Covid in the Pacific: February 2022
Yes, the fog of war has descended

What about West Papua? It’s our Ukraine

| Academia Nomad

PORT MORESBY - It took less than a week for the world to come together to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sanctions were applied to Putin, oligarchs and the Russian Central Bank, there was a suspension of SWIFT banking services and weapons and aid money were supplied to Ukraine.

But the question many are asking, especially in the Pacific Islands, is what about West Papua?

West Papua has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. Brutal abuse and human rights violations have continued unabated since then and are endemic.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission said on Tuesday that:

“….between April and November 2021, we received allegations indicating several instances of extrajudicial killings, including of young children, enforced disappearance, torture and inhuman treatment and the forced displacement of at least 5,000 indigenous Papuans by security forces.”

The UN knows what is happening, so the obvious question is why isn’t the UN, European Union, United States or Australia doing anything about it?

The issue is complex, and I want to talk about just one, and probably the most important, aspect: the geopolitical benefits of pleasing Indonesia.

Indonesia has been and is an important ally of the US and Australian, the two powers with the highest stake in the region.

During the Cold War, the theory of the ‘domino effect’ of Communist ideology spread through South-East Asia.

Indonesia was an important ally of the West against communism and it actively suppressed Communism.

To please their ally, the US and other Western countries left Indonesia to occupy West Papua following the so called Act of Free Choice, branded as ‘Act of No Choice’ by many people.

It was a form of referendum where about 1,000 representatives of West Papua were forced to sign a document integrating West Papua into Indonesia.

Today the same countries are worried about the rise of China. And they continue to ignore Indonesian atrocities in West Papua.

Southeast Asian countries need US help to stand up against China so remain silent. India has border conflicts with China so it remains silent. Japan has its own conflicts with China, and Australia values Indonesia as an ally.

There are rumours that China sympathises with West Papua, although it appears ironic that a Communist country with a poor record of human rights would be sympathetic or human rights abuses in West Papua.

The reason could be that Indonesia has claims over some parts of the South China Sea which China considers its own and that Indonesia has criticised China over its imprisonment of Muslim minorities.

There are allegations that China maintains a modern day labour prison camp for an estimated one million Muslim Uyghurs. China calls it a re-education camp.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation on earth, has condemned China over this issue and rumours started emerging that China then decided to support West Papuans.

It looks like a classic case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

In the Pacific, only Vanuatu has consistently supported West Papua’s independence and spoken up in the UN.

Papua New Guinean, which shares a 700km land border with Indonesia, has been very cautious. Indonesia has huge standing army compared to PNG.

Countries in the region have called for commission of inquiry into West Papua, but it has never taken place.

Further calls to allow journalists into West Papua have been ignored. In the absence of an international presence, Indonesia controls the narrative.

So here is how world politics seem to play: If there is an invasion or occupation or atrocities against a group of people that affects the interests of the West, and the US in particular, there is condemnation and action.

The difference between Ukraine and West Papua is that, in Ukraine, Russia is the aggressor.

Russia is the enemy of the West. So the invasion is considered illegal and killing civilians in Ukraine amounts to war crimes.

In West Papua, the same or even worse has been occurring for over 70 years. Buts it’s been carried out by an ally of the West.

Unless the geopolitics in the region change and US and its allies no longer need Indonesia, it seems the West will continue to ignore West Papua.

It’s possible that one day China can step up its support for West Papua.

There’s no help from Australia, which also supplies arms to the Indonesian military.

The Pacific Islands countries are the only realistic voices. They have to do what Vanuatu has been doing.


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Bernard Corden

A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends.

If we can find money to kill people, surely there are sufficient funds to help them.

There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.

Paul Oates

I suggest the issues are far more complex than what we see on the surface. The obvious reality is that Indonesia has assumed sovereignty over West Papua.

At the time, 60 years ago, I remember it looked like Australia might go to war as we did to defend the integrity of Malaysia.

The problem then was that we were left high and dry by the US who saw their access to transiting between the Indian and Pacific oceans of prime importance. There were also significant commercial interests at stake, like the Freeport mine.

Today the circumstances have changed significantly. Indonesia is directly challenged by China over control of her maritime sea lanes and territory. It behooves everyone to take stock of where we are today and not where we wish we were.

Australia has not been good at communicating with non-Western cultures. It's something we kiaps had to learn for ourselves or fail at doing what we were required to do.

PNG and our Pacific neighbours would do well to think deeply about where their true allegiances might lie as well as their national interests.

What could be helpful is a high level conference between the various interests over West Papuan people and how there could be very useful dialogue if those with various points of view tried to see what could be achieved with more harmony rather than more acrimony.

If there's one lesson that should be learned from the Ukraine invasion by the Russian dictator is that there should have been more meaningful concessions on both sides prior to the conflict starting. Once the war starts however, it's very hard to stop without someone backing down and losing face.

Perhaps it's the fact that when Stalin caused to mass famine in the eastern Ukraine and millions died, those Russians then took their place that still rankles. Now these "Russians' do not feel they are Ukrainian since they don't speak the language of have the same affinity with Ukraine. Perhaps Putin would have been morally obliged to accept a token rearrangement and save face rather than a blunt 'No!'? Now it's too late.

Asian and non western negotiations are often more important for what is not said, rather than what is. At a time where the Solomons and others are busy recreating Michael Somare's 'Look North' policies, it might more helpful find positive solutions that are acceptable to those involved, rather than accepting offers of assistance from an external belligerent that have strings, both seen and unseen, attached?

Harry Topham

Until the good old USA decides that morality should triumph over greed, things will remain the same in West Papua where the US has substantial economic interests in gold mining.

Unless the US decides that morality should prevail in West Papua, and uses its substantial political clout to have the Indonesian government show true respect to its 'Melanesian citizens' and changes its ways, it seems to me that the current political impasse will remain.

Bernard Corden

When the rich make war it's the poor who die and it never determines who is right, it merely establishes who and what is left:

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