THE LOST ONES IN PAPUA’S RIFT

admin's picture

By Mark Forbes

MELBOURNE, Australia (July 30, 2001 - The Age)---Surua Meage is a proud Papuan -- a tall, dignified man from Wamena in Irian Jaya whose penetrating, dark-eyed stare must have burned bright as he lunged at the Indonesian police with a wooden spear.

"I was trying to spear the policeman, but I was late and the police shot me," he says, tugging up his shorts to reveal a large bullet wound in his thigh. "I was very sad. I came to try and help."

He was also too late for his friend Eliasa Alua, laying beneath the beloved symbol of West Papuan independence, the Morning Star flag. It was flying high on the village flagpole when the Indonesian Brimob (police mobile unit) came to tear it down early one morning last October.

"Eliasa stood and held the pole," says Meage, making a hugging motion. "And police just shot him dead." The police then chain-sawed the flagpole and arrested and beat independence supporters.

Meage and fellow villagers fled to Papua New Guinea as this violence escalated late last year - 350 of them to what the Catholic Bishop of Vanimo, Cesare Bonivento, describes with disgust as a concentration camp on the outskirts of his town. They have been there since December, with PNG and the United Nations ignoring their pleas for refugee status.

"Everyone is fearful to touch the reality," says Bonivento of a reality that would offend Indonesia and its powerful army. There are thousands of Indonesian troops stationed along the border, totally outgunning their PNG counterparts, who cannot afford even petrol to leave their Vanimo base. "This situation cannot go on," the bishop says bluntly.

Those in the camp acknowledge that their presence is also a political statement, and they vow not to return until West Papua is free. Speaking in Indonesian, they insistently call for "merdeka, merdeka penuh" (independence, full independence).

Franzalbert Joku, a moderate Papuan leader and international spokesman for the Papua Presidium - the body encouraged by former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid to negotiate on separatist demands - has been forced to operate out of Port Moresby since being banned as independence passions and violence escalated.

With Megawati Sukarnoputri’s ascension to power in Jakarta, Joku is a worried man. He says more than 100 independence supporters have been murdered by police and troops in the past year, despite Wahid occupying the presidential palace. With stances on both sides hardening and even limited autonomy unlikely, the toll looks certain to grow.

"We are concerned because her public utterances indicate she will take a hard line against independence movements in West Papua and Aceh," Joku says. He wants Australia to abandon its support for Indonesia’s territorial integrity and help "bring it to its senses."

"Respecting the territorial integrity of Indonesia comes at the cost of denying two million Papuans," Joku says.

In three weeks, Australia and other nations at the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru will be asked by Joku to support self-determination for West Papua.

Independence passions had been fanned by Wahid, who allowed locals to raise their Morning Star flag in 1999 and said independence supporters would be guaranteed freedom of speech.

The Morning Star has a quasi-religious significance for Papuans. It was first raised on December 1, 1961, as the Dutch prepared to leave their colony. Less than three weeks later, Indonesia began infiltrating troops into the territory, taking control in 1963. Their rule was confirmed in a totally discredited vote of "free choice" in 1969.

Since then, the OPM (Free Papua Movement) has conducted a guerrilla resistance, but Wahid’s loosening of Indonesia’s reins, and the example set by East Timor, has provoked widespread ground-level support for independence.

Now, warns Joku, the tragedies of East Timor could be repeated.

Pro-Jakarta militias have formed and one of the men behind the military tactics in Timor, Major-General Simbolon, is the region’s new military commander.

With most moderate Papuan leaders imprisoned during the military crackdown, Joku is calling for a United Nations investigation into human rights abuses in the province.

It is a call backed by Bishop Bonivento and other churches.

The stories of abuse are terrifying, Bonivento says, and Indonesia should allow a transparent inquiry.

An inquiry into the 350 Papuans termed "border crossers" by PNG - a euphemism that "doesn’t correspond with reality," according to the bishop - should also be launched by the UN. Officially, the PNG government is ignoring their presence, including even the local national MP and former cabinet minister Micah Wes, who hails from a tribe that straddles the border.

"We see it as one Papua - PNG and Papua should be one island, we have the same customs," he says. But he acknowledges that PNG cannot afford to confront Indonesia, or recognize the border crossers’ plight. Only the church is providing what little it can for them.

"They are poor, they are not fed, it is impossible to keep them in this situation," Bishop Bonivento says. "The government tells you, ‘you have to feed them’ with one packet of rice per person a week. You go there, you see it is a concentration camp."

At the camp, the Papuans have built huts with waste timber from a nearby sawmill, roofed with plastic sheeting. They seem set for the long haul.

Wamena schoolteacher Constan Tabuni says he fled from police after bringing a Morning Star flag from Jayapura. He was forced to leave his wife and children behind. "Before, we accepted the Bible from Australia, now you must help us gain our independence, because we are Christians," he shouts, ripping off his shirt and beating his chest.

Gumbo tells a story of almost unbelievable torture, of being detained by feared Kopassus troops and beaten over a 17-hour period last December in Jayapura. An independence supporter, he says he was bashed, slashed with razor blades and beaten with timber.

"Then they put me in a copra bag and bashed me with a butt of a gun," Gumbo says.

He was imprisoned for six months before sneaking across the PNG border three weeks ago. "Indonesians don’t want to hear the word freedom. I don’t like to stay in Indonesia and Indonesian spies are looking for me in every place, so I run away to here.

The stories of the border crossers are supported in a report released this month by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which found one local was killed and another 10 shot in the October confrontation at Wamena. After the shooting, the surrounding countryside emptied as hundreds flocked to the nearby village of Wouma, where the Morning Star still flew. They then crossed the river to Wamena and attacked shops owned by Indonesian migrants, who have been moving in since the 1960s.

According to the report, police fired on the mob from the migrant quarter, killing at least seven Papuans. The Papuan mob, in the worst incident of anti-migrant violence in Irian Jaya’s history, killed 24 Indonesian settlers.

Human Rights Watch says the incident was sparked by "precipitate and violent assaults" by security forces, but also condemns the Papuan retaliation. It was followed by the jailing of many moderate Papuan leaders, not directly involved, for up to four years.

Similar episodes have occurred across the province, according to the report. In December, after a raid allegedly organized by OPM military commander Mathias Wenda, guerrillas killed two police and a security guard in a raid on Abepura, a college town near the provincial capital, Jayapura.

Soon after, says Human Rights Watch, Brimob reinforcements arrived and stormed a nearby student dormitory, through which the guerrillas fled after making unsuccessful pleas for the students to join them. Dozens of students were seriously injured in the subsequent beatings; three died and one was permanently paralyzed.

Late last year, the former governor of Irian Jaya, now Indonesian ambassador to Mexico, Barnabas Suebu, gave a surprising interview to Tempo magazine about the unrest, and the push for Papuan independence. "The reform movement has removed the lid and released a lot of smoke," he said. "The problem is that now too many people are preoccupied with the smoke. There is a fire... the fire is injustice."

Today, the fire in the hearts of men such as Surua Meage and the hardened Indonesian nationalists who oppose him threatens to envelope the land they strive for.

Mark Forbes is The Age’s defense correspondent.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment