Indonesian police firing tear gas against student demonstrators, in Jayapura, October 27, 2020. Photo by the courtesy ULMWP.


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West Papuan Autumn

The death of an infant in late October sums up two decades of “Special Autonomy” in West Papua. At the turn of the year, the Indonesian-controlled western half of New Guinea’s current political status expires—and while a vast majority of its people demand independence Indonesian authorities step up its repression against any form of dissatisfaction. “Martial Law is being imposed,” states Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

By Klas Lundström

The coffin is tiny; perhaps a meter long and a half meter wide. Grieving hands cover parts of the cross that adorn the coffin lid. Men and women stand in a circle around it, overseeing the passing of youth—yet another member of the future generation—being handed over to Mother Earth.

In the coffin lies Hiskia Arambo, a boy who was still growing inside his mother when his whole family—along with hundreds of other families—escaped the Indonesian military’s bomb raids on Nduga Regency, in West Papua’s central highlands. He was born in displacement, on February 14, 2020. On Valentine’s Day. Eight months later, he died due to illness on October 20, buried outside the city of Wamena.

The coffin of infant Hiskia Arambo, soon to be buried outside the city of Wamena. The 8-month-old child was born in displacement and died due to illness, far away from adequate health care and medicines. Photo obtained from sources in West Papua.

Different realities

Hiskia Arambo is not the first of approximately 40,000 civilians who has died in displacement, in poor living conditions as refugees in the central highland’s jungles and snow-capped mountain ranges. This is where they ended up, due to the ongoing armed conflict between the West Papuan guerrilla movement Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) and the Indonesian military—which escalated in December 2018, after Indonesian road workers were executed by the guerrillas.

Hiskia Arambo’s name is yet another addition to the ever-growing list of lost lives which exceeds 300 deaths, according to human rights organizations that Global Magazine has spoken to.

The Indonesian government, however—and where defense minister Prabowo Subianto, accused of human rights abuses in both Indonesia and East Timor, is responsible for the country’s West Papua policy—does not acknowledge the ongoing conflict, let alone that the number of internally displaced persons exceeds 40,000.

“With regard to the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs), data from the Ministry of Social Affairs recorded that there were approximately 2,000 people that were affected by the situation in Nduga”, Yohanes Kristiarto Soeryo Legowo— Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia—told ABC.

Widely different realities where thousands of people, according to the official Indonesian statistics, do not exist.

“Special Autonomy”—flattened promises

At the end of 2001, the Indonesian Parliament passed Law 21/2001, which handed the province of “Papua” its “Special Autonomy,” which on paper provided the provincial government with a larger mandate. Above all, it stated that large parts of West Papua’s lucrative financial revenues would trickle down to the local population and not—as hitherto—solely enrich the central government in Jakarta.

“The special autonomy legislation gave the provincial government authority over decision making in all sectors except international affairs, defence, monetary and fiscal policy, religion and justice, as well as a far higher share of the revenue originating in Papua than applied to other provinces. It specified that the province would receive 80 per cent of the revenues from its forestry, fishery and mining sectors, and 70 per cent of the revenues from its oil and gas sector until 2026, and 50 per cent there­ after,” concluded a 2014 report.

Indonesia was, however, “slow” in implementing Law 21/2001, and prior to its realization in 2003, the region had additionally been divided into two separate provinces: Papua and West Papua. Despite these changes, Indonesia’s promise of an improved tomorrow in its far-eastern corner has not yet contributed to improvements in fighting poverty, nor improving human rights or putting an end to systematic racism that excludes local Papuans from a labor market controlled by Indonesian businesses and transmigrants.

The split of western New Guinea into several provinces has contributed to confusion regarding statistics on poverty reduction, jobs and social justice; conclusions and data ultimately directed by Indonesian authorities, as few independent organizations, reporters nor the United Nations have been granted access during the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Indonesia, though, recognize West Papua as its poorest corner, where over 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to the capital Jakarta’s ditto of 3.47 percent.

High poverty rates, despite a 20-year-old promise of increased autonomy, greater revenues from business activities, and although West Papua is home to oil-rich sea beds, shelter some of the planet’s richest fishing waters and havens the world’s largest gold and copper mine (Grasberg, also known as the Freeport mine).

The causes of West Papua’s acute and systematic injustices are—says Benny Wenda, chairman of the political liberation movement ULMWP—two-headed:

“There is a double pandemic in West Papua: a pandemic of Covid-19 and a pandemic of racism. One way lies the coronavirus – the other way lies the Indonesian military. This medical disaster is made worse by the hunger and destitution of displacement,” Benny Wenda says in a statement.

On October 27, Catholic preacher Rafinus Tigau was killed near his home in Nabire. Killed by Indonesian security forces, according to local witnesses. Photo obtained by sources in West Papua.

“Martial Law in all but name”

In recent days, social media has been flooded with images, testimonies and information that reinforces the image of an Indonesian central government which, inch by inch, seems to squander its control of the region’s social and political tide.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, Indonesian military and police patrol rural paths and city roads to keep people indoors. On October 27, another religious leader—the Catholic preacher Rafinus Tigau—was killed near his home in Nabire, according to testimonies killed by Indonesian security forces. Indonesian military have accused Rafinus Tigau of being linked to the OPM.

“That is not true. Rafinus has long been a preacher of the Catholic church in Jalae,” Father Marthen tells online news outlet Jubi.

Rafinus Tigau’s dead body was found near his home, crammed into a hole covered with banana leaves.

In Jayapura, pictures and testimonies witnessed of students being shot and assaulted by Indonesian military in the wake of a peaceful demonstration.

“This is martial law in all but name. You cannot walk through an urban center in West Papua today without being stopped by police, without meeting a military checkpoint. Every demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with mass arrests and police brutality,” says Benny Wenda.

Socratez Yoman, pastor and human rights activist, also condemns the violence of the Indonesian military and police, and expresses sorrow for “five lost decades,” where the central government in Jakarta consistently has failed to evaluate the appalling human rights situation and seek to improve everyday life in West Papua. In such a state of constant intimidation, even the last sanctuaries for dialogue—the churches—is seen as an enemy target:

“The murders of our church leaders are barbaric and criminal actions. What our church leaders are talking about is the truth, justice, peace, equality and human dignity—about human dignity,” Socratez Yoman tells Global.

”The UN has an obligation”

According to Benny Wenda Indonesia is “panicking” in the wake of the increasing concerns over West Papua coming from the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month, and Vanuatu’s outcry against the Indonesian West Papua policy at the UN General Assembly in September. Still, there is no one who knows for sure what awaits West Papua and its population on the other side of the expiration of Special Autonomy.

Hiskia Arambo is but one of many West Papuans who was never given the chance to grow up and live his own life, let alone discern an ending to the current conflict and humanitarian crisis—a fate forced upon West Papua back in the 1960s, and one which will endure as long as history keeps repeating itself, says Benny Wenda.

“These brave students, like all the people of West Papua, are fighting to right this historic wrong. The UN has an obligation to our people to help us, to help free us from Indonesian colonialism,” Benny Wenda tells Global Magazine.

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