You all know about Tibet. But have you heard of West Papua?

A couple of months ago two French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, were arrested in West Papua (a part of Indonesia) for filming the living conditions of Papuans there. They were on tourist visas (not press visas) and, even worse, they contacted local pro-independence activists, seeking to film their demands.

Getting a press visa for visiting West Papua has been known to take over a year. Getting a tourist visa for Indonesia is relatively easy (just don’t say you are going to visit Papua when you are getting the visa). Once in Papua, a travel permit (surat jalan) is necessary but that is quite easy to get. I have first hand experience.

Since the Netherlands got rid of its colony in West Papua in 1961, Indonesia invaded, took over and killed around 500,000 Papuans, which is by all standards a genocide.

What interests me is why few people in the developed world have ever heard of West Papua, let alone of the genocide there whereas virtually everyone is concerned with the situation in Tibet, which is usually described as “cultural genocide“, although quite many Tibetans actually died as a result of the Chinese occupation.

Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I would do is approve of what China is doing in Tibet, but the comparison is tempting, since I have visited both Tibet and West Papua and I have personal impressions.

Visiting Tibet back in 2011 was not easy (and it might be even more difficult now). Getting the permit is a hassle. For some months each year foreigners are banned from visiting Tibet altogether. I had to travel on an organized tour with a guide and vehicle and prebooked accommodation. I could only visit certain places and watch out who I talked to and what I discussed with the locals. There were many military checkpoints. In Lhasa there were four armed soldiers on every street corner, looking in all four directions.

Visiting West Papua was a breeze (see my post about it here). Getting the travel permit was no problem at all. At police stations I just had to show a copy of it and no questions were asked. The military people were very friendly and once I started trekking where there are no roads, there was no military or police presence at all.

On the surface it seems like China is imposing much more draconian measures in Tibet than Indonesia is doing in West Papua. The reality is that Indonesia has been cracking down independence movements just as violently as China has. But how come so few people talk about West Papua in the developed world that is so concerned with democracy, human rights etc.?

The two French journalists were last week sentenced to two and a half months in prison by an Indonesian court and were allowed to return to France since they had already served their sentences in custody. “An aggravating factor in the case was the possibility that the reporters “may report negatively on Indonesia overseas“.
A simple Google search showed reports of the whole story in Indonesian and Australian media and on Al Jazeera. Not even a word by Reuters, the BBC or US mainstream media!

Why are Western media and politicians so preoccupied with Tibet but do not care about West Papua?

Many Westerners have positive sentiment towards Tibet because of Buddhism, its interesting culture and abundant media coverage. But West Papua has fascinating culture too! The Dalai Lama is an active political figure invited to speak all over the world. At the same time Benny Wenda was not seen by any top politician in the USA, Australia or New Zealand when he visited. Who is this Benny Wenda actually? Exactly!

China’s economic boom is terrifying the developed West and Tibet is obviously an easy excuse for to embarass China. Is there anything in West Papua that is of interest to the West? Yes, gold and copper. The largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world, the Grasberg Mine, operated by Freeport (of USA) and Rio Tinto (British-Australian) is in West Papua. Some years ago the Norwegian Pension Fund divested its stake in the company due to the severe environmental damage due to the mining operations in West Papua.

Since its formation, Indonesia has for the most part managed to successfully blackmail the West (read the USA) into supporting its atrocities. Since before Indonesia’s formation, the Dutch did not think of their colonies in the East Indies as one. For them Java and Sumatra was one thing, while New Guinea was different (an “empty” country):

“… if Java, Sumatra, etc., should be severed from the Netherlands within the foreseeable future—which God forbid!—then that does not need to be the case of New Guinea. New Guinea does not belong to the Indies Archipelago either geographically or geologically…. Neither the Javanese, the Acehnese, nor the inhabitants of Palembang have any right to this ’empty’ country. The Dutch were the first to occupy it, and have the right to use it for the population surplus of the Netherlands …”

The Dutch later kept insisting before the UN for West Papua to be independent of Indonesia, but the US saw an opportunity:

At the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the United States Ambassador to Indonesia, supported by the White House National Security Council, proposed a seven-point plan “to prevent Indonesia from falling under communist control and to win it over to the west”, which included promising Indonesia reunion with West New Guinea.

During the Cold War the USA was consistently paranoid and the Indonesian military dictators of the time used this to ensure US support despite the blatant human rights abuses in East Timor, West Papua and elsewhere. This support was weaker after footage of the 1991 Dili massacre was “accidentally” recorded and shown to the world, despite attempts by the Indonesian and Australian authorities to confiscate video materials from the journalists. Since then US support for the Indonesian army have grown back to the “normal” Cold War levels.

Back in 1969 around 1,000 Papuan chiefs were allowed to vote in the referendum and virtually 100% of them voted for being part of Indonesia. They voted at gunpoint or under threat of violence against their person.

Contemporary diplomatic cables showed American diplomats suspecting that Indonesia could not have won a fair vote, and also suspecting that the vote was not implemented freely, but the diplomats saw the event as a “foregone conclusion” and “marginal to U.S. interests”. Ortiz-Sanz wrote in his report that “an act of free choice has taken place in accordance with Indonesian practice,” but not not confirming that it was in accordance with international practice as the Act of Free Choice had required.

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) was set up at that time to resist Indonesian occupation and the following genocide:

We do not want modern life! We refuse any kinds of development: religious groups, aid agencies, and governmental organizations just Leave Us Alone!”

As part of Indonesia’s transmigration programme a lot of the population of West Papua is non-Papuan. The exact numbers are a state secret, but over one million non-Papuans have been resettled in Papua. Besides, many young Papuans are well assimilated. Indonesian is the lingua franca of the region. Even if a referendum is held, the outcome might not be certain. Papua New Guinea, East Timor and many African countries are examples of independent states with substantial natural resources that still remain very poor because of corruption and the cash flowing towards developed countries. Does it make much difference to the average Papuan if the money from the gold mine goes to Jakarta or to Australia? Certainly not. But independence might be the only way to stop the tortures by the Indonesian army.

In any case, with or without independence, the only answer is education. Both for the Papuans who need to know their rights and understand their political interests better and for the rest of the world. This was also the purpose of this text – to inform.

*For the record: I never intended to undermine the Tibetan independence movement or the image of any nation mentioned in this text. I am certainly not a supporter of the “if you are not with me, you are against me” rhetoric. What is important is human rights and stating the facts.

For 52 years now the Indonesian military has been trying to hide what they are doing in West Papua and keep us silent,” said Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader who lives in exile in the United Kingdom. “This is why they always try to stop foreign journalists’ reporting.

See my blog post about traveling in West Papua here.
See my photos from West Papua here
See my photos from Tibet here (Lhasa), here (people), here (nature) and here (monastery).

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