Protests, arrests escalate in West Papua as regional summit draws closer

Protest in Port Numbay/Jayapura PHOTO: Free West Papua Campaign

Source: Ben Hillier, Red Flag newspaper

More than 500 activists have been arrested over the past month across West Papua as protests, demonstrations and meetings build in the lead up to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Summit in Honiara, the Solomon Islands.

Ronny Kareni, a Melbourne-based spokesperson for the Free West Papua Movement, told Red Flag that the crackdown by Indonesian police has been widespread – from the highlands to the cities.

“There is a growing fear that more Papuans will be detained and arrested just for coming out in support of the application … A lot of the prominent, key organisers and leaders in the movement are still being detained unlawfully.

“They are being mistreated – no access to any medical treatment. As far as I know, two weeks ago there was a mass arrest in Manokwari [capital of the province of West Papua], where up to 70 people were detained and the key KNPB [National Committee for West Papua, an advocacy and media organisation] leader, for up to 48 hours was not able to talk – he couldn’t even eat … A large number are still detained.”

The MSG summit will consider an application by the United Liberation Movement of West Papua for membership of group, which consists of Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, along with the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia.

West Papua has been occupied by Indonesia since the 1960s, but there is an ongoing campaign for self-determination and for international recognition of West Papuan claims for independence.

“The message from us to the Melanesian Spearhead Group leadership is that this is an important moment”, Kareni said.

In recent months there have been protests and solidarity actions in a number of countries in the Pacific.

“There is growing support from the grassroots … We know that there is an upward pressure on the various governments. A lot of the NGOs have come on board, the church groups have come on board and opposition political leaders have come on board [in support of the membership application].”

The MSG leaders have to this point been divided over the issue. PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill in particular has supported Indonesia and opposed West Papuan claims for self-determination. Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama has not declared a position on the issue.

“There are bigger interests at play”, Kareni said. “A couple of months ago the foreign minister of Indonesia went around with a briefcase of US$20 million, promising [MSG members] that if they support Indonesia’s bid to become an associate member, then the $20 million will be used for capacity development projects for the MSG … Fiji has been funded and supported by the Indonesian military … and Indonesia is bidding for PNG to become an ASEAN member.”

Regardless of the outcome in Honiara, activists have pledged to continue to campaign until freedom is won.