Indigenous West Papuans Fighting For Independence From Indonesia

It's our closest international border but most Australians know very little about West Papua and its Indigenous peoples' fight for independence.

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In 1969 Indonesia seized control of West Papua from the Dutch. The Suharto government wanted control of the territory's vast natural resources.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

The fight for the territory saw over 250 Indigenous Melanesian groups, the traditional owners of the region, have their dreams for independence dashed. Since Indonesian rule began the Melanesians have continued to campaign for independence, despite arrests, torture and the murders of dissidents.

This year saw the creation of a unified West Papuan body to lobby for international support for sovereignty.

One of the leading independence campaigners, Rex Rumakiek, was a former guerrilla fighter in the jungles of West Papua. Rumakiek now lives in Melbourne. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, he says he is still under surveillance: “The Indonesian government are keeping watch, they follow us everywhere."

"The former president did send an envoy to ask us (exiled dissidents) to return to West Papua, promising to pardon us but we are not surrendering, we will never surrender."

Callum Clayton-Dixon with members of West Papuan MSG delegates. (Supplied)

West Papua is a province of Indonesia north of the Torres Strait islands off Queensland. In the past, Indonesia has been singled out by International human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Right Watch for its violence against the Indigenous Melanesian population.

Last month Callum Clayton-Dixon from the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG), a pro-Indigenous sovereignty group, travelled to Honiara in the Solomon Islands to support The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) in their bid to win a seat on the peak regional Melanesian development body called the Melanesian Spearhead Government (MSG).

"There’s the frustration that they have that they are unable to return to their country without being harassed, tortured, hunted or even killed by the Indonesian military," Clayton-Dixon says.

"That’s something that has happened in the past, West Papuan leaders speaking out have been killed. They are fighting for their country, but it's too risky for them to return."

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Rumakiek, a founding member of the ULMWP, says it's important that West Papua has its sovereignty recognised.

"We (those who have left) are considered a threat, enemies of the Indonesian government, so there is no way we can be considered normal citizens there anymore. They would like to see us 10 feet underground instead of breathing," he told BuzzFeed News.

Rumakiek points to his cousin's death as a typical punishment for anti-government rebels.

"He was dragged into a field. His legs were chopped off and a rope was tied around his neck and tied to a car which then drove in circles around him."

"My cousin was left in the field to bleed to death and no one was allowed in the circle, otherwise they would be shot, it was warning not to oppose the government."

After returning from the Melanesian Speahead Government, Rumakiek wants the Australian public to get behind his people's push for independence.

He cites the recent outrage over the deaths of Bali nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran as another reason for Australians to get involved.

"The same concern shown by Australian citizens over those men that were killed, well they should show the same concern for the citizens of West Papua."

"There was so much anger about these two lives because of a policy of the government of Indonesia. Well that same government has killed at least 500,000 West Papuans with their policies."

The Indonesian government rejects the claims that they are killing dissidents.

"On the claim that Indonesia is "committing genocide" and "killing dissidents on a daily basis", we strongly reject this absolutely baseless accusation," a government spokesman says.

The fight for recognition.

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The ULMWP lobbied MSG member groups Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for full membership to the regional Bloc, presenting over 55,000 signatures from supporters within West Papua.

Several of those who distributed the petition inside West Papua were arrested and not one person who signed the petition from within West Papua was in attendance at the summit.

The MSG denied the ULMWP full membership, but gave them observer status, an historic and symbolic step toward being recognised as independent people of West Papua.“Despite not getting full membership we welcome the decision of the leaders as it our first step to full political recognition,” ULMWP Secretary General Octovianus Mote said.

"Whilst this is the first step for West Papua, we will be working towards full membership into the MSG family. But our struggle for political recognition will not stop here, we will take it to the regional and international level as we are a nation in waiting”.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News the Indonesian government, an associate member of the MSG, says that while it respects the decision by the MSG to grant observer status to the ULMWP, they are not the true representatives of the people of West Papua.

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"When an organisation such as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua claim to represent the people of West Papua, it is not clear whom exactly and how many Papuans they are truly representing. One has to be very cautious when hearing a so-called leader of such an organisation claim to speak "on behalf of the people of Papua," a government spokesman told BuzzFeed News.

"The Papuan registered voters, including those overseas outside of Indonesia, participated in the 2014 presidential and legislative elections together with 184 million fellow voters across Indonesia, the third largest democracy in the world. They have voted for their president and their parliamentarians to represent them in Jakarta and in the capital cities of Papua and West Papua. The people of Papua and West Papua also directly elected their governors and regents.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo releases political prisoners in West Papua. (Romeo Gacad / Getty Images

Indonesian President Joko Widodo singled out West Papua as one of his priorities before being elected to office, saying he wanted to fix the fractured separatist style politics governing the area.

Visiting West Papua in May President Widodo released five political prisoners, who were jailed in 2003. Around 60 still remain in prison on treason charges, including one activist who is serving a 15-year sentence for raising the separatist Morning Star flag.

During his visit Mr Widodo announced he would lift the decades-old ban on foreign journalists entering the area. Shortly after a government official in West Papua said that journalists will need to be 'screened' before being given a permit to report. Opposition leaders in the Papua have since called Mr Widodo's promises hollow.

The Indonesia Government tells BuzzFeed News that they're dedicated to addressing past wrongs.

"Since democracy took hold in Indonesia in 1998, successive Indonesian governments have made genuine efforts to improve the human rights situation across Indonesia, particularly in Papua."

"The Government of Indonesia (GOI) granted a special autonomy to Papua, vastly expanding Papuan government authority over regional policies and budget. The GOI also transferred large sums of funds to Papua: in addition to financial transfers for development which all provinces receive, Papua also receives billions of dollars in special autonomy funds every year."

The Aboriginal Provisional Government say they are working with West Papuan groups to develop their own passports.

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The APG have been issuing Aboriginal passports since 1990 and chairman Callum made headlines earlier this year after claiming he was harassed by Australian customs officers for using his Aboriginal passport.

Clayton-Dixon says the West Papuan passport would be an important symbolic document.

"Given our experience and knowledge and understanding of a colonised people developing and distributing and using our own passports, we put our hands out to them and said we’ll provide whatever information, assistance and advice you need regarding developing a West Papuan passport and they were very receptive to that."

Clayton-Dixon says that Indigenous Australians should be inspired by the West Papuans ability to unify, "They were able to unite over 300 tribes that all speak different languages and all have different cultures, yet they were able to come together under one flag, under one banner, under one nation. That just shows that we as Aboriginal people should be able to come together for self determination."

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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