However, their struggle and their rights have been ignored not only by the media, but also by the leaders of the international community, who worry more about how the possible “Balkanisation” of Indonesia would affect their economies than about the lives and future of West Papuans. The fact that West Papuans are sitting on some of the world’s richest deposits of oil, copper, gold and silver does not help. In fact, that is a large part of the reason they are suffering now.
Everything started back in the 1950s, when the Netherlands – which ruled West Papua since 1883 – recognised the Papuan right to self-determination in accordance with Article 72 of the Charter of the United Nation. Had not Indonesia interfered, West Papua would have achieved self-determination by 1970 – as happened to the eastern part of the island, Papua New Guinea, which gained full independence from the British in 1975.
But Indonesia wanted to integrate West Papua into its territories, and in 1961, Indonesian president Sukarno chose armed conflict to force the issue at a time when the first parliament had already been installed in West Papua and the national anthem and Papuan flag had been introduced. The Dutch government agreed with the US and Indonesia – with the support of the United Nations – to transfer sovereignty to Indonesia. After years of terror and repression, a fraudulent ‘referendum was held in 1969, when 1,025 people voted under duress, on behalf of a population of a million, to join Indonesia.
Since then, West Papuans have suffered genocide while the country’s resources have been taken away by US Free Port, mining gold and copper and by Britain BP’s gas projects. Their land and culture is under threat as the Indonesians keep implementing a very aggressive transmigration policy – with many similarities to the Plantation in Ireland.
For West Papuans, the so-called democratisation of Indonesia has not meant any change. The governments of Sukarno, Suharto, Wahid or Sukarno’s daughter’s, Megawati Sukarnoputri, have only brought them increasing suffering and repression.
But West Papuans feel that their time have come. They rely on the East Timor experience to know it is possible to break away from the Indonesian colonial power, but again, the international community’s role is crucial for their plans. This is the reason why Karoba is back in Ireland.
Phoblacht: The last time you visited Ireland, in the summer of 2001, Wahid was president of Indonesia. Since then, he has been deposed and Megawati Sukarnoputri has taken the reins of the country. How has this change affected West Papua’s situation?
Sem Karoba: The presidency of Megawati is like Suharto’s. The military are the main players in politics. However, they have changed their ways: they would ask Parliament to approve their bills, as some of their activities in Aceh and West Papua need parliamentary sanction. However, there are many army representatives who sit in parliament. They have money and power, and the reason they use to justify their actions is that this is the only way to preserve Indonesia as it is. This is the way of nationalism. So, the politicians do not have the strength to argue with them. Even Megawati cannot take any action against those members of the army who were behind the attack against her office in 1997. The army officer in command at the time of the attack is now on his second term as governor of Jakarta city.
AP: In 2001, you mentioned that there were possibilities of advancing the situation while Wahid was in power, as he was more of a negotiator. What about Megawati?
SK: Now the door is closed. They are not talking any more. Since the last time I was in Ireland, Theys Eluay, the leader of the West Papuan Presidium Council, has been killed (the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy reported that he had been abducted, tortured and assassinated). I left Ireland in October 2001 and I was still travelling when news of his death reached me in November. Another elder from the area I am from was also poisoned after attending a meeting on sustainable development in Bali.
Finishing off the leaders was the policy after Megawati came to power. She actually proposed this policy to Wahid – we have gotten hold of this document recently – who opposed it. As soon as she took power, she started killing the leaders in Aceh and West Papua.
Due to pressure from the international community – who are pushing for the idea of autonomy – she had to order the withdrawal of the Indonesian Special Forces from West Papua at the beginning of the month. This was due to their many mistakes, like the killing of two US citizens last year. So now, officially the Special Forces are not present in West Papua, but they are still there, and the militia is still there.
AP: What are West Papuans doing at the moment?
SK: What we are trying to do is bring our situation to the attention of the international community. The Indonesians are not interested in dialogue, so we need international pressure. They go to London, New York and Canberra to ask for opinion and these three countries are telling them that Indonesia should keep West Papua. If Indonesia took over West Papua when the Dutch left it was not only because they wanted to do it, but because the international community allowed them to do it. So now we are going to the international lobby to ask them to force Indonesia into dialogue.
AP: The problem is that the international community is now too focused on what is happening in relation to Iraq to actually worry about West Papua.
SK: Our strategy is to lobby quietly now, so when out time comes we will be ready. We have increased the number of our grassroots supporters in England, for example, and I expect to do the same in Ireland, so we can send a clear message to the politicians in relation to the situation in West Papua.
AP: How has 9/11 and the new international scenario of war affected the situation of West Papua?
SK: Indonesia is the biggest Islamic state in Asia. Many members of the Muslim Jihad and Muslim extremists have gone into hiding in Indonesia. I have personally come across some of them in West Papua and in Indonesia. Examples of their activity are the bombing in Bali and the increased killings in West Papua. Now, in the name of Islam, they are giving guns and coverage to all these people, telling them that to defend the integrity of Indonesia is the same as defending Islam, that is the message they are sending. Maluku and West Papuans are Christians and the Indonesian government is sending all those Jihad troops to these areas. So, this is one of the reasons why the international community is listening more to us.
The support of the international community for our cause it is not clear yet, because most of the international powers have important business dealings with Indonesia.
AP: You have met several politicians here in Ireland. What has their reaction been?
SK: Their reaction has been positive, because they have a historical knowledge of why independence is so important. They welcome our presence; they support our cause as long as we defend it in a democratic way. But to make it work we need their support.
Indonesian politicians do not even reply to our approaches, but they will listen to international opinion.
I am here to learn about the Irish process and the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. I want to listen to those who were involved in the negotiations and I want to meet those who worked behind the scenes. A process of this kind is very difficult, but they started it and they are on the way to completion. We want something similar to take place in West Papua.
It is difficult, and many people in my country, and mostly in the area I am from, would not support any kind of dialogue with Indonesians, and that is what I want to learn, how to deal with all these situations.