IT’S TIME TO ENGAGE THE WORLD
All Photos Courtesy of Justin Blake May. All Rights Reserved.
“Free West Papua!”
“Free West Papua!”
Dozens of individuals assembled on Parliament Street on October 31st ; their solemn faces, complexions varying from milky to mahogany, were framed by throngs of forceful picket signs. Some old friends, most complete strangers, became united under the banner of a single cause: vicious crimes of humanity against the tribal peoples of West Papua. Just around the corner, a war criminal responsible for the killing of 500,000 West Papuans indulged in splendor and praise as a guest of the Queen. This week, the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will be knighted – just a fortnight after his army soldiers physically assaulted and opened fire on photojournalists, activists, and students at an independence rally in the Papuan city, Manokwari.
“He’s not a hero!”
“He’s a killer!”
We chanted between bursts of blistering wind, caught in swirling gusts of fallen leaves. Here we raised the Morning Star, the flag of West Papua, which whipped about in the wind as if it had a life of its own. Under the Yudhoyono regime, Indigenous West Papuans can receive 15 years in prison for the same act on Papuan land. This symbolic act of resistance was lost on most spectators – people used to emblazing the Union Jack on everything from umbrellas to platform shoes – but those in attendance recognized the significance of a British flag and a Morning Star, waving in unison.
“Get Indonesia out of West Papua!”
Ethnically distinct from Indonesians, West Papuans have more in common genetically with Australian aboriginals, though their cultures are extraordinarily unique. The island of New Guinea alone is home to 700 different languages, 250 ethnic groups, and a wealth of endemic and vibrant biodiversity. An idiosyncratic landmass in almost every sense, the island is marbled with oil, natural gas, precious metals and timber, which streak through the dense, largely unchartered landscape like ripples of melted gold. The only difference between the west coast and the east is that one is independent while the other is controlled by an unrelenting foreign power, keen on hoarding resources by symbolically annihilating the nation therein.
Men, women, and children at numbers estimated to be around half a million have died at the hands of Indonesian Special Forces. Peaceful protests have been shattered, villages have been burned, women have been raped, and political leaders have been assassinated. Their crime: demanding the right to self-determination and sustainable uses of the land. This hidden struggle, rarely publicized, is muffled by prohibitions enacted by the Indonesian government that prevent local and foreign journalists from reporting on arrests, fatalities, and political unrest. Yudhoyono repeatedly minimizes the situation with the excuse that Indonesian security forces have overreacted at times, but that overall attacks have been “on a small scale with limited victims.” If there is anything worse than genocide, it is genocide without a voice. This isn’t to suggest, however, that West Papuans have nothing to say.
Those West Papuans able to attend the October 31st protest are avid, unabating freedom fighters, conscientious of their potential to hold Western nations accountable for freeing West Papua from colonialism. A group of Melanesian men traveled all the way from the Netherlands to participate in the few hours we spent huddled together, our vital voices reverberating off stone walls. The family of Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and chairmen of the Koteka Tribal Assembly — who at one time was threatened with death but managed to seek asylum as an exile in England – attended in high spirits, toting cakes and hot drinks. An activist and dedicated member of the UK-based TAPOL organization, dressed in a witch’s mask. She told me while laughing, “This protest is on Halloween! It should be considered a ghoulish surprise welcome for the President.”
The UN once intervened in the late 1960s due to widespread dissatisfaction with Indonesian rule, and decreed an official vote to determine independence. The Act of Free Choice, as the election was termed, has come to be known instead as “The Act of No Choice”; declaring that the Papuans were too “primitive” to cope with democracy, the Indonesian military selected only 1,026 representative Papuans from a population of one million to participate. The Indonesian government then systematically ensured that each representative received death threats directed towards not only themselves but also their families if they voted in favor of self-rule. The result, of course, was unanimous: West Papua would remain governed by Indonesia. A tragedy, as West Papua had only just obtained sovereignty from Dutch rule in 1962.
“President Yudhoyono, you don’t scare us!”
The philosophy of Interwoven is that the current large-scale, open systems that drive the world’s development paradigm are inefficient and breaking down. This includes the ways in which our economic systems depend on the exploitation of natural resources and the means through which political alliances too often depend on forging alliances to ensure the ownership of these increasingly scarce commodities. A recent press release from David Cameron’s office read,
“The Prime Minister told the President [Yudhoyono] that he was delighted that BP has just signed a £7.5bn development in liquid natural gas in Indonesia. He said that it was a huge boost to the UK’s growing trade and investment in Indonesia’s emerging market. He also welcomed the recent expansion of the financial sector in Indonesia and said he hoped many more British companies would be able to follow suit. President Yudhoyono agreed and said that in particular he would welcome more British investment in infrastructure in Indonesia…The Prime Minister discussed with the President how to ensure respect for human rights in regions such as Papua, while maintaining Indonesian territorial integrity.”
This news bodes poorly for the future of West Papua, as corporations such as the American owned Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold Inc. and the British multinational, metals and mining corporation, Rio Tinto, already devastate sacred forests and ignore customary land rights. There is no such thing as both respecting human rights in West Papua while raping the fertile landscape.
At Interwoven, we foresee a future where Indigenous voices can lend their expertise on collaboration, sharing, and ecological knowledge. We foresee a day when corporations accept limits on natural resources and calculate the full price of environmental damages into their products. We hope for international, political alliances that hold governments accountable for human rights abuses which destroy culture, women’s rights, and human capabilities for innovation and flourishing. Systems currently operate in such a way that make us ill-prepared for the modern-day dilemmas of climate change, food and water scarcity, pollution, and poverty. It needs to change – and every year we put it off, the stakes become much higher.
Although Buckingham Palace’s warm reception of a man whose acts have diminished the lives and capabilities of thousands was disheartening, the dynamic, spirited upwelling of dissatisfaction on the streets of London radiated confidence and possibility. One Papuan man told me, “Every time we gather like this in the West, it sends a beam of light back to a very dark place.” Amnesty International and Survival International were both in attendance. Filmmakers, high school students, and older men and women who remember the turmoil in East Timor stood strong. A deep-seated sense of injustice is intensifying, and as a result, Western political consciousness and media attention are expanding. Although the future of West Papua’s self-determination is unknown, one thing is certain: for as long as this struggle continues, West Papuans will never lose spirit. The tell tale heartbeat of West Papua reverberated throughout each of us this Halloween, and I know that President Yudhoyono heard it also. Like the character in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story [http://www.literature.org/authors/poe-edgar-allan/tell-tale-heart.html], it is only a matter of time before his conscience drives him to madly wrench open the floorboards at his feet and reveal the body he has hidden beneath.
For more information on how to become involved in West Papua’s struggle for independence, please visit the following websites.
(And check out the Washington Post article which features a picture of Altaire!)