By LIAT COLLINS
“The UN, where Israel is singled out for condemnation as a matter of course, is far from able to provide the solution for world peace.”
Poor West Papuans. Among all the global conflicts and human rights concerns that manage to grab headlines, the West Papuans are barely on the map. In the real world they’re not on the map either – at least not as masters of their own fate in their own homeland.
A concerned reader in Canada wrote to me recently about their often-overlooked plight seeking to grant their beleaguered independence movement some publicity.
A bit of background for those who are only now hearing their story: West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, bordering the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, some 250 km north of Australia. After centuries of Dutch colonization, West Papua was promised independence in 1961. Two years later, as the Western world looked the other way, Indonesia forcibly took over the area, which is rich in natural resources, including gold. In 1969, under the ironically named Act of Free Choice – it was neither free nor representative – West Papua’s official incorporation into Indonesia was finalized.
I first learned of their situation in an opinion piece written by Adam Perry in The Jerusalem Post in February 2017 under the headline “West Papua – the forgotten people.” In it he wrote, “Since 1963, an estimated 500,000 West Papuans have died at the hands of the brutal Indonesian occupying forces, accounting for more than 25% of the population… Daily killing, torture and imprisonment without trial by the Indonesian military and police carries on with no consequences and little condemnation.”
Accurate figures are hard to come by, in part because of a ban on media coverage imposed by Indonesia, but dozens of Papuans were reportedly killed during a wave of protests last summer.
The reader directed me to a Los Angeles Times story headed: “George Floyd’s death inspires an unlikely movement in Indonesia: Papuan Lives Matter.”
How can something so right be so wrong? The only way the Papuans can get attention is by a comparison with a situation which is not like their own. They face dreadful racism, violence and repression for being a black, Melanesian, indigenous people – most of them Christian – at the hands of powerful and staunchly Muslim Indonesia.
They might carry similar emotional baggage, but the West Papuans do not share the same journey as blacks in the US.
But the publicity helped. Buchtar Tabuni, found guilty of treason by an Indonesian court in June for his role in last year’s protests, received an unexpectedly light sentence of just 11 months, instead of the 17 years that the prosecution sought. Treason, activists note, includes raising the banned Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence.
The West Papuans are far from being the only underrepresented independence movement. Roughly the same time I learned of the Papuans’ situation, my teenage son became interested in the fate and lack of state of Balochistan which seeks to (re)gain independence from Pakistan.
By chance, this week I received an email from Baloch Khan, the spokesperson for the umbrella organization of the Baloch pro-independence organizations, Baloch Raj Aajoi Sangar. The group declared that its members and the Sindh pro-independence organization – another movement most people have never heard of – “announced the formation of a united front and joint strategy to liberate the oppressed Balochistan and Sindh from Pakistan.”
According to Khan’s press release, participants at a recent meeting “unanimously agreed that the Sindhi and Baloch nation have had political, historical and cultural ties that have persisted for thousands of years. Currently, both nations aim for independence and both consider Pakistan state (Punjab) an archenemy. Therefore, it is the need of the time for both historically neighboring nations to form a united resistance front.”
Both the Sindh and Balochis are also protesting what they describe as “the expansionist and oppressive resolves of China” and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
I can’t authenticate the identity of the spokesman, but the struggles for independence by both the Balochis and the Sindh are definitely authentic, albeit somewhat poorer cousins of the Kashmiris whose (often violent) fight for independence is better known.
I almost missed the renewed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan this month. Fistfights among supporters in clashes around the world gained more attention than the suffering of victims in the two warring countries.
Meantime, I feel the Kurds have been treated particularly unfairly. To a certain extent the victim of their own infighting, there is nonetheless no question that they have their own culture, history, language and geographical region. They’re already a nation, what they lack is a state.
Elsewhere, the Turkic Uighur community in China is undergoing what seems to be a systematic genocidal campaign with forced sterilizations and “re-education programs” run by Communist China. Among those speaking out against the atrocities is the UK’s Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
“As a human being who believes in the sanctity of human life, I am deeply troubled by what is happening to the Uighur Muslim population in China. As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing,” the former chief rabbi wrote in a Facebook post last week.
“That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorized, victimized, intimidated and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal and a desecration of faith itself.”
Orthodox Israeli rabbis and spiritual leaders, including Rabbi Benny Lau, have also called on the Israeli government to halt arms sales to Myanmar for its apparent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim community from the Rakhine region. Eli Joseph, a British-born Israeli, has been on hunger strike across from the Knesset lobbying to ban to weapons sales to human-rights violators including Myanmar, Cameroon and South Sudan. Joseph was planning a special prayer session for Tisha Be’av this week.
“If we help someone else commit genocide, we are leading to our own destruction. We don’t want to destroy the state we love,” he told The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov.
The message of oppressed minorities is getting out. On July 28, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, issued a statement saying: “We are appalled by the ongoing and egregious violations of human rights and religious freedom that are taking place around the world, often with tragic results. It is unacceptable for any group to suffer state-sponsored discrimination for attempting to practice their faith.”
The statement mentioned, in particular, Christians who “are victims of mass murder and oppression by intolerant regimes,” Uighurs, Yazidis and Kurds.
It is strange to think that right now – had it not been for the novel coronavirus – world news should have been dominated by headlines from the Olympic Games. The games usually provide human interest stories ranging from major achievements to minor scandals. But the Olympics – and world – changed forever in September 1972, when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes (and a German policeman.)
It was the first time an international event was hijacked by terrorists. But it was not the last. The Palestinian struggle shot to fame in both senses of the phrase through terrorism. It was a deadly lesson. The use of terrorism by independence movements should be universally denounced.
In a world that remains fixated on the West Bank and the Palestinians; the West Papuans can’t compete. And the UN, where Israel is singled out for condemnation as a matter of course, is far from able to provide the solution for world peace.
Don’t forget that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council include China and Russia – both of which were also honored to host Olympic Games despite their record on human rights.
And just consider some of the countries that were among those elected in January to three-year terms on the UN’s Human Rights Council: Libya, Sudan and Indonesia. The West Papuan survivors of Indonesian massacres could die laughing. (*)
Liat Collins was born and raised in Britain and emigrated to Israel in 1979, when she immediately joined the IDF.
After learning Hebrew during her military service, she received a bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies and international relations at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She followed that with a master’s degree (cum laude) in communications.
Liat has worked at The Jerusalem Post since 1988 in various positions as a reporter, columnist and editor. She received the Life and Environment Award from the umbrella organization of Israeli green NGOs for her contribution to raising the standards of environmental reporting and won praise for her coverage of the Oslo Accords and diplomatic process as parliamentary reporter.