The West Papuan struggle for independence gets scant attention on our news, writes Catherine Delahunty, and it remains ignored because of “political expediency, trade relationships, and the inescapable conclusion that West Papuan lives don’t matter”.
Nearly four months ago, Phillip Mehrtens, a New Zealander working for an Indonesian airline, was kidnapped by West Papuan fighters in the highlands of West Papua.
No attempts to free him have succeeded yet, although our government has been working hard for a peaceful resolution. The Indonesian government has listened but it’s now losing patience.
Government troops have attacked some of the groups holding the hostage, and they’ve fought back. More troops are reported to have been moved into the Highlands. It looks bad for all involved especially the local communities in West Papua.
Phillip Mehrtens was kidnapped by a West Papua Liberation Army group because he was a foreign national caught up in a struggle for independence against the Indonesian occupation of West Papua.
The call for freedom from Indonesian occupation was the initial key demand of the fighters — a demand that’s likely to be ignored but which is understandable to all who know the history.
Kidnapping or taking civilians as hostages isn’t welcomed by many parts of the independence and solidarity movements for a free West Papua. But it can’t be ignored that West Papua as a country is also being held hostage.
West Papua, on Australia’s doorstep and bordering Papua New Guinea, has been experiencing a military occupation, human rights abuses and loss of sovereignty since the 1960s, while neighbouring and more powerful countries collude with Indonesia.
The recent kidnapping is just one episode in a struggle that’s been hidden because of political expediency, trade relationships, and the inescapable conclusion that West Papuan lives don’t matter.
If we want a taste of Aotearoa in the 1860s, we can look at West Papua in the 21st century. A hunger for resources, and a willingness to make war, and to divide and rule Indigenous citizens, drove the colonisation of Aotearoa.
Like Aotearoa, West Papua is rich in many resources, from fertile lands to mineralised mountains. As happened across Aotearoa, whole regions are being stripped of forest and turned into farms (mainly palm oil/PKE and rice). And roads are being forced into the Highlands to open them up to corporate exploitation of oil, gas, timber and gold.
At the peak of the wars for land in Aotearoa, there were 18,000 British troops in Aotearoa — and now in West Papua, there are at least 17,000 Indonesian military and security forces concentrated in areas such as Nduga in the Highlands.
Appalling wars across the planet are generally reported on by war correspondents, and wars in Europe, such as the Ukraine tragedy, are centre stage on our news. But the war for West Papua is barely mentioned despite the bombing of villages, the plight of the refugees, and the killings and torture by the Indonesian military.
Wars in our region that are affecting Indigenous people are, so it seems, not worth reporting. The fact that Indonesia makes accurate reporting of the situation almost impossible, from inside or outside West Papua, feeds the overall ignorance and disinterest.
Not long ago, on a solidarity network call, a West Papuan person mentioned the very recent death of a close relative in the Highlands. This man was shot when Indonesia security forces opened fire during a street conflict in Wamena.
This death brought home what even the politically committed can ignore from this distance. The reality of military occupation and colonisation lives in the streets where families and communities are trying to live their lives and maintain their right to be who they are in their own country.
This realisation broke through because we heard the story from the family member. It wasn’t a statistic or a news item. It was a person — and that person is one of many being mourned because of the violent methods of the occupying forces. Of course, the trauma won’t stop when the brief news item of what happened in Wamena fades.
This moment caused me to think about the official view of the Pacific communities I grew up with. In an utterly colonial manner, too many Pākehā still see Polynesia as a holiday destination where we go to play and bask in the sun while the locals serve and entertain us.
We basically ignore the western islands of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. We acknowledge the existence of the RSE workers because they’re working here, but many of us can’t place Papua, PNG, Vanuatu, Bougainville or the Solomons on the map.
Our understanding of our own history in the Pacific is minimal and sanitised. The memories of the war with the Japanese in the Pacific have focused on Anzac soldiers with the local communities as part of the exotic backdrop as white men saved the world.
Now, at last, stories about the true impact of our colonialism are penetrating the Pacific Islands myths that we have marketed to ourselves. But not the West Papua myths.
The brutal exploitation of West Papua remains remote from us in Aotearoa. Australia is equally culpable in their post-war racist patronage and praise of the “fuzzy wuzzy angels” (West Papuans) who supported their soldiers. Those “angels” have been abandoned to political expediency since Indonesia made their 1960s bid for West Papua — with the complicity of the United Nations with their eyes wide shut.
The kidnapping event was a desperate act to cut through the remote wall of silence and force a response from a foreign government as well as Indonesia. In media interviews here, apart from RNZ’s Pacific and Māori media, the entire focus has been on the individual New Zealander now in a dire situation because of the action of the “rebels”.
Phillip Mehrtens is indeed in a serious position which no civilian should face. But equally terrifying is the risk to the nearby communities who’ll suffer from Indonesian retribution, whatever the outcome of the kidnapping.
Few New Zealanders have ever walked down the streets of Jayapura or Wamena. Some have worked in the Freeport McMoran mines in West Papua or for the Indonesian airlines that fly in West Papua. Few of us have seen the dwindling forests of Papua, an essential climate buffer zone being raped for profit. Or met any of the peoples whose ancestry in this place is 50,000 or 60,000 years deep.
Increasingly, young Papuan voices are using social media and their passion for education to tell us their own story of this modern war in our neighbourhood. There is nothing new in this story for tāngata whenua of Aotearoa, which is why they have no hesitation in supporting a free West Papua.
But our ability to ignore justice at home has encouraged our politicians to ignore the people of Papua across the ocean which connects us. Hence the desperate bids for our attention and the ongoing risks to all people in the frontline of this modern colonial war.
Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.
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