60,000 flee as West Papua conflict escalates, poses questions to region
SPECIAL REPORT: By Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific reporter
The armed conflict in West Papua continues to claim victims, displace tens of thousands and generate resentment against the Indonesian regime.
But despite continued pleas for help, neighboring countries in the Pacific Island region remain largely silent and ineffective in their response.
This year, the Indonesian military has stepped up its operations to track down and respond to attacks by independence fighters with the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA) which views Indonesia as an occupying force in its country.
Since the end of 2018, several regencies in the Papuan provinces under Indonesian control have been bogged down in conflicts, including Nduga, Yahukimo, Intan Jaya, Puncak Jaya, Maybrat as well as the regency of Pegunungan Bintang on the international border with Papua New Guinea.
The ongoing cycle of violence has created a constant net of deaths on both sides, as well as among the many villages caught in the middle.
It is difficult to identify the death toll, especially because Indonesian authorities are restricting external access to Papua.
However, research by the West Papua Council of Churches indicates at least 400 conflict-related deaths in the aforementioned regencies since December 2018, including people who fled their villages to escape military operations and then died as a result of the war. unavailability of food and medicine. .
“Some go to PNG”
“We have received reports that at least 60,000 Papuans from our congregations have currently been evacuated to surrounding districts, including some who entered Papua New Guinea,” said Rev. Socratez Sofyan Yoman, chairman of the Fellowship of Baptist Churches of West Papua.
The humanitarian crisis described by Yoman has spread to Papua New Guinea, bringing its own security and pandemic threats to communities bordering PNG such as the village of Tumolbil in the remote district of Telefomin.
Rev. Yoman and other members of the West Papua Council of Churches have repeatedly called on the government to withdraw its forces.
They are seeking a cutout to end the conflict in Papua which remains based on unresolved grievances over how Indonesia took control in the 1960s, and the denial of legitimate self-determination for West Papuans.
But it is not simply the war between the Indonesian Army and the Liberation Army or OPM fighters that has created continued upheaval for Papuans.
This year has seen:
- more arbitrary arrests and detentions of Papuans for peaceful political expression;
- charges of treason for the same;
- the harassment of prominent human rights defenders;
- more oil palms, mining and environmental degradation threatening Papuans’ access to their lands and forests;
- a decision by Indonesian lawmakers to extend an unpopular special autonomy law, categorically rejected by the Papuans; and
- a terrorist plot by suspected Muslim extremists in the regency of Merauke, in the south-eastern corner of Papua.
Not only churches, but also Papuan customary representatives, civil society and the independence movement have been asking for international assistance for many years, including an intermediary to facilitate dialogue with Indonesia for a peaceful settlement.
Groups frustrated with Jakarta
The groups expressed frustration at how Jakarta’s defensive over West Papua sovereignty leaves little room for solutions to end the conflict over New Guinea territory.
On the other hand, Indonesian government officials point to various large infrastructure projects in Papua as a sign that President Joko Widodo’s economic development campaign is creating improvements for local communities.
Despite the risks of exacerbating the spread of covid-19 in Papua, Indonesia recently hosted the National Games in Jayapura, with President Widodo presiding over the opening and closing of the event, presenting it as a showcase of unity and development in the eastern region.
“The President and Vice President of Indonesia did not discuss the resolution of the protracted conflict in Papua during their stay in Papua. They turned a blind eye and a heart to the Papua conflict, ”said Rev. Yoman.
Beyond the brilliance of the Games, the Papuans were still considered by the authorities as suspects of treason if they wore the colors of the banned Papuan. The morning star flag.
At their last in-person summit before the pandemic, in 2019, leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum agreed to pressure Indonesia to allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to travel to the Papua region to provide them with an independent assessment of the rights situation in West Papua.
Advocating for the UN visit, as a group within the Forum, seems to be as far-fetched as countries in the region – including Australia and New Zealand – are ready to go to West Papua.
However, even before 2019, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had been trying for years to send a team to Papua and struggled to gain approval from Indonesia.
That the visit has still not taken place since the Forum’s push indicates that West Papua remains off-limits to the international community when it comes to Jakarta, no matter how much it points to the pandemic as a hindrance.
The question of how the Pacific can respond to West Papua’s problem also resurfaces at the sub-regional level within the Melanesian Spearhead Group whose full members are PNG, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the Kanaks of New Caledonia.
The United West Papua Liberation Movement (ULMWP) seeks to make the voice of its people heard regionally by re-applying for full membership of the MSG, after its previous candidacy has “disappeared”.
ULMWP representative in Vanuatu, Freddy Waromi, submitted the candidacy for MSG headquarters in Port Vila this month.
No voice at the table
The organization already has observer status in the MSG, but as Waromi said, as observers, they have no say.
“When we have observer status, we always just observe at the MSG meeting, we cannot express our voice.
“But with the hope of becoming a full member, we can have a voice in MSG and even in the Pacific Islands Forum and even in other important international organizations.”
Indonesia, which is an associate member of MSG, opposes ULMWP’s demand to represent West Papuans.
“They always encourage them (the MSG) not to accept us,” Waromi said of Jakarta.
He said the conflict had not subsided since he fled his homeland to PNG in 1979, but had only worsened.
“The fighting is now escalating in the highlands region of West Papua – in Nduga, Intan Jaya, Wamena, Paniai – all these places, the fighting between the Indonesian army and the Papua National Liberation Army Westerners have intensified, it is very serious now. “
Vanuatu still strong
Vanuatu is the only country in the Pacific Island region whose government has consistently expressed strong support for the basic rights of West Papuans over the years. Other Melanesian countries raised their voices at times, but PNG’s main neighbor has remained largely silent.
PNG National Capital District Governor Powes Parkop this month lambasted successive PNG governments in parliament for failing to develop a strong West Papua policy.
He said PNG’s long silence on the conflict was based on fear and “total surrender to Indonesian aggression and illegal occupation.”
“We have adopted a shameful and unethical policy,” he said of PNG’s “friends of all, enemies of no one” position.
“How do we sleep at night when the people on the other side are subjected to so much violence, racism, death and destruction?
“When are we going to find the courage to speak up and speak out?” Why are we afraid of Indonesia?
Parkop’s questions also apply to the Pacific region, where Indonesia’s diplomatic influence has grown in recent years, effectively suppressing some of the support the West Papua independence movement had enjoyed.
Time is running out for West Papuans who may soon become a minority in their own country if Indonesian transmigration is not controlled.
This does not mean, however, that the conflict will end. Until the main grievances are adequately addressed, the conflict is expected to escalate in West Papua.
This article is republished as part of a community partnership agreement with RNZ.