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May 29, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Double Colonisation: West Papua in the Pacific

Any real understanding of ourselves and our existing cultures calls for an attempt to understand colonialism and what it did and is still doing to us.

Albert Wendt, Towards A New Oceania, 1978.

West Papua occupies the western half of the New Guinea island and is home to two Indonesian provinces — Papua and West Papua. New Guinea, as a whole, is home to 800 living languages, making it the one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. There is evidence to show human occupation in the island since 40,000 BCE, and the island remained characterised by small pockets of settlements until the arrival of European settlers in the early 19th century.

The United Nations Declaration on Non-Self-Governing States was created after World War II as a process to move former colonies to self-determination. In the Pacific, one of the first colonies that was slated for independence was West Papua, known then as Dutch New Guinea. Instead, due to rising suspicions of the spread of Soviet influence in Asia, the New York Agreement of 1962 between the Netherlands and Indonesia transferred administration of Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia, putting the self-determination of the people of West Papua (the former Dutch New Guinea) off, for, what seems like, indefinitely. The people, the lands, the independence of West Papua, bartered off in Cold War politics 14,500 km away.

As part of the agreement, the people of Papua were to be given an Act of Free Choice at the end of seven years of Indonesian rule. The Act was determined to be administered by the Indonesian government, without UN supervision, and became an exercise in which the Indonesian government handpicked 1,025 people to vote on whether they would accept Indonesian citizenship or be self-governing, in front of heavily armed military personnel. The ironically titled Act of Free Choice has since come under fire by former United Nations personnel and many academics, activists, and human rights leaders — including the anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


So 65 years on, what has happened? It depends who you ask. The Indonesian government insists nothing is wrong. The pamphlets handed out by Indonesian Embassy staff at a protest on May 11 highlight the developments the Indonesian government has made in the provinces of West Papua and Papua — education, investment into infrastructure, and even the appointment of Dr Yohana Yembise, a West Papuan woman, as the Minister of Women Empowerment. The pamphlets are glossy and well put together. It sounds all well and good.

But after listening to Benny Wenda, a leader of the Free West Papua movement, describe being five or six years old and being forced to witness soldiers sexually assault his aunt and beat up his mother, those slickly produced pamphlets don’t feel so glossy. When Wenda tells us that the number of people killed by the regime since 1964 is estimated to be about 500,000 — or approximately the population of the Wellington region — those pamphlets seem fucking garish.

The Indonesian government like to draw attention to goal posts and infrastructure brought into West Papua, but with significant details withheld. In 1982 on the southwest coast of the Papua region, the Asmat tribe’s forest was to be used for logging purposes. The Asmat people were forced into labour, at the threat of arrests by government officials. Access to the sago plant — a staple in the Asmat diet — was severely threatened. There have been many other documented cases of relocation, forced labour (often without compensation), and environmental damage. So the claims of development and infrastructure is all well and good, but at what cost?

2017’s World Press Freedom Day’s flagship event was held in Jakarta on May 4. The day before, Indonesian police attacked West Papuan photographer Yance Wenda who was on assignment covering a protest for a free and fair referendum for West Papua. Reporters Sans Frontières have long since urged the Indonesian government to drop the intimidation tactics and the ban on foreign journalists documenting abuses in West Papua.


In 2016 the governments of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu raised their concerns regarding West Papua at the United Nations General Assembly. But, if we’re being honest here, the relative power and influence that countries in the Pacific hold in the international sphere is not exactly huge. Vanuatu has supported the admission of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua into the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional inter-governmental institution. However, Indonesia is an associated member, and when the two biggest players in the group are Papua New Guinea and Fiji — who receive financial diplomacy from Indonesia — it’s not as promising as it could be. Aid to the Pacific generally comes from four countries: Australia, New Zealand, China, and the United States. All four countries have significant diplomatic, military, or trading ties with Indonesia, so governments in the Pacific are not going to go out of their way to aggravate anyone, and with Indonesia seeking more influence, they are even more wary.

Money buys influence, and that’s the case in the Pacific. Money speaks; gold speaks; copper speaks. The forced relocation of indigenous tribes in West Papua made way for the biggest gold mine and third biggest copper mine in the world — which, together as one structure, cover about half a million acres. It looks like a massive pit and can be easily seen from space. According to a report by MiningWatch Canada, the mine dumps 200,000 tonnes of waste into the rivers each day of operation, and this waste is often contaminated with cyanide. These mines, with their profits funneled back to Jakarta and the United States, have also left massive environmental damage which I’m sure can be spun into some development jargon in some glossy pamphlet.


One of the many ongoing effects of colonialism is the marked shift toward the norms of imperial powers, including the entrenchment of patriarchy. That’s not to say that all Pacific cultures were egalitarian utopias before, but when colonial administration set up outposts, they were all staffed, and led, by men. As of March 2016 there were 559 MPs across the Pacific Island countries, not including Australia and New Zealand — 39 were female. If this is the makeup of legislative power in the Pacific, there is a severe lack of representation and balance across the board.

There is a very specific horror that women in situations like this face. There is a very specific horror that people who do not fit neatly into the cis-hetero box face. In the literature of postcolonial feminism there is a concept called “double colonisation,” and this refers to the colonisation from imperialism and the other colonisation from the effects of patriarchy. For the women of West Papua, this is very targeted in the form of reproductive and sexual violence.

And all of this is not to say that there is not a targeted violence that men face in West Papua, of course there is — but if, as Pasifika activists, as Pasifika, all the narratives we hear and are exposed to are of the experiences of one part of the population, we are actively only recognising one narrative and dismiss this alternate framing that perhaps pushes the discourse along.

We need to educate ourselves on the other narratives that we are not seeing, we need to learn from people like Frederika Korain who is a West Papuan human rights lawyer working at very grassroots levels. She works with outreach and getting healthcare out to women in the rural areas. The wounds of colonialism, of neo-colonialism, are still fresh, still raw, still being inflicted throughout the Pacific, and history has shown us that the threads of injustice are all weaved together and it is now, before we forget about it, before we can procrastinate it away, when we start thinking about the intersectional issues at hand. In the iconic essay “Our Sea of Islands”, Epeli Hau’ofa issued a challenge to find a new viewpoint, ignoring the status quo of smallness and remoteness, and to build interconnectivity and mutual support. It’s time our sea of islands be intersectional.


Organesi Papua Merdeka, or the Free West Papua Movement, leads the network of advocacy groups that seek to find a path to self-determination for the indigenous peoples of West Papua. They advocate for recognition of West Papua as a state independent from international and regional institutions, both governmental and non-governmental. In New Zealand there are 11 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum who have signed a pledge to call for a supervised, free, and fair referendum. The New Zealand government sees the issue as a domestic one, willfully ignoring it. The Australian government facilitates significant military ties with Indonesia, essentially condoning it. But the calls for freedom are getting louder.

Here in New Zealand there have been demonstrations by several groups. Oceania Interrupted’s interventions have included a silent march through the Wellington Pasifika Festival wearing over their mouths — indicating the silenced voices — the Morning Star, the flag of West Papua. In an example of artform as activism, Tere Harrison directed a short film, Run It Straight, about the importance of talking about West Papua with the people and communities closest to us. Peace Movement Aotearoa organises the raising of the Morning Star on the steps of the Beehive on December 1 every year, to protest the fact that raising the Morning Star in West Papua carries a 15-year prison sentence. As a personal plug — Youngsolwara Pōneke is a group of students here at VUW who work to raise awareness on the issue. You can find all the aforementioned groups on Facebook with a quick search.

It may seem small but, as Benny Wenda says, any talk about the issues of West Papua is a step forward. Asking the tough questions and holding people accountable is a step in the right direction. Using our places of privilege to amplify and listen to voices coming out of West Papua is a step in the right direction. Talking about it to families, friends, church groups, and bringing it up with MPs, are all steps. Many, many steps are needed, but they can be taken.

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