Slow genocide in Papua?
Before the horrifying 15 March mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand was best recognized for its knock-out landscapes and relaxed lifestyle.
The South Pacific islands have a population smaller than Surabaya. On Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index, NZ usually features as the least corrupt. On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Register it’s also number one.
There’s another fact that’s little known – except among supporters of human rights: NZ hosts movements backing separatists 7,700 kilometers distant.
About 15 percent of the 4.7 million people in Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) are Maori and a further seven per cent Pacific Islanders. Both groups tend to champion independence for the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.
So does retired social worker Maire Leadbeater, whose seventh and latest book See No Evil blames NZ for ‘betraying’ the Melanesians who last century were colonized by the Dutch. However following a UN supervised referendum in 1969 the western side of the island of New Guinea has been part of Indonesia.
Leadbeater sees this as the root of today’s turmoil because only just over a thousand Papuans, handpicked by the military, were allowed to vote.
It was called the Act of Free Choice, but the author labels it ‘neither free, nor a choice’ – something young Papuans are starting to discuss as they discover histories at odds with the Jakarta version.
Leadbeater, 73, who comes from a well-known family of robust political activists, is no casual placard-waver. She was involved in the successful quest to keep NZ nuclear-free, which led to a ban on visits by US warships.
As a prominent barracker for East Timor’s independence she was awarded the Order of Timor Leste.
Now she’s spokesperson for Auckland’s West Papua Action Group and clearly taken seriously by the Indonesian Government. Two years ago it appointed Tantowi Yahya as ambassador.
Yahya was one of the best known faces on Indonesian TV as host of the top-rating quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire? Now he has the tough task of persuading Kiwis that allegations of human rights abuses in Papua are hoaxes, and that separatism is only backed by a tiny minority manipulated by outsiders.
Leadbeater won’t buy it, and in See No Evil sets out the troubled history of the two provinces which are controlled from Jakarta, 3,670 kilometers west, though they’ve recently gained some degree of autonomy.
The book, published by the University of Otago Press, was released just ahead of two major developments: First was a shocking incident in late December when a road gang pushing a highway through the interior was ambushed.
At least 19 men were shot (reports are confusing); the army is currently hunting the killers.Then in January a petition allegedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans seeking an internationally supervised referendum on independence was handed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Leadbeater quotes academics claiming there’s been ‘soft’ or ‘slow genocide’ over the decades with estimates of 500,000 dying of fighting, malnutrition and disease. The HIV rate is 15 times greater than in the rest of the Republic.
About one million mainly Muslim farmers from overcrowded Java have migrated to Papua, which is predominantly Christian. President Joko Widodo has regularly insisted that road building is a high priority.
Highways will benefit new settlers but the indigenous owners see development speeding the destruction of their culture.
It seems the Melanesians are doomed, like the Aborigines in Australia and Maori in NZ, to become a minority in their own land. Entrepreneurs are moving in to fell the forests, plough plantations and plunder the minerals.
Leadbeater’s book is no inflammatory tract but a scholarly account of the region’s history and present plight. Papua’s blessing – and curse – is to be resource-rich.
Prime is Grasberg, the world’s largest gold and second largest copper mine on the Puncak Jaya mountain. Reserves are worth an estimated US $100 billion.
This is Indonesia’s largest taxpayer so even if the government was prepared to stare down the nationalists and give in to the separatists – which is highly unlikely - it couldn’t cope with the financial losses.
Till recently the mine was majority-owned by the US company Freeport McMoRan but the Indonesian government took control last year in a US $3.8 billion deal. The torrent of money flowing to Jakarta should now increase along with the development of downstream industries.
It’s here that Leadbeater is in a bind. She knows the economic reality, but acceptance would undermine her argument for change. For her a particular concern is the Indonesian government’s fondness for using military might to solve social issues.
The policy didn’t work in Aceh where a long-running civil rebellion only ended this century with negotiations in another country.
The author lists the many alleged abuses of human rights, corruption – including the payment of US $20 million by the company to generals - destruction of the environment and maltreatment of the population; these are all serious issues which only seem to be addressed piecemeal.
Nationalism is growing fast in Indonesia where the nation is defined as Merdeka dari Sabang sampai Merauke – free from Sabang at the top of Sumatra, to Merauke on the border with Papua New Guinea.
Any hint that Papua might secede like East Timor would cause an uprising of anger which could trigger violence. This would most likely be directed at Australasia which conspirators believe is plotting to fracture the Republic. Whatever the NGOs say and do, Australia and NZ governments officially recognize the Papuan provinces as part of Indonesia.
For Leadbeater there’s another alternative to maintaining the distrust, pain and volatility. She wants her country to repeat its successful brokerage of the Bougainville conflict in the late 1990s by organizing a meeting of rival factions at a neutral venue.
(A civil war on the Papua New Guinea island ended when Bougainville became an autonomous province. A referendum on independence will be held later this year.)
She concludes: ‘Papuan leaders and Pacific peoples are waiting for NZ to put its efforts into helping to bring peace and justice to the people of West Papua.’ It could be a long wait.