West Papua crackdown overshadows Indonesian election

(Originally published by Equal Times)
Translations: Español | Francais 

West Papuan independence activists have denounced the use of violence by Indonesian security forces in the lead up to the country’s general elections held on Wednesday.

Demonstration in Melbourne. Photo by Nichollas Harrison
Dozens of campaigners have reportedly been arrested and beaten for handing out flyers urging people in the region to boycott the elections.

More than 180 million people are estimated to have cast their vote but the arrests have angered West Papuans who allege their peaceful dissidence is routinely met with violence. 

Benny Wenda, the exiled leader of the Free West Papua movement which campaigns for West Papuan independence, told Equal Times the arrests demonstrated the lack of democracy in the region.

“My people are living in a prison and are discriminated against in many forms, the current situation is very tense…If there was any democratic space for us in West Papua we would be able to freely express our political opinions.

“Instead the Indonesian Army has publicly threatened to destroy West Papuans who refuse to vote. In the last week people have been arrested and tortured for choosing not to vote.” 

Last week Chairman of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) which also campaigns for West Papuan independence called for a boycott of the Indonesian elections, declaring in a statement: “We will boycott the Indonesian elections with peace and dignity.”

Indonesian security forces in West Papua responded by raising the security level in the territory to “Siaga Satu” (full alert) with thousands of security officers deployed to designated areas throughout West Papua.

KNPB reported a number of incidents involving the detention of peaceful activists including seven arrests in the city of Timika and 20 arrests in Boven Digoel regency.

The committee also alleges that six people were arrested, beaten and detained at Jayapura police station last Thursday for distributing flyers calling for a boycott.

Incidents of violence and intimidation have also been reported by local media. Oktovianus Pogau, the editor in chief of the Jayapura-based news site Suara Papua, told the Jakarta Globe West Papuan activists were being attacked on a regular basis in the days before the election.

“It’s difficult to estimate how many attacks have occurred…but they are frequent,” he said.

Activists for the Free West Papua movement and KNPB refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the Indonesian elections arguing that Indonesia is obliged to offer the people of West Papua a referendum on independence under international law.

They allege that Indonesia is exploiting the region’s natural resources whilst the people of West Papua are forced to live in poverty. According to the World Bank, Papua province’s regional GDP is 50% higher than the national average yet it remains one of Indonesia’s poorest regions.

West Papuans have lived under Indonesian military occupation since 1969 when a plebiscite, known as the Act of Free Choice, was held to decide whether the region should relinquish its sovereignty and be taken over by Indonesia.

However, human rights activists have questioned whether the referendum complied with UN requirements and independence leaders are demanding a new plebiscite.

“When we have our right of self-determination then we will vote. West Papuan people will vote in a free and fair act of self-determination on our future. We will vote in an internationally monitored referendum to international standards, under international law,” says Wenda.

“In 1969 the Indonesian army threatened my people at gunpoint to vote to give up our freedom and become a part of Indonesia,” says Wenda, “The attitude of the Indonesian military has not changed since then.”