10 Aug 2016

Toby & Toby: West Papua isn't at Rio?

2:22 pm on 10 August 2016

Go the plucky little West Papua. How are they doing on the medal table?

West Papua is not at the Olympics. It is the western half of the island of New Guinea and part of Indonesia, with a population of about four million including more than 300 different tribal groups.

OK. What about Papua New Guinea?

No medals yet, but hotly fancied in the weightlifting.

And how does West Papua relate to Papua New Guinea?

If you folded the island in half sideways, you'd pretty much have the border between Papua New Guinea and West Papua, hovering up there above keen Olympics competitors Australia. The Papuas share indigenous ethnicities.

How come then West Papua is part of Indonesia?

The Dutch, having done their colonising thing, surrendered interim control to Indonesia in 1963, with full sovereignty granted following a UN-sanctioned "act of free choice" in 1969. The legitimacy of that has been hotly disputed, however.

How so?

The UN had ordered a referendum, but Indonesia instead convened a gathering of elders. Many of the 1000 or so elders are believed to have been pressured to agree to rule from Jakarta. This is at the core of independence advocates' demands the UN intervene again.

What's that?

That's the Morning Star flag, the symbol of the West Papua independence movement.

Was it flown proudly at the Olympic Opening Ceremony?

No, because West Papua is part of Indonesia.

What have these pesky West Papuans got against Indonesia?

Beyond the 1969 "act of no choice", as they call it, the West Papuan argument for self-determination points to years of human rights abuses by Indonesian soldiers and police (most recently with thousands of independence demonstrators arrested in the last two months), exploitation of natural resources, and the impact of transmigration.


Indonesia has for several years run a programme which resettles residents from crowded areas to more sparsely populated regions such as West Papua. Where the West Papuan population was almost exclusively Melanesian in the 70s, today there is a slim majority of Indonesian Austronesians.

Who said that?

"Slow-motion genocide" is the way the situation in West Papua is described in a report published earlier this year by the Brisbane Catholic Justice and Peace Commission's Shadow Human Rights Fact Finding Mission to West Papua.

The report's chief author, Sister Susan Connelly, said her visit to West Papua was like "stepping back 20 years when I first went to East Timor ... The same oppressive security presence everywhere, the same suspicion, bewilderment, frustration and sadness."

How is East Timor doing at the Olympics?

They haven't medalled yet.

Medal is not a verb.


Is East Timor an example for West Papua to follow?

Timor-Leste did secure independence from Indonesia, which offers some encouragement to West Papuan campaigners, but it would be nice to think that they might get a referendum without suffering the appalling violence that accompanied the Timorese struggle and brought it to global attention.

Are there international efforts under way?

Parliamentarians, lawyers and activists from around the world met in London in June to push the cause. Independence figurehead Benny Wenda called for a UN resolution to repair its "mistake".

He said: "For 50 years Indonesia massacred my people, 500,000 people. We need an international peacekeeping force in West Papua."

Who is this Wenda fellow?

Put it this way, if there were Olympic medals for escaping prison in Indonesia and gaining asylum in the UK, Wenda would medal for sure.

Not a verb.


What about the Pacific?

What about it?

Is there support for the self-determination bid?

There is an ongoing row about West Papua becoming a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which is opposed by Fiji and Papua New Guinea - motivated, critics says, by aid from Jakarta - and backed by Tonga and Vanuatu. A senior Vanuatuan minister called recently on others in the region, especially Australia and New Zealand, to stop being so lily-livered and do something for West Papua. Their acquiescence was "quite shameful", he said. "They need to step up and recognise what's happening on their doorstep."

Did the New Zealand Prime Minister raise the subject when he was in Indonesia the other day?

As luck would have it he didn't need to. John Key said President Joko Widodo brought it up himself. "They did raise the point quite specifically about human rights and said, look, if there are specific issues with human rights, then they take up the issues, they investigate them and they make sure that they are not repeated," said Key. "He seemed to be quite keen to have greater transparency so that there can be greater understanding."



What is the Indonesian position on all this?

They reject the independence clamour, saying the region enjoys considerable autonomy, that there is more transparency than ever, and that the nationalists are a minority.

One Indonesian diplomat, writing recently in the Jakarta Post chided the "deception of lies" from agitators abroad, accusing activists of fabricating footage showing abuse by Indonesian soldiers and claiming Pacific critics were driven by "domestic politics, idiosyncratic factors and personal ambitions" and set upon disrupting Indonesia's Olympic preparations.

Did he really say that about the Olympics?


Has the Olympic theme in this animated question-and-answer based column here stretched beyond any reasonable level?

Yes it has. The major West Papuan sporting story, since you ask, relates to rugby league. A West Papuan side played recently in Australia against a Philippines team, as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the situation in their homeland.

Did they win?

Yes they did.

Toby Toby stamp

*This column is part of a weekly series, published every month by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs