Ni-Vanuatu marching in support of West Papuan independence. (Photo: Vanuatu government)

Our politicians are very aware of how the indigenous West Papuans are suffering under Indonesia’s oppressive regime, writes Dylan Asafo. So why aren’t we speaking out? 


In March 2018, our government welcomed Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to New Zealand with open arms. The state visit was set up to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two governments and to celebrate their new status as “comprehensive partners”. 

To honour the momentous occasion, our prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, pulled out all the stops — including a pōwhiri welcome, a 100-person guard of honour, a 21-gun salute, and special visits to the Pukeahu National War Memorial and the Governor-General’s residence. 

It’s not too hard to figure out why Jacinda wanted to impress President Widodo. 

Indonesia is a critical market for New Zealand’s meat, dairy, and other agriculture exports. Trade between the two countries totalled $1.76 billion in 2017. That’s not surprising seeing that Indonesia’s population of 270 million is the fourth-largest in the world and the single biggest economy in the Asia-Pacific region. 

But while the visit was a cause for celebration and mutual economic gain for the two leaders, for others in the country and throughout the Pacific Islands, it was devastating. 

This was because, during their discussions, Jacinda told President Widodo that New Zealand supported Indonesia’s continued control of West Papua — even though the indigenous peoples of West Papua have been fighting for self-determination and independence from Indonesia since the 1960s. 

It’s not as if our government doesn’t know how Indonesia, after gaining its own independence from the Netherlands, has come to colonise West Papua.

The lure, of course, is what West Papua “offers” by way of land, forests, gold, oil, gas, copper, and other potential riches. 

For some years, after World War Two, the Netherlands and the Indonesians carried on a debate about who would take control of West Papua. Then, in 1961, the indigenous West Papuans took the opportunity to declare their independence and adopted their Morning Star flag. 

That led to the Indonesians embarking on an unsuccessful military campaign to gain control — and then to the United Nations holding a referendum in 1969 for the indigenous West Papuans to decide whether they would be an independent nation or be put under Indonesia’s control. 

And when 1969 came, the Indonesian military held 1025 West Papuan leaders at gunpoint until they unanimously agreed to their country’s occupation by Indonesia. That was termed the “Act of Free Choice”.

(For a comprehensive history of the colonisation of West Papua by the Netherlands and Indonesia and why Indonesia is determined to retain control, read this piece by Dr Mark Busse and Sophie Farber.)

What makes things worse is that our politicians are very aware of how the indigenous West Papuans are suffering today under Indonesia’s oppressive regime.  

There is evidence of Indonesian armed forces having murdered 100,000 indigenous West Papuans and thousands of others having been exiled for their activism and resistance. And, meanwhile, even though international journalists have been banned from West Papua, there have been any number of reports and graphic images and videos of the bloodied black and brown bodies of indigenous West Papuans being tortured and beaten by Indonesian armed forces. 

But despite decades of atrocities, including the state-sanctioned murders and human rights abuses in West Papua, New Zealand has refused time and time again to even criticise the Indonesian government, let alone investigate these abuses further. (For a sharp historical account of New Zealand’s “betrayal” of West Papua, see activist Maire Leadbeater’s piece here). 

Last August, however, it seemed like our government was going to finally do something after the Indonesian government sent in troops to quell student protests in West Papua and instituted an internet shutdown to quieten the independence activists. 

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade explained that New Zealand “continues to support the position [on West Papua] taken by the Pacific Islands Forum” — which was to call on the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner to visit West Papua and investigate the human rights abuses. Activists have been calling for this for decades.

Yet to this day, the government has still done nothing to push for this visit. 

But one country has done something. That’s the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu. Population? Just over 300,000. This week, at the 75th sessions of the UN General Assembly, Vanuatu’s prime minister, Bob Loughman, courageously stated:

“The indigenous people of West Papua continue to suffer from human rights abuses. Last year leaders from the Pacific Islands Forum respectfully called on the Indonesian government to allow the United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner to visit West Papua province. To date, there has been little progress on this front. I therefore call on the Indonesian government to please heed the previous call of Pacific leaders.”

In a shameful case of political gaslighting, Indonesia’s diplomat at the UN, Silvany Austin Pasaribu, responded by accusing Vanuatu of infringing the UN charter’s principle about non-interference in other nations’ domestic affairs. She said:

“Please keep the sermon to yourself. It is shameful that this single country continues to have excessive and unhealthy obsession about how Indonesia should govern itself. You are no representation of the people of Papua, and stop fantasising of being one.”

Vanuatu, like any other trade partner of Indonesia, runs a severe risk of political and economic losses from speaking out against an economic powerhouse like Indonesia. 

But it did that at the UN in 2017 in a joint statement (on behalf of Tonga, Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, and the Solomon Islands). And then, that same year, it joined with the prime ministers of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands and once again raised human rights concerns about Indonesian-occupied West Papua.

By contrast, New Zealand has remained silent at these forums, which is at least a little odd given that, under the Ardern leadership, our government has provided an unprecedented level of support for Pacific peoples in Aotearoa and throughout the Pacific Islands. Jacinda has even referred to New Zealand as a Pacific Island nation and has described the people of the Pacific Islands as “family”. 

So why is there such a mismatch between the pro-Pacific “family” rhetoric and New Zealand’s inaction when it comes to West Papua?

In a recent piece for Newsroom, I argued that one reason for this is that the New Zealand government still adheres to the racist “politics of disposability”. This is where white governments and institutions treat Black, Indigenous, and peoples of colour as disposable when they’re unable to exploit them for white gain. 

This isn’t just a result of capitalism. It’s “racial capitalism” where laws, policies and programmes are used to maintain white supremacy. 

This means that while it’s sometimes useful for the government to be “kind” to Pacific peoples — like encouraging Pacific migration after the post-war boom in the 1950s-60s and also today’s RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme — when Pacific bodies are seen to be of relatively little economic value, we’re disposable, and our suffering can be easily ignored and accepted as normal. 

Despite New Zealand’s strong commitment to this racist type of politics, the government has shown before that it’s capable of putting the lives and human rights of people of colour first, and political and economic gain second. 

The support for Timor Leste’s independence (which came about in May, 2002) is one heartening example, especially as that was in the face of Indonesian opposition, military might, and major human rights abuses.

So the New Zealand government has shown that it’s more than capable of taking action on behalf of the indigenous people of West Papua. The only thing missing is the political will to do so — and the pressure from the New Zealand public to create that political will. 

An election campaign is a good time to check what interest our political parties have in the plight of the West Papuans — and to put pressure on the incoming government to take some honourable action. 

Unfortunately, as Professor Richard Ayson observes, foreign policy issues have taken a backseat in the course of the electioneering as the country focuses almost solely on the unfolding impacts of the global Covid pandemic. 

There’s been no mention of West Papua or the Pacific Islands in general in the leaders debates so far (aside from Judith Collins’ racist weaponisation of her husband’s Sāmoan identity to claim she understands the pressures facing Pacific youth leaving school).

But as New Zealand remains silent, the indigenous people of West Papua continue to suffer under Indonesia’s regime. 

One useful step could be to hear, in the course of the next leaders debate, the simple question: “What about West Papua?”


Fuimaono Dylan Asafo was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in West Auckland. His family is from the villages of Salani, Satalo, Siumu, Moata’a, and Leufisa in Sāmoa. Dylan is a Fulbright scholar, and is currently studying towards a Master of Laws from Harvard University, specialising in Critical Race Theory and minority rights.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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