A Forgotten Genocide. New article from British magazine. Please read.

Illustration Genocide In the Land of Papua , Indonesia By ( Photos , )
 By . Tom Davies #
Imagine a protest. A protest against the actions of a tyrannical, oppressive military administration totally intolerant of dissent. Now imagine that protest was broken up in a coordinated attack by police and military forces, killing dozens of unarmed civilians and capturing many others. Imagine many of those taken into custody being raped, tortured and horrifically mutilated by their captors. Now where would you imagine events like this would have taken place? Syria perhaps? Or maybe North Korea? Perhaps under one of the particularly bloodthirsty dictatorships in Africa or South America? You would consider something like this a massacre. A heinous crime by a government against its people which you would hope would cause an outcry from the international community.

You’d be wrong on all counts. The events described took place in 1998, in a place which, were it not for its political situation might be considered a paradise in the middle of the south pacific. You’ve probably never even heard of it before, just as you’ve probably never heard of the 1998 Biak Massacre before. Events like these are not unusual there; they’re framed against a backdrop of half of century of conflict and aggressive military occupation. They call this region West Papua, but you may know it best as the other half of the island upon which sits Papua New Guinea, a place better known internationally for debatable tales of cannibalism than its neighbour, which has been occupied by Indonesia since the 1960s, where atrocities and conflict are an all too regular occurrence.

I first learned about West Papua almost by sheer chance when attending a panel debate in London last year. The debate was on outmanoeuvring tyranny and included figures such as the legal representative of the Free Syrian Army and a noted anti government activist from Azerbaijan. However it was a strange figure sitting at the end of the panel that seemed of most interest to the crowd, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt and tribal headdress. The head of the panel introduced him as Benny Wenda, an independence leader from West Papua. Wenda was 37 years old at the time, but you could be forgiven for thinking him ten years older, which in the context of his life is hardly surprising.

Wenda was born in 1975 in Baliem Valley in the West Papuan highlands, thirteen years after the Indonesian annexation of the region. When he was just one years old the Indonesian military bombed his village in response to an uprising of the highland Lani people against Indonesian military rule. Many of Wenda’s family were killed in the repeated airstrikes and he himself incurred a severe leg injury, resulting in impaired growth. For the next six years Wenda and many other West Papuan highlanders lived in hiding in the jungles of central West Papua. After the Lani people finally surrendered to the Indonesian government, he went on to study at a University in Jayapura, West Papua’s largest city, and became a noted independence leader and Secretary General of Demmak, the Koteka Tribal Assembly.

In 2002 Wenda was imprisoned for leading a procession at an Independence rally which allegedly turned violent. This occurred during a clampdown on the Independence Movement only a few months after the assassination of noted pro-independence figure Theys Eluay. Facing a 25 year prison sentence, Wenda escaped from custody whilst on trial and was able to flee across the border to Papua New Guinea, where he was reunited with his wife, Maria, at a refugee camp and granted political asylum in the United Kingdom. He now lives with his family just outside Oxford, and campaigns for West Papuan Independence at events such as the one I attended.

During the debate in London it was Wenda that stole the show. Under any other normal circumstances any of the other panellists, distinguished activists and campaigners all would have been of great interest to any self-respecting political wonk. But it was Wenda who captured the imagination of the audience; his story was so tragically untold, half of the well educated crowd had until that morning not even been aware that the land of his birth existed. His story was so beautifully sad, so poignant and when he rounded off his plea with a rendition of a song he had written whilst imprisoned on a handmade ukulele painted with the flag of West Papua independence, you could see some members of the audience barely able to choke back tears. Which, in a room filled with hardnosed young political activists and other assorted current affairs buffs, is quite something indeed.

West Papua is often labelled as a forgotten genocide. The atrocities committed by the Indonesian government are simply too diplomatically unimportant, too far outside of western spheres of influence to be deemed worthy of much note by most media sources, or of much action by western governments. The conflict is completely unheard of by the vast majority of people, but it is estimated that 100,000 people have been displaced, and from 100,000 to over 400,000 people may have died over the past fifty years; a high proportion of those civilians. Countless Independence leaders have been arrested, imprisoned or assassinated by the Indonesian military. However, despite the occupiers worst excesses, the United Nations has provided Indonesia with diplomatic support and neighbouring nations, such as Papua New Guinea and Australia, have pursued policies of appeasement towards Indonesian control of West Papua. Apart from a handful of activists and politicians abroad, the West Papuan people stand virtually alone, deprived of their right to self determination and largely ignored by the international community.

The scale of the violence in such a reasonably small and sparsely populated nation is equalled only by the excessiveness of the Indonesian response to pro-independence activities. In 1978, five leaders of pro-independence faction, the OPM, surrendered to save the village they were caught in and were subsequently beaten to death with red hot iron bars and their bodies thrown into a pit latrine. The 125 villagers were then machine gunned down as suspected OPM sympathisers. In 1981, 10 Papuans were killed and 58 disappeared without a trace in the Paniai region, whilst later that year an estimated 13,000 Papuans were killed in the central highlands from September to December. On June 24 1985 in the same region, 2,500 people were killed in a single day. In July 2009, after the raising of the Morning Star flag (an act deemed illegal by the Indonesian government) in the West Papuan village of Jugum, more than 30 homes were burnt to the ground by the military, and in 2011 at least five people were killed when police opened fire on an independence rally. These are just a snapshot of the extreme violence committed during a conflict, which shows no signs of stopping.

Indonesia has found in West Papua what might be referred to as its Vietnam. A war it can never truly win against an indigenous populace who clearly do not accept its place as their vassal. The difference is, despite the brutal methods and significant military might used to quash the dissent, the violence has continued unabated for over fifty years. Indonesia has not relented in its claims of sovereignty over the region and, whilst its activities in West Papua remain shielded from international scrutiny, why would it?

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