The Urgent Cry For Help From West Papua

Prominent West Papuan religious leader Benny Giay believes Pacific Island countries might offer the last hope to save his people.

Dr Benny GiayDuring an emotional interview with Pasifik News from Jayapura, Dr Giay predicted the Papuan culture could disappear within decades.

“Almost everyday, our people are dying. Almost everyday. Papuans are not being taken into consideration by Indonesia. Nothing is being done to secure our future.”

He says he’s constantly receiving reports of women and children starving to death and claims Jakarta turns a blind eye, preferring instead to focus on infrastructure and services for the influx of non-Papuan migrants.

“These are anti-Papuan development policies,” says Dr Giay.

He spoke out as member states of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) consider awarding full membership status to the United Liberation Movement of West Papua.

Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands will push strongly for the move at a summit of leaders in Honiara on July 14.

Dr Giay hopes the MSG can pressure Indonesia to hold formal talks about the plight of the Papuan people.

“We need a third party to talk to Jakarta. Papuans don’t trust Indonesians and Indonesians don’t trust Papuans. That’s why we need a third party to moderate,” he says.

Climate of fear

That distrust continues to be fuelled by reports of human rights violations.

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Just this week, a West Papuan student was killed while riding his motorbike in Nabire city.

Indonesian authorities insist the death of 18-year-old Owen Pekei was the result of a traffic accident but his relatives say he was shot in the head. Photos have emerged on social media that seem to support the family’s claim.

Witnesses reported seeing Pekei being pursued by security forces, apparently for carrying a bag emblazoned with the outlawed Morning Star pro-independence symbol.

Lack of media freedom

Stories like that aren’t uncommon but are hard to verify because of the continuing crackdown on journalists in the region.

In May last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced with much fanfare that foreign reporters would be allowed to travel unhindered to the region.

But correspondents are still finding it hard to get visitor permits and those who have say they were given strict guidelines.

Earlier this year, French journalist Cyril Payen was told he would not be allowed to return after a documentary he made about the region was aired on France 24.

Things aren’t much easier for local journalists.

Last month, Jayapura police stopped them from covering a pro-independence demonstration with threats of arrest.

“President Joko Widodo’s promises now sound emptier than ever,” says Benjamin Ismaïl from Reporters Without Borders. “Authorities continue to censor and control media coverage arbitrarily.”

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Silence from Australia

Peter Arndt from the Australian-based Catholic Justice and Peace Commission says that lack of transparency reduces the urgency of other countries to act.

“Last month, we saw police in Papua New Guinea shoot at students. That received instant media coverage around the world,” he says. “Within hours, you saw Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop holding a press conference and calling for human rights to be respected. Yet there is absolute silence about the continuing human rights violations in West Papua.”

Mr Arndt says Australia’s reluctance to off-side Indonesia is taking a major toll.

“How many Papuan mothers and fathers have to bury their murdered children before our Government shows a shred of decency and human compassion?”

He thinks Australia should be following the example of West Papua’s Melanesian neighbours.

“Countries like the Solomon Islands are helping to raise awareness through their actions at the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Hopefully that leads to action.”

Dr Giay has hope of that too but is realistic.

“Papuans are losing their identity. We are losing our lives. Papua is a land of mourning. There’s been too much silence. I just hope it’s not too late.”

(Officials from the Indonesian Government were approached for comment but said they wouldn’t be available until after July 11.)