A secret war is being waged just a few hundred kilometres north of mainland Australia. There West Papuan separatists are engaged in deadly skirmishes with Indonesian security forces as they renew a decades-old push for independence. Indonesia seeks to suppress news of the conflict by restricting foreign media from the area and periodically cutting off the region’s internet access. Local authorities say hundreds have been killed and up to 45,000 displaced, a number Indonesia disputes, suggesting only 2,000 have fled. West Papuan leader Victor Yeimo is part of a new and emboldened generation of activists demanding independence in West Papua. He is pushing for a referendum on independence. Yeimo says “Fighting is a duty, the role of a younger generation.”
The island of New Guinea is divided by a line. On one side of the line is independent Papua New Guinea and on the other is the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, collectively known as West Papua by independence activists. West Papuan independence activists say the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua should form an independent nation free of Indonesia. It’s been under Indonesian rule for more than 50 years after being handed over in a United Nations-endorsed agreement. In 1969, Indonesia held a ballot called the Act of Free Choice. But only a thousand hand-picked Papuans were allowed to vote. Most West Papuans felt robbed and an independence movement was born.
The Indonesian Government says it has granted “special autonomy status to ensure the participants of Papuans in their development”. But West Papuan activists say special autonomy is not the solution. They want independence. Snaking through thick jungle and over highland peaks, the Trans-Papuan Highway will soon link the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. Indonesia says it will improve access to markets and services for people living in this region. The 4,000km Trans-Papuan Highway is seen by West Papuan independence activists however as a move by Indonesia to exert more control over the region and fear the road will open up their resource-rich lands to exploitation.
The contentious highway project provided the spark which reignited a smouldering conflict. In December 2018 Armed West Papuan separatists ambushed and slaughtered at least 16 Indonesian workers in Papua’s remote central highlands. Indonesia responded by sending hundreds of police and soldiers into the area to hunt down those responsible for the attack. One of the eyewitness reports from those who fled their villages was given by Irian Kogoya who said “They had a helicopter flying above us and they threw bombs. “People were murdered, got arrested, tortured, and were forced to dig a hole so when they got killed they would be hidden there.”
Indonesia has denied using bombs but admits grenades were launched during the operation. Raga Kogoya, a local community leader in the town of Wamena, now takes care of traumatised children displaced by the fighting. Of the 220 people taking shelter near her village, most are children. One child living with Ms Kogoya told of her ordeal. “When the first bombing happened they killed my father,” she says. “I felt broken hearted. Indonesia must take responsibility.” In a tragic consequence of the violence, children as young as 12 have been brought into the ranks of the independence fighters, led by 19-year-old Egianus Kogoya, Raga’s cousin. The use of child soldiers is banned under international law.
“Many school children whose fathers got shot, tortured then died in Nduga have come out to join the war” she said. Videos have emerged allegedly showing a shallow grave containing the bodies of three Papuan women and two children. Human rights workers claim the victims were shot by Indonesian security personnel. Indonesia denies it and says its soldiers are “a professional military organisation under a strict code of conduct and rules of operational procedures, including an obligation to respect and promote human rights”. “Human rights principles have also been incorporated in the rules of engagement,” the statement from the Indonesian embassy added.
For now, there appears no end to the conflict in sight. Some armed separatists say they will continue to target Indonesian civilians working with the security forces. “We will kill, we will fight,” says Sebby Sambom, a Papua New Guinea-based spokesman for the armed independence movement. “We will continue to fight, no compromise.” Ms Kogoya is determined to alert the world about what is happening in her country, fearing the West Papuan movement will be weakened and the indigenous people “wiped out”. “They are killed and slaughtered like animals,” she says. Tensions had flared up earlier in August when a group of Papuan students were arrested in Surabaya, Indonesia, following reports an Indonesian flag was damaged outside the building where they lived.
Indonesian mobs gathered and racially abused the Papuans. Thousands of West Papuans, many of them students, took to the streets demanding an end to racism and calling for independence. But peaceful protests quickly turned violent, with demonstrators and security forces clashing and civilian militia groups joining the fight. Indonesia deployed 6,000 police and troops to West Papua and Papua to quell the unrest. Indonesian security forces recently opened fire on protesters in Deiyai. Indonesia said the officers acted in self-defence and the crowd “ignored the pleas of the officers and attacked them with arrows”. A local church report and local media said the protests turned violent after a Papuan youth was run over and killed by an Indonesian security vehicle.
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