Aug 21, 2018 Last Updated 4:06 AM, Aug 20, 2018

Plea for West Papua


Annie Feith

A human rights activist responds to Ed Aspinall’s ‘Papuan Fantasies’, published in the last edition of Inside Indonesia.

I imagine that I may be one of the people that Ed Aspinall has in mind when he refers to those ‘in parts of the left and the Christian social justice lobby’ who look to Indonesia and ‘see only Papua’. West Papua has only recently entered the consciousness of large numbers of Australians. Before that those concerned and knowledgeable about what is happening there was limited to scholars, church leaders who had direct contact with people in West Papua and human rights activists such as myself. I am in contact with many of the above mentioned people, all of whom share my concern for the right of West Papuans to dignity, the right to live in peace and the right to justice in the face of state perpetrated violence, along with everyone else on the planet. Like me, they are not anti-Indonesia or anti-Muslim. On the contrary many of us have a longstanding involvement with Indonesia.

Aspinall asks why we focus on West Papua rather than responding to human rights abuses elsewhere in Indonesia, accusing us of romanticising the independence struggle. If I examine my motives in working towards a just and peaceful West Papua, it is because as a fellow human being I believe that forty three years is too long for people to live under repression. As a human rights advocate, it is not for me to advocate independence, but rather to listen to what West Papuans themselves are saying; which is that they have not forgotten their betrayal at the hands of the international community in the 1960s. This keen sense of betrayal has been inflamed by the harsh nature of Indonesian rule over the past four decades. This is why when West Papuans call for dialogue, part of this dialogue must include an open discussion about the circumstances in which they became incorporated into Indonesia Once this has been acknowledged, then a process of negotiation can begin.

Racism or religion?

He also suggests racism and ‘Islamophobia’ motivates some supporters of West Papua. Whilst West Papuans themselves are worried about their increasing marginalisation as a result of uncontrolled arrivals of migrants, many of whom are Muslim, church and NGO leaders point out that they work co-operatively together with Muslims, both indigenous and Indonesian in their peace building efforts. No doubt some Australian Christians are motivated by a sense of solidarity with their fellow Christians in West Papua, however I do not believe that this a motivating factor for those like myself who are committed to human rights protection for all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Aspinall suggests support for West Papua could be a form of neo-colonialism, part of a reprisal of the ‘white man’s burden’. There are certainly some supporters of West Papua who feel that Australia and the Netherlands let West Papuans down when the governments of these countries reversed their stance and supported the Indonesian take over of West Papua. But this does not entail a desire to control the destiny of West Papuans — it signals a sense of shame at their governments’ support for the denial of West Papuans to decide their own destiny. Aspinall is wrong to say that our concern for human rights in West Papua prevents us from ‘viewing other Indonesians, too, as human beings’. This is simply not true. Contrary to what Aspinall refers to as ‘some improvements since the fall of Suharto’, the situation on the ground has markedly deteriorated since 2002. Following a brief period of political openness during Gus Dur’s presidency, there has been an increase in political repression and a refusal on the part of the central government to engage in genuine dialogue with West Papuan leaders. It is in the interests of people who support the democratic transition in Indonesia to support a demilitarised and democratic West Papua. West Papuans should have the right to speak without fear about their aspirations, and it makes no sense to ignore the fact that this means talking about self-determination, and the circumstances in which West Papua became part of Indonesia.

Annie Feith (annie@cohre.org) is a West Papua human rights advocate.


Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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