Have you seen Avatar? I was a bit reluctant, mostly thanks to the hype. Hype’s never good. I remember seeing the Age of Stupid at a Climate Camp and was so disappointed. Not sure why and I enjoyed it more the second time I saw it. I guess I’m not your average audience. So, back to Avatar. I eventually saw it on DVD and enjoyed it but when it finished, I started to rant to my poor, long suffering husband about indigenous peoples. “You don’t need a bunch of blue animated beings fighting mining companies for this story – it’s happening across the world” and so on. Then, to my husband’s smug delight, we looked at the extras, which included a documentary by James Cameron, writer and director of Avatar, on the plight of indigenous people. That should have been compulsory viewing at the cinema, in my view. It turns out that James Cameron is committed to helping indigenous peoples around the world who, like the fictitious Na’vi in his film, are “caught at the tectonic interface between the expansion of our technical civilization into the few remaining preserves of this planet.”
And so to West Papua. I vaguely remember hearing about West Papua in the dim and distant, probably when I could afford to subscribe to excellent magazines like New Internationalist. Then, a few months ago, I was reminded again when I read a book called Wild, by Jay Griffiths, in which she recounts her travels amongst various indigenous tribes. Yes, that does seem to be a popular thing to do these days but I liked Jay’s perspective: justified anger, a bit of anarchism and a good dollop of missionary-bashing. I should add that she writes like a dream! Anyway, one chapter was about West Papua, the western half of the world’s second largest island, New Guinea, north of Australia and this time I paid attention.
I found a blog called Freelander which gave a good summary of the history. Prior to 1961, West Papua was a Dutch colony, but in 1952 the Netherlands recognised the West Papuans’ right to self-determination in accordance with Article 73 of the United Nations Charter. Indonesia felt differently and claimed the territory for itself. However, it declined the Netherlands’ invitation to stake its claim before the International Court of Law. A West Papuan government was set up in May 1961, tasked with the preparation of the country for full independence in 1971. Seventeen days later, Indonesia launched a small paratroop invasion. The invaders were arrested by the West Papuans. In January 1962, Indonesia provoked a small naval battle, but again the fledgling West Papuan state survived. Unfortunately for the West Papuans, however, Indonesia had some powerful friends.
In the ‘New York Agreement‘ of 1962, the US forced the Netherlands to surrender West Papua to Indonesia and the Australians to reverse their policy of supporting West Papuan independence. The Agreement, conducted without the presence of a West Papuan representative, effectively transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. Indonesia assumed control of West Papua in 1963. The New York Agreement stipulated that an act of self-determination, involving all adult West Papuan men and women, would be held to determine the final status of West Papua. Indonesia finally got round to organising the referendum in 1969. Its policies in the intervening years were described in 1968 by a US Consular official, who said, “The Indonesians have tried everything from bombing them [the West Papuans] with B-26s, to shelling and mortaring them, but a continuous state of semi-rebellion persists. Brutalities are undoubtedly perpetrated from time to time in a fruitless attempt at repression.” Civilisation – don’t you love it?
A mountain of gold
The referendum was held in 1969 and it was a total sham. Called the “Act of Free Choice”, the UN sanctioned this ‘vote’, which was made by 1,025 handpicked electors who had been coerced into unanimously choosing to “remain with Indonesia”. I know it was 1969 (oh, that would never happen now) but how did they get away with that? The UN Representative sent to observe the election process produced a report which outlined various and serious violations, which were “duly noted”. There were also testimonials from the press, the opposition of fifteen countries and the cries for help and justice from the Papuans themselves, yet West Papua was handed over to Indonesia in November 1969. The inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, across the border, achieved full independence in 1975, while in 1973 West Papua was re-named Irian Jaya, “Victorious Irian”, by the Indonesian President, General Suharto.
Just a minute, let’s back up there a bit. What did the US have to do with this? Well, it’s complicated (if you read this and this you’ll know more than I do) but basically in the 1960s, the US did some bad things to keep on side with anyone who might team up with the Russians. The US was worried that Indonesia might align itself with the Communist bloc (it had just a few years earlier assisted General Suharto in massacring up to a million suspected Communists), and in any case it didn’t want to jeopardise the exclusive 30-year mining license (extended by another 30 years in 1991) that Indonesia had sold to US company Freeport-McMoRan to extract West Papua’s valuable natural resources just a few years earlier in 1967. Yes people, there’s resources to be had. But Papua New Guinea has resources – according to the US Department of State, minerals and oil make up 82 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s GDP and it has gold, copper ore, crude oil, natural gas, timber, fish, oil palm, tea, rubber, all of which will be duly plundered unless we stop using other people’s resources. But does it have a mountain of gold – I mean a real mountain of it?
John Pilger writes, “The silence of the “international community” is explained by the fabulous wealth of West Papua. In November 1967, soon after Suharto had consolidated his seizure of power, the Time-Life Corporation sponsored an extraordinary conference in Geneva. The participants included the most powerful capitalists in the world, led by the banker David Rockefeller. Sitting opposite them were Suharto’s men, known as the “Berkeley mafia”, as several had enjoyed US government scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley. Over three days, the Indonesian economy was carved up, sector by sector. An American and European consortium was handed West Papua’s nickel; American, Japanese and French companies got its forests. However, the prize – the world’s largest gold reserve and third-largest copper deposit, literally a mountain of copper and gold – went to the US mining giant Freeport-McMoran. On the board is Henry Kissinger, who, as US secretary of state, gave the “green light” to Suharto to invade East Timor, says the Dutch report”. You see? Avatar in the here and now, only without the Hollywood happy ending where most of them survive.
The issue of West Papua is creeping up the international agenda, as campaign groups, Papuan leaders-in-exile and concerned people all over the world alert their leaders to the injustice that is happening there. But the inertia is unbearable and any support we are giving now does not alter the fact that since 1973, Freeport-McMoran has operated the world’s largest gold mine in West Papua. Not just located there, destroying forests, polluting watercourses and spewing out filth, but actually mining the ‘head’ of the West Papuans’ sacred mother mountain – the place where they go to visit the “dream shrines”, where they ask the ancestors for a dream to guide them on their path in life. That might sound a bit out there to some but despite being a committed atheist, I have no problem in accepting indigenous belief systems which are linked to the land and nature. After all, they often make way more sense to me that the crap many of us so-called civilised types believe – from the religion of God to the religion of consumption. If you’re going to worship something, the sun’s as good as anything!
So, I went to Hampshire, to the Dark Mountain Festival (that’s for another post) and while I failed miserably to meet Jay Griffiths, it was not a disappointment. I was only going to say something banal like how much I enjoyed her book. I did make it to the point of hovering around her as she handed out Free West Papua leaflets, waiting for my moment, when a guy came up and introduced himself saying, “I’m going to West Papua to make a film…” At that I wandered off. Then, later that day, I had the good fortune to meet Benny Wenda, a West Papuan tribal leader and an international lobbyist for the independence of West Papua from Indonesia. He was a speaker at the Festival, along with Jay, but I couldn’t see where he went after his talk. So it was amazing to meet him at a train station, along with a fellow exile. In 2002, Benny was granted political asylum by the British Government following his escape from custody while on trial in West Papua for the heinous crime of demanding freedom for his people, for demanding that women and children live free from rape, for demanding the right to fly their flag. Benny is a leading figure on the international scene for the independence movement of West Papua and has been a special representative of his people in the British Parliament and United Nations. His biography is harrowing – but that does not mean you shouldn’t read it.
Benny Wenda is a founding member of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP). This cross-parliamentary group was launched at the Houses of Parliament in London in October 2008, and was attended by British parliamentarians as well as politicians from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Vanuatu. The group is actively developing support from politicians around the world, and its overall aim is to assert enough political pressure on the United Nations to implement a re-run of the “Act of Free Choice”. If the West Papuans ever do get freedom from Indonesia, I hope they don’t fall for the neoliberal bullshit which has smothered so many other bids for freedom.
As well as the UK launch, IPWP also had launch events in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and in Papua New Guinea. Since meeting Benny, I have been in touch with my MSP and would like to think the Scottish Parliament could do more to help. I’d hate to think that the Scottish Parliament was just making a hollow gesture by hosting the IPWP event. You’ve had your event, now what? If I hear, I’ll let you know.
I don’t know what we can do to help, but being aware must be the first step. If you can, support the Free West Papua Campaign, set up by Benny Wenda. If you have money, send them some. If you have time, get involved with some letter writing or watch some videos with friends – Forgotten bird of paradise and The secret war in Asia are a good place to start and you can watch both in less than an hour.