Struggling for independence

Editorial, Normal


THE word most often associated with West Papua is remote.
An area of thick jungle and mountains, roughly the size of Spain, West Papua is the eastern-most outpost of the Indonesian archipelago, some 3,200km from the government in Jakarta.
Culturally, it feels even further.
Papua became part of Indonesia in 1969 after a controversial and very limited vote. Ever since, there have been calls from Papuans for independence and, for decades, a low-level armed resistance has been rumbling on, largely unnoticed by the outside.
International journalists are severely restricted from working in the province. A special permit is required.
But, the BBC’s Newsnight programme was recently offered rare footage of rebel fighters in their jungle hide-out.
The pictures were filmed by a British man keen to document the independence movement. He travelled undercover, aided by local activists, and asked that he remain anonymous to protect those who helped him.
It took him nine hours in a car and 16 hours on foot, trekking through the jungle, to reach the mountain stronghold of the Free Papua Movement rebels.
They are, in truth, a pretty fragmented, poorly armed band of warriors. Some dress in Western-style shorts and T-shirts, with wellington boots the footwear of choice.
Others proudly sport more traditional attire – a few feathers and beads, unkempt beards, wild hair and penis gourds. The size and curlicue of the latter denoting status.
They are armed with a few assault rifles stolen from the Indonesian security forces, and homemade bows and arrows.
The power of the rebels lies as much in the symbolism of their existence as it does in their ability to wage war.
Many Papuans feel their culture and identity are slowly being eroded. Papuans do not look like other Indonesians. They are Melanesian, closer to Papua New Guineans and Aboriginals than Asians.
But, migrants from other Indonesian islands now make up about half the local population. Some of these incomers consider the traditional Papuan way of life backward and uncivilised.
Layers of grievance have built up over the decades.
“We have had enough,” Anton, a tribal leader, said. “Indonesia has committed crimes, killing people and other human rights abuses.
“We want freedom, justice and democracy.”
A rebel commander, Goliath Tabuni, sits at Anton’s right hand. Compared to the chief’s traditional body decorations, the commander looks a bit dishevelled in his floppy camouflage hat.
But, in terms of their passion for the cause, they are equals.
“This is my land,” Goliath said. “Our ancestors gave us this land. Indonesia has stolen it from us.”
Over the years, there have been serious abuses committed by the Indonesian security forces. Accusations of torture and rape persist.
But, under the democratically elected government of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the military and police are being reformed.
In a statement responding to the Newsnight programme, the Indonesian embassy in London said: “No one in Indonesia will ever condone human rights violations.
“Therefore, it is a sad fact if one still judges Indonesia by the old yardsticks.
“We can confirm that all human rights abuses will be duly investigated in
“Indonesia and, if proven guilty by the court, all abusers of human rights will be punished. No one is immune.” – BBC