Earlier this week, a petition signed by more than 1.8 million people calling for an independence referendum in Indonesia’s West Papua province was delivered to United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), said he hoped the UN would send a fact-finding mission to the province to substantiate allegations of human rights violations.
“Today is a historic day for me and for my people,” Mr Wenda said after the meeting in Geneva.
Local media reported Indonesia’s Minister for Defence, Ryamizard Ryacudu, told Parliament: “[They’re] not allowed independence. Full stop.”
The embattled Indonesian province has had a decades-long independence struggle, with its identity torn between several conflicting stakeholders.
Here’s a look at where West Papua is, the problems it faces, and how things might turn out in the future.
West Papua and Papua New Guinea … what’s the difference?
West Papua and Papua, often referred to collectively as West Papua, are the easternmost provinces of Indonesia and their acquisition has been the cause of controversy for more than 60 years.
West Papua shares its borders and cultural ethnicity with Papua New Guinea, but while PNG was colonised by the British, prior to German and Australian administration, West Papua was colonised by the Dutch, setting it on a different course.
According to the Indonesian Centre of Statistics and the World Bank, West Papua’s regional GDP per capita is significantly higher than the national average, mainly due to mining.
However, it is also the most impoverished region in the country with the highest mortality rates in children and expectant mothers, as well as the poorest literacy rates.
What is happening now and what is the history?
Control of West Papua was agreed to be transferred to Indonesia from the Dutch with the assistance of the United States government as a part of a US Cold War strategy to distance Indonesia from Soviet influence in 1962.
Prior to this, Australia had also supported the West Papuan bid for Independence, but backtracked due to a Cold War security logic to minimise ‘the arc of instability’.
The Netherlands and Indonesia signed the New York Agreement, which would place Indonesia under UN Temporary Executive Authority until a referendum that would allow all adult West Papuans to decide on the fate of their independence, called the Act of Free Choice.
But in 1967, the Indonesian government signed a 30-year lease with US gold and copper mining company Freeport-McMoran to start mining in the resource-rich region, prior to the referendum.
Two years later, according to historians, a number of men were handpicked to vote under the monitor of the Indonesian military and voted unanimously to remain under Indonesian rule. It has since been dubbed the “Act of No Choice” by activists.View image on Twitter
Today on behalf of #ULMWP & the people of #WestPapua, I presented the #WestPapuan people’s petition for #SelfDetermination to the #UnitedNations @UNHumanRights in Geneva, signed by over 1.8 million #WestPapuans, https://www.ulmwp.org/chairman-of-the-ulmwp-celebrates-handing-in-of-west-papuan-peoples-petition-to-un-high-commissioner …1497:30 AM – Jan 26, 2019121 people are talking about thisTwitter Ads info and privacy
Indonesia and its representatives at the UN have since repeatedly rejected claims of human rights abuses in the region and demands for another referendum, saying the allegations have been spread by “Papuan separatist movements”.
Clashes have occasionally broken out. In December, Indonesian police claimedindependence supporters killed 19 people working at an Indonesian-owned construction company.
On Monday, the Indonesian military said separatists opened fire on an aircraft carrying military personal and local goverment officials, killing one soldier.
But verifying any information is difficult because of restrictions on press freedom and the remoteness of the location.
In 2015, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced he would open the region to foreign journalists following decades of media blockades and bureaucratic red tape, but a series of statements by foreign journalists suggests otherwise.
‘Cultural genocide’ or separatist exaggeration?
A 2004 report from Yale Law School said the Indonesian government had “acted with necessary intent to … perpetrate genocide against the people of West Papua”, a claim the Indonesian government has strongly denied.
Activists have been imprisoned for displaying the West Papuan pro-independence Morning Star flag, and say they face discrimination and are subject to violent attacks for expressions of political views.
There have also been a number of military crackdowns that have been referred to by Human Rights Watch as “high priority” human rights abuse cases.
The number of insurgencies in the region has declined as the Papuan indigenous population halved due to government policies of transmigration.
The late West Papuan academic and activist John Otto Ondawame described the situation as “cultural genocide”.
Transmigration refers to the government resettling Indonesians from high-population regions to low-population areas, which was formally ended by Mr Widodo in 2015.
The program was deemed controversial by analysts as it involved permanently moving people from densely populated areas of Java to sparsely population regions such as Papua.
It has been criticised as causing fears of the “Javanisation”, or “Islamisation” of Papua, resulting in strengthened separatist movements and violence in the region.
How might things play out now?
It’s hard to say.
In 2017, Mr Wenda said he had presented a similar petition with the signatures of 1.8 million peopledemanding a vote on independence to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, although it became unclear whether the decolonisation committee actually received the documents.
This time, Mr Wenda was accompanying a ni-Vanuatu delegation in Geneva and reportedly presented the document to the UN’s human rights wing rather than the decolonisation committee.
Mr Wenda told the ABC he was hopeful the new petition delivered to a different branch of the UN would have an impact.
“We hope that she will deliver the petition to the secretary-general to review [the referendum] of 1969, and give the people of West Papua [the opportunity] to choose its own destiny,” he said.
But the head of the Presidential Palace in Indonesia told local journalists this week, “The UN will respect Indonesia’s sovereignty”.
In the past, the ULMWP, along with other international activists, have called on the UN to review the 1969 referendum and investigate human rights abuses in the region.
These requests have been repeatedly rejected by the UN and Indonesia has continued its administrative powers over the region.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO: Five key things to know about West Papua (ABC News)