will be of any benefit to West Papuan's human rights or for our self-determination."
Prospects of improvements were further quashed when in late October the newly-appointed Indonesian minister of villages and transmigration, Marwan Jafar, announced that he would be continuing the government's transmigration program into West Papua.
Wenda said that the program is an attempt to marginalise the West Papuan people by moving large amounts of Indonesian migrants into the region. He's heard reports that a ship carrying migrants is on its way to West Papua at the moment.
"In 1971, we West Papuans made up 96 percent of the population. But now they make up only 49 percent due to Indonesia's systematic mass transmigration. We're forcibly evicted out of our villages and our forests are cut down to make way for transmigration camps," he said. "The government began to send masses of transmigrants just after 1969."
1969 was the year that the Act of Free Choice was carried out. In 1962 the New York Agreement resulted in Indonesian rule of West Papua, after the Netherlands, the former coloniser, left. Following widespread resistance to this rule, the UN brokered Act of Free Choice referendum was undertaken. It was supposed to give the West Papuan population a choice between remaining part of Indonesia or becoming an independent nation. But only 1062 West Papuan representatives were allowed to vote and under threat of death, all of them voted to stay with Indonesia.
Papuans from the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) protest for freedom.
The human rights organisation Australian West Papua Association Sydney recently released its West Papua 2014 Year in Review report. And AWPA Secretary Joe Collins said the report shows that the situation is not getting any better. "From January till the end of December there have been shootings. Every time there is a shooting, the military will respond and all they're doing is traumatising the people," he said.
The report also outlines the increased intimidation of journalists. Two French journalists Valentine Bourrat and Thomas Dandois were arrested in August and initially faced up to five years in jail for reporting on the West Papuan separatist movement. They were eventually given a shorter sentence and released at the end of October. Collins sees this as a change in tack for Indonesian authorities.
"Normally when overseas journalists are arrested they are just deported and that's it. The fact that they were kept for two and half months and could have faced a lot longer sentence is almost like the Indonesians are upping the ante and trying to send a message to international journalists," he said.
West Papuans protest for freedom, Wamena 2011.
A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Wenda now lives in Oxford after being granted political asylum by the British government in 2003. He fled West Papua after being imprisoned by Indonesian troops on charges he that his statments were politically motivated because of his involvement in the independence movement.
"The only way forward for West Papua is the fulfilment of our self-determination and independence. We're campaigning every day to bring international pressure to the United Nations so that a free and fair referendum on independence will be held for all West Papuans," Wenda said.
Although the Indonesia government split West Papua into two provinces in 2002, this article refers to the whole region as West Papua, as the indigenous people of West Papua do.
All images courtesy ofthe Free West Papua Campaign.
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