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West Papua - When is a close observer too close for comfort?


“…half a million? Most close observers of the conflict can see through that one” (Martin Auld)

NOOSA – I do not know Martin Auld except as a commentator on PNG Attitude where his expertise seems to be largely in Indonesian affairs.

Most recently, he has mounted a vigorous defence of Indonesia in the context of its brutal colonisation of West Papua.

This included the quoted skepticism (above), rather cavalierly expressed, of the figure of up to 500,000 West Papuan Melanesians killed since Indonesia took over the territory

The internet yields a number of Martin Aulds but none who would seem to be our man, so I know nothing of his background or credentials.

We take our readers’ comments as views they are entitled to make.

But when they present a line of argument based on demolishing the views of others (in Auld’s case that’s a wide field but he has a particular distaste for journalists) by claiming ‘truths’ which are contestable – and when this is done relentlessly and strenuously – it is probably time to offer contesting testimony, especially as Auld seems to have no desire to do this himself.

So when Auld, with some scorn I observe, challenged the figure of up to 500,000 West Papuans killed since Indonesia acquired their territory by means of a vote regarded as dubious at best – and when he refers to that number as “a transparent propaganda tactic” - I thought it opportune to take the argument into the ranks of those organisations and people who claim this figure as a reasonable estimate.

In truth, the number is unknowable because the observers have been few and the perpetrators are not going to own up to it, even if they keep count.

Thus estimates must be made and, where these show a consistency, I believe the reasonable person would accept them.

Accordingly I have sought to find sources that assess this horrific number of 500,000 as a fair approximation – a calculated guess if you like. And, as it happens, there are very many such sources, far too many to cite here. But I offer some I have traversed.

So let me share the results of that little search, beginning with a scene setter: a citation from a 2004 report from the prestigious Yale Law School in the United States on "the application of the law of genocide to the history of Indonesian control of West Papua". I note that in the 14 years since this paper was published, the situation in West Papua has worsened.

“Since Indonesia gained control of West Papua, the West Papuan people have suffered persistent and horrible abuses at the hands of the government.

“The Indonesian military and security forces have engaged in widespread violence and extrajudicial killings in West Papua. They have subjected Papuan men and women to acts of torture, disappearance, rape, and sexual violence, thus causing serious bodily and mental harm.

“Systematic resource exploitation, the destruction of Papuan resources and crops, compulsory (and often uncompensated) labor, transmigration schemes, and forced relocation have caused pervasive environmental harm to the region, undermined traditional subsistence practices, and led to widespread disease, malnutrition, and death among West Papuans.

“Such acts, taken as a whole, appear to constitute the imposition of conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the West Papuans.”

Let me continue with just 16 references I have found, and there are very many more available, to that widely-quoted 500,000 figure.

 “Since 1963, an estimated 500,000 West Papuans have died at the hands of the brutal Indonesian occupying forces, accounting for more than 25% of the population. These numbers have been ratified by several studies and human rights groups (including The International Association of Genocide Scholars and Yale Law School)” – ‘West Papua: The Forgotten People’ by Adam Perry, The Jerusalem Post (Israel)

“The people of West Papua have been calling for self-determination for half a century – a struggle for liberation from an Indonesian military occupation that has seen as many as 500,000 Papuans killed” - ‘The Human Tragedy of West Papua’ by Gemima Harvey, The Diplomat, international current-affairs magazine (USA)

“Since Indonesia began its occupation of West Papua an estimated 500,000 locals have lost their lives under harsh military and police repression” - Sydney Criminal Lawyers, ‘Time to Support West Papua’ by Paul Gregoire (Australia)

“According to rights activists, more than 500,000 Papuans have been killed, and thousands more have been raped, tortured and imprisoned by the Indonesian military since 1969. Mass killings in Papua’s tribal highlands during the 1970s amounted to genocide, according to the Asia Human Rights Commission” - ‘A Tragic, Forgotten Place.' Poverty and Death in Indonesia's Land of Gold’ by Febriana Firdaus, Time magazine (USA)

“It is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 Papuans have lost their lives in the conflict, most of which were civilians killed by security forces” - ‘The UK’s involvement in the Papuan crisis’ by Giacomo Grison, New Internationalist (UK)

“The Indonesian military occupation has led to the well-documented violent deaths of over 500,000 West Papuan people and their dislocation from ancestral lands” - ‘Affirmation of West Papua’, Baptist Churches of Aotearoa (New Zealand)

“The Free West Papua Campaign also claims that the government is engaging in genocide against the Papuan population, alleging that 500,000 civilians have been killed since Indonesia occupied the region. While these numbers are difficult to verify, a study by the University of Sydney has revealed that the continuation of current practices in West Papua ‘may pose serious threats to the survival of the indigenous people of the Indonesian province of Papua’” - ‘Situation in West Papua getting worse’, The Asean Post (Malaysia)

“Up to 500,000 West Papuans have died as a result of Indonesia’s occupation of the territory since 1962” - Dr Camellia Webb-Gannon, Coordinator, West Papua Project, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney (Australia)

“Around 500,000 West Papuans are believed to have died in what many commentators have described as a slow genocide” - Peter Tatchell Foundation, independent and non-party political human rights organisation (UK)

“Peter Arndt, executive officer of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Brisbane, told about 50 local supporters who attended the forum in the Cathedral Hall that more than 500,000 West Papuans have been “slaughtered” by security forces since West Papua was annexed and put under Indonesian control in the 1960s”- ‘West Papua at ‘tipping point’ by Lindy McNamara, The Southern Cross - official news site of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide (Australia)

“…. three decades of experience in West Papua that is a testament to the resilience and patience of the people in the face of ‘slow genocide’ with an estimated 500,000 Papuans dying over the past half century” - Asia Pacific Report, Pacific Media Centre, Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand)

“Since the Suharto dictatorship annexed the region in a 1969 UN referendum largely seen as a fixed land grab, an estimated 500,000 West Papuans have been killed in their fight for self-rule” - ‘The $100bn gold mine and the West Papuans who say they are counting the cost’ by Susan Schulman, The Guardian (UK)

“Some estimates say that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control in 1969” -, source of background information on defence, intelligence etc (USA)

“….in the face of human rights abuses, a lack of media access, and a genocide that some observers estimate has killed as many as 500,000, Papuans have continued to advocate for the right to self-determination” - ‘1.8 million Papuans sign referendum petition’ by Dr Keith Hyams, University of Warwick (UK)

“[We refuse] to turn a blind eye to the deaths of 500,000 West Papuans over the course of the last fifty years” - Rex Horoi, Solomon Islands special envoy on West Papua to the UN General Assembly (Solomon Islands)

“The provinces of Papua and West Papua have been plagued by intimidation and violence, with over 500,000 Papuans killed since the 1960s. It is also Indonesia’s poorest province, with 28 percent of its people living below the poverty line” – ‘Indonesian Public and Human Rights Groups Decry West Papuan Arrests’ by Stanley Widianto, Voice of America (US)

These references, as I have said, fall short of proof. But they do align. Martin Auld’s line of attack also falls short of proof and the ‘evidence’ he does produce does appear biased, spurious or contaminated.

A more credible assessment of what has really occurred in West Papua these past 50 years or so would be balanced with the possibility that what has occurred in West Papua is a fully-fledged, wide-scale and deliberate genocide.

There can be no excusing away that.


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Martin Auld

Keith Jackson writes:

Mr Auld has written further 'responses' to my article, including material which is disingenuous or misquotes and misinterprets me and other contributors. I can only assume this is deliberate. In parts he offers as fact, and without citation, material that cannot be proven. He is also dismissive and unsympathetic to the genuine plight of the Papuan people and denies what is regarded as mass killings of the Papuan people in all likelihood amounting to genocide.

His most outrageous, misleading and often repeated statement is that any claim of killing 500,000 of a 1969 population of 800,000 would be ludicrous. Of course it would be, but nobody claims this. The estimate is of 500,000 deaths over 50 years

In part Mr Auld has written: "After all these years, I'm still angry. My spiritual confidants and betters tell me anger isn't good for me, or anyone. It makes me angrier still that creeps like SF [an individual known to Mr Auld] and OPM activists politicise the epidemic as 'Indonesian genocide.' But there we go, they do."

In the editor's view, Mr Auld's contribution to this particular discussion has run its course. I do not apprehend his motives or know what has triggered his angry views but I do believe that, for whatever reason, he fails to address himself to a credible account and interpretation of the tragic situation in West Papua. Perhaps he should offer his thoughts to a more appropriate publication.

Jimmy Awagl

The West Papuans wish, dream and aspire to liberty and this has cost many lives over the last 50 years.

But there seems no hope for liberty in terms of politics, religion and governance.

Human abuse indicates greed from the perpetrator. 'Brutality' is a cry going out to other parties to rescue them from their agony.

Where is PNG, UN, Australia and the US to rescue them for their freedom?

Social media play an informative role to voice their grievances for a rescue since the estimated 500,000 genocide figure is more that enough bloodshed and abuse.

Martin Auld

"It's not possible to set an exact figure on how many have perished in West Papua..."

Why not? It's not as difficult as you seem to think.

In 1963 the population of W.Papua was just over 800,000. Some would have us believe that Indonesians then killed 500,000 of them. To be blunt - bullshit. It's racist propaganda designed to stigmatise and dehumanize Indonesians and mobilise public opinion to pressure Govt policy. Again to be blunt, everyone with skin in the game knows this.

One death is too many. Truth is important. There are no anonymous deaths. Families know, villages know. Family trees and ancestors are important in W.Papua, remembering names gives customary legitimacy to landholders.

The challenge for researchers of history and demography is to put names to allegations. Begin with population of the districts, then subdistricts. First identify the subdistricts with little to no history of conflict in your chosen timeframe, where population has increased at the expected rate. Eventually you will end up focusing on the few districts where conflict has been greatest. Then see if you alleged loss of 500,000 is even possible. It is not.

Racism is not the exclusive preserve of the extreme right. It exists across the spectrum. Appealing to it is easiest when pre-existing cultural values are engaged, and people can be encouraged to confirm their bias. We often believe because we already want to believe.

The people who engage in this sort of disinformation, in the jargon of Peace Journalism, are known as conflict entrepreneurs. They exist in the community, ngos, media, formal and informal politics and religious organisations.

The OPM was born in the Birdshead when the Papua Vol Corps fractured, some joining TNI others the OPM. Since then it has shifted operational activity to the central highlands where it off feeds off a grievance industry engendered by the appalling treatment of Amungme by Freeport. Freeport's where the big money is. It attracts conflict entrepreneurs.

Lindsay F Bond

Yea, Wardley --- sadly, but significantly, your readers should be looking for a stop to it

Wardley Barry

Dear UN -

How much more blood must we spill?
Do you want an ocean?
How many more lives must we lose?
Can you count the stars?
How many more men must be tortured?
Is animal cruelty more important than genocide?
How many more women must be raped
and babies forced into their wombs only to be ripped out?
Have we not been violated since birth?
How many more children must be orphaned?
Are cats more deserving of a home than my black child?
How much more tears must we cry?
Have not our rivers been flooded?
How many more prayers must we offer?
Are not our sighs loud enough?
How many more petitions must we sign?
Aren’t our butchered limbs enough?
How much higher must we pile our dead bodies for you to notice?
Soon we will all die and there'll be no one left
to collect our corpses or sign this off

Paul Oates

It's not possible to set an exact figure on how many have perished in West Papua since the Indonesian invasion since the region is still under Indonesian control.

Comparing West Papua with East Timor (Timor Leste) might provide some comparison however. It is calculated after the Indonesians were ejected that at least 200,000 East Timorese had been killed or suffered unnatural deaths during the Indonesian occupation of that part of the Island of Timor.

The Timor situation has been referred to as genocide. Surely that seems to be on a par with the situation in West Papua?

Lindsay F Bond

Let the numbers be further assessed, talked about, viewed worldwide, more certainly discussed and gauged for values.

Is it too trite to compare with Churchill's speech (20/8/1940) "Never was so much owed by so many to so few", by asking is it only in acts of armed conflict that so little of so many is valued by so few?

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