West Papuan separatists declare provisional government, tell Indonesia to leave the region


Ray Andrews-Paul with the Morning Star flag.
For Ray Andrews-Paul, the Morning Star flag represents new beginnings.(Supplied)

West Papuan separatists say they will form a new provisional government for the region and reject Indonesia's rule, in a significant escalation of a decades-long battle over independence.

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) — a coalition of independence groups — made the announcement on its self-proclaimed independence day, which is marked on December 1 each year.

It said it planned to reclaim the land, appoint its own prime minister and cabinet, and "no longer bow down to Jakarta's illegal martial rule".

The move is the culmination of an increasingly violent conflict being waged between separatists and Indonesian authorities who have no plans to relinquish control of the region.

Egianus and his rebel army stand together holding guns.
Armed West Papuan separatists in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia.(Supplied)

An island divided for decades

To understand this fight and the gravity of the announcement, you must first understand the history.

The island of New Guinea is divided in two.

The right half is the nation of Papua New Guinea. The left half (where the provinces of West Papua and Papua are) make up part of Indonesia.

A map of eastern Indonesia.
Independence activists say the provinces of Papua and West Papua should form a nation free of Indonesia.(Foreign Correspondent: Andres Gomes Isaza)

Both West Papua and the other islands of Indonesia were first colonised by the Netherlands.

When Indonesia finally became independent in 1949, West Papua did not join.

The Dutch government, acknowledging that West Papuans were culturally and ethnically different to Indonesians, began preparing West Papua for its independence.

During this phase, the Morning Star flag was hoisted for the first time on December 1, 1961.

It was a short-lived celebration, and in 1963 West Papua was absorbed into Indonesia, and the new nation was never realised. And so, a movement was born.

Ray Andrews-Paul is an indigenous Papuan artist born in PNG who moved to Australia two years ago.

From an early age his inquisitiveness led him to question why his people, the Melanesian inhabitants of the island of New Guinea, were separated by a border, and why Papuans living on the western side could not enjoy the same freedoms as those on the east.

This is what sparked his passion for West Papua's self-determination struggle, and it is now fuelled by what he and others say is the ongoing suffering of fellow Papuans still living in the Indonesian province.

"[The flag] represents new beginnings, the birth of a new nation," Mr Andrews-Paul said.

A Papuan student looks at the camera with his body and face painted with the colors of the banned separatist flag.
Raising the Morning Star flag is illegal in West Papua.(AP: Binsar Bakkara)

He now fights for independence through demonstrations, media activism and staying in touch with West Papuans so he can broadcast their views.

'Genocide, ecocide, ethnocide'

In the first few years under colonial rule, thousands of Papuans were killed in clashes with the Indonesian military as the resistance against Indonesian occupation swelled.

A plebiscite overseen by the United Nations was organised in 1969, in which Papuans could vote on whether they wanted to remain part of Indonesia or become independent.

This was known as the "Act of Free Choice", but it was later dubbed the "Fake Vote" and "Act of No Choice" by Papuans.

"Only a handful of Papuans were chosen at gunpoint and forced to vote against becoming an independent nation," Mr Andrews-Paul said.

Papuans vote in 'act of free choice' ballot.
Papuans vote in the Act of Free Choice ballot in 1969. Many felt the vote was unjust.

The ULMWP also shares this view, saying the Indonesian military threatened to kill the handpicked Papuan representatives if they voted the wrong way.

The verdict was unanimous, and approved by the UN — West Papua would remain part of Indonesia.

The Free West Papua campaign alleges more than 500,000 Melanesians have been killed by the Indonesian military to date amid the ongoing battle over the land.

It's grown increasingly deadly since 2018 as armed West Papuan separatists confront Indonesian security forces.

In August last year protests by West Papuans quickly turned violent when demonstrators and Indonesian security clashed and militia groups joined the fight.

West Papuan civil resistance leader Victor Yeimo lives between West Papua and PNG and has previously been imprisoned for his activism around West Papua's freedom movement.

"Genocide, ecocide, ethnocide is still going on, very, very seriously today in West Papua," he said, referencing claims Indonesia has repeatedly denied.

Mr Yeimo alleges that as recently as November 20 this year, in Papua's Ilaga district, two 17-year-old students were shot — one fatally — by Indonesian forces. 

"Two young men [came] back home to celebrate Christmas then Brigade Mobile [the special operations unit of Indonesian National Police] stopped them and they shot them," he said.

One died and the other escaped "with three bullets in his body".

Victor Yeimo.
Victor Yeimo says West Papuans yearn for independence.(Foreign Correspondent: Greg Nelson ACS)

Indonesian authorities have rejected this claim and instead allege the shootings were carried out by "an armed separatist group".

Mr Yeimo insists this isn't an isolated incident, and says even those West Papuans who at times seem to be living a normal life in Indonesia are yearning for freedom.

"They are living in Indonesia, so they need to walk with Indonesia to get a life ... but in their spirit they are fighting for independence," he said.

Indonesia has repeatedly denied any human rights abuses in West Papua.

When asked if it admitted to ever violating the human rights of Melanesians in West Papua, the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra told the ABC: "Indonesia is committed in its obligation to protect all its citizens, including those in Papua and West Papua.

To these denials, Raki Ap, the leader of the Free West Papua campaign in the Netherlands, has a simple response to Indonesia: allow foreign media to freely enter.

"If you have nothing to hide, open up West Papua," he said.

A 2020 Amnesty International report found foreign journalists faced restrictions and harassment while reporting in Papua, creating conditions for a secret war to be waged.

The Indonesian embassy rejected this, stating that since 2015 media were allowed to visit Papua as freely as any part of Indonesia.

A new government is announced

Tuesday's announcement by the ULMWP of a "provisional government" in West Papua will ratchet up the tension with Indonesia.

The ULMWP is a coalition of various political factions that have all strived for independence over the years.

The unity on this move in notable in itself, and is a dramatic escalation in the aspirations of the cause.

It has previously announced a provisional constitution that outlined how it wanted to govern itself.

The ULMWP says its new "government-in-waiting" first wants to hold a referendum on independence.

If that is passed, it says it will use that legitimacy to take control of the territory and organise democratic elections.

Its interim president will be a man named Benny Wenda, a West Papuan political activist who is living in exile in the United Kingdom.

Benny Wenda
Benny Wenda says it's time for Indonesian forces to leave.(Supplied: Oxford City Council)

"This provisional government is declaring the Indonesian state's presence in West Papua illegal," Mr Wenda said in a statement.

"We reject any law, any imposition by Jakarta, and we will not comply.

"We have our own constitution, our own laws, and our own government now. It is time for the Indonesian state to leave."

It comes as Indonesia looks to extend the Special Autonomy law this year.

This law was enacted by the Indonesian government in 2001.

It was designed to grant "special authority" to the Papuan province "to regulate and manage the interests of the local people".

But Papuan activists fighting for independence say only a referendum can give West Papua the solution it needs.

Mr Andrews-Paul welcomed the announcement by ULMWP, saying it was "extremely significant".

"[It's] a historic moment that is a turning point for my people and their fight for their rightfully deserved nation," he said.

"I worry for all Papuans celebrating their independence day, especially because of the violence they might suffer from embracing the provisional government.

"But there is nothing that will stop my people from expressing their pride and passion for being Papuan and exercising their will to establish official independence."

Indonesia won't give it up easily

Each year, the battle for independence has become increasingly urgent for Papuans because of climate change and deforestation.

Like many parts of the world, West Papua's landscapes are being turned over for development projects.

Mr Andrews-Paul said in many cases, indigenous people were "tricked" into handing over their land by promises that went unfulfilled.

"Indonesia has been exploiting our natural resources and killing us by the thousands, even though us indigenous people know how to protect the earth," he said.

The province of Papua also boasts the largest gold mine in the world, but its people remain among the poorest in Indonesia.

"This is why West Papuans are fighting for the right to self-determination. We just want our island back," Mr Andrews-Paul said.

Victor Yeimo leading protests.
Victor Yeimo has vowed to keep fighting for independence.(Supplied)

A spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Teuku Faizasyah, dismissed the legitimacy of Mr Wenda and the ULMWP's move to form a provisional government.

"Under what pretext [does] somebody by the name of Benny Wenda make a self-proclaimed status as representative of the Indonesian people of Papua?" he told the ABC.

"The return of Papua to Indonesia as the successor state of the Netherland East Indies; a colony stretching from the west in Aceh to the east in Papua; is final.

"The process of the transfer or the return of Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia was supervised by the UN, including through the adoption of a UN resolution."

For now, activists are hoping a global flag-raising event of the Morning Star on Tuesday will bring international attention to the cause that has reached a tipping point.

"It's a big risk if you want to celebrate," Raki Ap said.

"But because of the momentum globally, a lot of West Papuans find the courage ... because the sentiment is so deep in every Indigenous West Papuan.

"The desire for freedom is everywhere."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-01/west-papuan-separatists-provisional-government-to-oust-indonesia/12936404


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