A different type of Independence Day
Papua New Guinea is independent but West Papua is a ‘region’ of
A different type of Independence Day
A good reason why Scots should value the right to decide on the political future of their nation
by Alex Porter
A land with dramatic wilderness and rich in natural resources and which was once an independent state but then coerced into constitutional arrangement its people did not want. That is where you might think the link between Scotland and West Papua ends. But you’d be wrong, because although most Scots do not know it, West Papuans have a special place in their hearts for Scotland.
Yesterday, West Papuans held their Independence Day celebrations. However this was no ordinary party. Why? West Papua is no longer independent and their campaign to reclaim independence through a referendum has been met, human rights organisations and other commentators warn, with brutality by the ruling Indonesian authorities.
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So, while Scots enjoy their democratic right to have a referendum on independence, on the other side of the world, peaceful West Papuan pro-independence activists were last week fired on by police – according to eye witnesses – with some missing and presumed dead.
Raising awareness of the West Papua situation, where hundreds of thousands are claimed to have died as a result of “occupation”, is no easy task because Indonesia refuses to admit journalists, human rights monitors or lawyers to the ‘region’, although some operate there covertly. This is where the link to Scotland and the incredible story of Benny Wenda comes in to focus.
As a child, Benny lost members of his family and community – killed by the Indonesian military, he claims. Like others, he hid in the remote jungle until he was older, and as he became more politically mature he began campaigning peacefully against “Indonesian occupation”. For this crime, Benny reports, he was put in a military prison where he was tortured and survived an assassination attempt by another inmate who he claims was paid to kill him.
Realising he may never be released and could soon be dead, Benny hatched a daring plan to be free of his captors. The West Papuan escaped, navigated across the country (a terrain which includes the second largest rainforest on the planet after the Amazon) and crossed the border into Papua New Guinea (PNG) – the independent eastern part of the Island. With the help of some activists, he got on a plane and flew to London. After some time he realised through communicating with fellow detainees, that he could apply for asylum. The Indonesian authorites attempted to have Benny extradited but his asylum application was successful.
Now living in the UK, Benny has dedicated his life to drawing attention to the “the forgotten bird of paradise”. Rich in mineral wealth West Papua has attracted the interests of many multinational companies, not least BP which is extracting natural gas in Bintuni Bay. West Papua’s gas reserves are estimated to be over 18.3 trillion square feet and so the fields have the potential to become one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits.
With such powerful vested interests at play, the West Papuan campaign against “Indonesian occupation” struggles to find friends in high places despite reports of bombs being dropped to clear villages earmarked for mining operations.
When news spread therefore among the tribes that Benny was to give an address at a room in the Scottish parliament, it raised spirits.
On the day of his address, demonstrations were held around West Papua (see images). Activists risked a military crackdown, imprisonment and their lives but they turned out in numbers and proudly flew St Andrews Cross flags.
Those who turned up at Holyrood to hear Benny’s testimony were deeply moved and links have grown with MSPs Linda Fabiani and Jamie Hepburn among others offering support and solidarity.
David and Goliath struggle
When the Dutch withdrew from the East Indies in the early 1960s, West Papua declared independence. However, Indonesia invaded on the pretext that West Papua was part of the same territory as Indonesia – a claim the Dutch themselves denied.
The issue ended up in behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations at the United Nations. The outcome was that Indonesia would be allowed to continue to rule West Papua “on trust” for a brief period after which an independence referendum would be held.
Only just over one thousand village elders were given a vote and there are reports that they voted at gunpoint, in what was described by the Indonesians as an “Act of Free Choice”, to retain Indonesian rule.
That was 1969 but by then West Papua’s wealth had already been ‘assigned’ with the approval of General Suharto just over a year earlier at a meeting involving such interests as “David Rockefeller, and senior executives of the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, British American Tobacco, Imperial Chemical Industries, American Express, Siemens, Goodyear, US Steel. The president of Time Incorporated, James Linen,. “
The meeting was held at a lakeside hotel in Geneva in November 1967, reports Australian investigative journalist John Pilger: “Suharto had sent a team of mostly US-groomed economists, known as the “Berkeley Boys”. On the first day, salutations were exchanged. On the second day, the Indonesian economy was carved up. This was done in a spectacular way: industry in one room, forests and fisheries in another, banking and finance in another. The ultimate prize was the mineral wealth of West Papua, almost half of a vast and remote island to the north of Australia. A US and European consortium was “awarded” the nickel and gold. The Freeport company of New Orleans got a mountain of copper. Forty-two years later, the gold and copper make more than a million dollars profit every day.”
The Indonesian elite, largely the military, are thought, between 1992 and 2004 to have received around $33bn in “benefits” from Freeport alone.
Benny’s Free West Papua Campaign then is very much of the David versus Goliath variety. However, dogged determination and support from friends and activists are starting to reap rewards.
Benny and his wife Maria have managed to open an office for the Free West Papua Campaign in Port Moresby in neighbouring PNG where they hope to raise awareness of the human rights situation and the movement towards ‘merdeka’ (freedom) on the other side of their shared island.
West Papua and Scotland
Yesterday, in Edinburgh, a small but resolute group of activists celebrated West Papua’s Independence Day – First of December
(image above). Their aim was to take a picture of the group waving the nation’s flag – a crime carrying a fifteen year sentence in West Papua – and post it on the Free West Papua Facebook page to show activists back in West Papua that they have not been forgotten.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, those West Papuans who have access to the internet are using social media to reach out and tell the world about ‘Genocide in Paradise’. Within hours of going live, the photo had been shared 55 times and received 368 ‘likes’.
Many West Papuans have given their lives for the right to decide the constitutional future of their nation. It would be absurd to draw comparisons between the political realities in both nations. However, the lesson we Scots must draw from the West Papua experience is that we should not take the same right they are being denied for granted here.
Benny has also formed a band which travels to concerts and communicates West Papua culture through the international language of music. Perhaps we might see Benny’s band at the Edinburgh Festival one day..?
It is the hope of the West Papua pro-independence activists that while we Scots – known for standing up for the underdog – decide on the destiny of our own nation, that we spread the message and rally behind West Papua’s campaign to do the same.
Visit: www.FreeWestPapua.org to learn more or donate
Email: office @ freewestpapua.org
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