Murder in the Pacific
“I decided that if I stayed, I would will be killed. I didn’t know where I would go but I prayed and said to my people ‘Today I will leave you with tears, but one day I will come back and you will smile’. If I escaped alive, maybe West Papua can be free.” - Benny Wenda
You’d pay attention if Samoans were tortured and imprisoned for raising the Samoan flag, or if Fijians were murdered for peacefully protesting.
You’d pay attention if Tongan villages were burnt to the ground, women raped and children killed.
Yet there is an island in the Pacific where these horrors are actively taking place and the Pacific region isnt paying enough attention, says Saina Tomi Setu from Samoa First Union, who is helping to publicise the plight of West Papua in Apia while the Pacific Islands Forum Summit is being held.
As Pacific people we are often too comfortable in our freedom, scrolling through global news of recent race hate violence but not connecting to the human rights violations happening right next door.
Often claimed by the Indonesian Government to be a 'province of Indonesia', West Papua is a Pacific nation that continues to bear the brutal brunt of violence from the ruling Indonesian military. While there seems to now be media fatique around the issues West Papua continutes to face, their fight for independance are still as relevant now as they were two years ago. Something that the Samoa First Union group is determined to put in front of the Pacific Forum delegates in Samoa.
Saina says that Samoans in particular should be supporting West Papua's fight for freedom as Samoa has lead the way for Independance in the region.
"We want to get the visibility out there for the Pacific Forum delegates but Samoans to know that there is support for West Papua here in our country, we have had so many messages from people wanting to support our demonstration - there's never been anything like this in Samoa - it's a peaceful demonstration and the first chance people who care have had to show their support,"
West Papuans are a Pacific People who have been subdued by Indonesian forces for over 50 years. If you’ve never heard about West Papua, it’s because Indonesia doesn’t want you to know. Restrictions on media coverage on the Island are still stringent and stories on the ground never go further than the shore.
The Australian West Papua Association has also called on the forum members to keep raising the human rights abuses with the Indonesian government and to pressure them to allow a fact finding mission to the territory. They have called for West Papua to have an official voice within PIF itself.
West Papuan freedon fighter Benny Wenda estimates that over 500,000 West Papuan men, women and children have been murdered in their homeland by the Indonesian military who have occupied the area since 1969 -a level of genocide that still lies under the radar in the Pacific region and to the wider world.
Trying to understand why a nation as big as Indonesia would want to occupy such a small Pacific island isn’t hard - West Papua offers up bountiful mineral wealth that has been literally ripe for the picking as West Papua is literally sitting on a gold mine. The world’s largest gold mine, a gigantic wound in the earth, is located in the heart of West Papua.
As well as gold, the island is rich in other natural resources like copper, timber, oil and gas. Capitalizing on mother earth is nothing new, but the systematic eradication of human beings in the process has never before been seen in the Pacific.
“They want our resources, they’re not interested in us. They look at us as sub-human.” – Benny Wenda.
Benny, who escaped prison and fled West Papua in 2002, is a leader, activist, and one of very few who have managed to spread the word about the conflict in his country.
During his last visit to Aotearoa in May, Benny told us about the time when Indonesia took power. In 1969 a referendum ironically called the “Act of Free Choice” took place in West Papua. From a population of around one million, a mere 1260 were selected to vote for independence or an Indonesian take over.
Benny’s father was one chosen to vote.
“They were held at gun point to vote. When they said “Indonesia” you were to put your hand up and stand. If you were voting for Papua you remained sitting. If they stood for West Papua, some of them had their tongues cut out, some dropped from helicopters.” – Benny.
And that is how a nation was stolen. What happened next was 50 years of death and destruction of both land and people. The Indonesian military actively incite violence to justify their presence in the area. If you are peacefully protesting you will be arrested. If you display the morning star flag you will be arrested. If you resist you will be arrested.
While the rest of the Pacific can happily boast about the beauty of our freedom, our Pacific brothers and sisters continue to suffer, striving for the most basic of humna rights and Benny says the Pacific will not be a free region until West Papua achieves self-determination. The only hands strong enough to set them free are hands of the same kind, ours.
How can we help? Awareness. Ordinary involvement putting pressure on our leaders is essential. The age of social media means messages can be spread within seconds.
West Papuan People deserve to be acknowledged and assisted, mostly importantly by the other Pacific islands.
Written by Timēna Apa
Edited by Lisa Taouma