By ILYA GRIDNEFF
FOR 40 years, Papuan rebels have fought the Indonesian army’s Goliath – a bid for independence ignored by Australia and the rest of the world. Indonesia has succeeded in neutralising the Papuans’ stubborn campaign for self-rule of a province where some two million traditional landowners have become an ethnic minority.
The Papuan cause is Indonesia’s biggest unresolved territorial dispute since Timor Leste gained independence in 1999 and Aceh’s conflict was resolved in 2005.
Former Papuan politician Clemens Runawery vividly recalls Indonesia’s annexation.
“Our land was taken by the barrel of the gun,” he says. “It is what Australia, the United States especially, and the Netherlands and Britain failed to administer, failed to tackle during the Cold War.
“We were given away to appease Jakarta so that Jakarta came out of the Moscow camp at the peak of the Cold War. And today we are still the victims of the US … Australia’s policy of appeasement with Jakarta.”
Indonesia took formal control of the Dutch colony in a widely criticised 1969 UN-sponsored vote by 1,022 hand-picked Papuan village elders. Cold War realpolitik also saw foreign interests gain lucrative footholds in Papua’s resource-rich land, including what is now Freeport’s Grasberg gold mine, the world’s largest.
Since then Indonesia’s hardline military rule, including killings and the arrest of activists who attempt to fly Papua’s outlawed Morning Star flag, have incensed pro-independence guerrillas. Last month, after several years of planning, Indonesia began repatriating 300 West Papuans from Papua New Guinea to show the world life was improving in the troubled province.
The UN estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 West Papuans have crossed the border and are now scattered throughout PNG, while a few refugees have reached Australia, the UK and Holland.
The Indonesian ambassador to PNG, Bom Soerjanto, said criticism of the treatment of West Papuans was both outdated and misplaced.
Indonesia’s 2001 decision to give Papua special autonomy status, allowing elected Papuan leaders to run and administer the province, had been a major improvement, he said.
“How can you say in West Papua they are second class citizen?” he asked. “Why are they going home? I don’t think so, you don’t want to go back to second class life? Nowadays Indonesia is a very democratic country, you can have different ideas, as long as you don’t raise arms, you will not be punished.”
Soerjanto said returnees were looked after and allocated some rice, but he denied that they had received cash.
“This is a voluntary scheme,” he said. “They know that Indonesia is a better place, a free, democratic country that upholds the law and human rights.”
But critics such as Runawery dismiss the repatriation scheme as a phoney.
“The (Indonesian) ambassador is telling lies!” he fumed, banging his fist on a table. “It is a carefully choreographed scheme to suit Jakarta’s interests. To soothe Melanesian states, the Pacific Islands Forum, Australia, so people say ‘look, they (West Papuans) are coming back, Jakarta is ok, autonomy is ok’.
“Indonesian bureaucrats run the province. Yes, we have a Papuan governor, yes, we have a district commissioner, but the real power lies in the bureaucracy and military.
“Parents are sending their kids back to West Papua not because of the so-called autonomy, the underlying reason is they are economically suffering in PNG. This repatriation is going to cause more friction in West Papua. It’s another ploy.
“There is no real development taking place, what’s more the Indonesian migration community benefit more. Any taxi running in cities, anywhere, no West Papuans, all Javanese.”
Canberra-based Rex Rumakiek, secretary general of West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, also dismissed the repatriation scheme as “a political game”.
“Don’t waste your time believing Indonesia is genuinely implementing the special autonomy for West Papuan people,” he said. “We have two objectives, to get the issue raised at the UN and to get Indonesia to come to the table for peaceful negotiations for proper self-rule.”
Damning reports on Indonesia in Papua from the World Bank, the UN committee against torture, Amnesty International and the Environmental Investigation Agency all stack up while other countries, such as Australia, do little to help.
So controversial is the West Papua cause that Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade declined – without explanation – to discuss any of the issues, even off the record. West Papuan supporters hold out little hope of re-elected Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono fulfilling a broken first-term election promise to resolve the West Papuan issue.
Self-rule, like many other hopes for West Papuans, seems a distant morning star.
* Ilya Gridneff is the PNG correspondent of the AAP