Last Wednesday, a day before the United Nations Committee of 24 met in Nadi, to discuss - among other issues - the reinscription of Maohi Nui (French Polynesia) on the list of territories for decolonisation, the Pacific Conference of Churches again called on regional governments to support the decolonisation of West Papua, Guam and Rapa Nui. The theme of this regional seminar of the Committee of 24 is regional seminar is to accelerate action on the implementation of the 3rd International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. The Pacific is represented on the C24 by Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
"We recognise that this might be a difficult position for some governments to take but the Pacific people must be treated with justice," said PCC Desk Officer Peter Emberson.
The PCC statement read:
For the freedom of our brothers and sisters in Guam, Kanaky/New Caledonia, Maohi Nui/French Polynesia, Tokelau, West Papua to chart their own political future, we call on our Pacific peoples in all walks of life to stand up, speak out and be actively be engaged in their struggle.
The right of peoples in non-self-governing-territories, whose countries are ruled by colonial administrations, to determine their own political future is enshrined in international law. Similarly, the duty of the colonisers or Administering Powers to prepare the indigenous peoples in these territories to exercise their right to self-determination is also mandated by international law…
Underpinning the legal instruments and administrative protocols established to ensure and safeguard freedom is a grave moral responsibility. Lest we forget, many of us who now live and have our being in independent Pacific countries were once, not too long ago, also governed under colonial rule. Our freedom was purchased by the commitment, very often the sacrifice, of entire generations of our forebears and at great cost.
The support of the struggle for the self-determination of Maohi-Nui, Kanaky, Guam, Tokelau and Tanah Papua is on the PCC member churches’ radar, following the 2013 PCC General Assembly in Honiara, Solomon Islands. In Fiji the Executive Committee of the Fiji Council of Churches last year resolved to support the churches and people of West Papua in their struggle for self-determination.
"We continue to receive reports of torture, violence and atrocities against the people of West Papua and these actions by Indonesia must stop," said Emberson at a media conference where the statement from PCC was issued.
I have shared the story of West or Tanah Papua before – its colonisation by the Dutch, a brief moment of independence in 1961, the invasion by Indonesia and the United Nations two grave sins – allowing the transfer of control of West Papua to Indonesia in 1962, albeit with an agreement of future self-determination; and endorsing the manipulated plebiscite “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, where, “instead of overseeing a free and fair election, the UN stood by while Indonesia rigged the vote.
Declaring that the Papuans were too "primitive" to cope with democracy, the Indonesian military hand-picked just 1,026 'representative' Papuans, out of a population of one million, who were then bribed them, and threatened to kill them and their families if they voted the wrong way. So strong was the intimidation that despite widespread opposition to Indonesian rule, all 1,026 voted to remain a part of Indonesia.”
With the advent of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) and the International Lawyers for West Papua (ILWP) politicians and lawyers are beginning to engage with the issue. Through the PCC, churches in the Pacific and by extension their members will also begin to learn and engage with the case of West/Tanah Papua and other self-determination struggles.
The issue of Tanah or West Papua weighed heavily on my soul in my recent visit to Indonesia. I was profoundly affected by the stories, which I had heard from West Papuans, and videos and pictures of human rights abuses by Indonesian forces based in Tanah Papua, which I had seen online. The response I received from a member of one particular Indonesian NGO when asked about Papua was that it was very large and rural, so working there was difficult. I was concerned by inferences that the challenge was because the people of Tanah Papua and indeed much of eastern Indonesia, including Sulawesi, West Kalimantan and Maluku are “primitive”.
“Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, those are the Old Javanese words written on the foot of the Garuda Pancasila, Republic of Indonesia’s national symbol, which mean “Unity in Diversity.” However, this is not necessarily the case. I was to learn that there is a level of prejudice towards eastern Indonesia as it is also the least developed part of the country, thus people native to that area are viewed as primitive. Ironically it is eastern Indonesia which provides much of the natural resources for Indonesia’s economic growth, while the western part receives the profits and development. A 2001 report by Minority Rights Group International, states that the extreme development gap between the island of Java and most of the outer regions, the effect of the government’s policy of
transmigrasi or forced migration, and its political manipulation of religion have been strategies by the powerful to their commercial interests in these areas, even if has meant prolonging conflicts.
Self-determination for West/Tanah Papua in this wider context is therefore not just political empowerment but also socio-economic empowerment. As I spoke with other Indonesian NGOs, community workers and activists who were more aware of this context and great divide between west and east, I became more aware of the preconditions for self-determination in West/Tanah Papua. The lack of access to quality education – most children only attend school until they are 10 years old, according to one source, health-care and infrastructure adds to the already documented human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. It is a stark illustration of the MRGI report, quoted above. By keeping the people of West/Tanah Papua poor and disempowered, unable to become a cohesive movement for self-determination due to poor communications technology and vast distances, the status quo remains and the people of West/Tanah Papua will always be at a disadvantage should any negotiations eventuate.
So how can the playing field be levelled? Donor agencies need to channel funds to education, healthcare and infrastructure development. Churches need to not only resound the call for self-determination but get involved through education, health-care and communications mission work. These were an important part of our growth towards our own self-determination.
We must also challenge our leaders, as constituents on a national level, or within our faith communities and social groups to step up to the challenge of advocating for self-determination in its fullest sense to be embraced. After-all, if we were in the same situation, would we want any less?
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”