Saturday, 22 May 2010

An unlikely hero

It’s a striking picture – there’s no doubt about that. Six female tribespeople in traditional dress, surrounded by Papuan rainforest, hold up a large picture of David Cameron with his thumb in the air.

But there is a tragic background to it. The women are indigenous West Papuans – and they are facing genocide.

Weeks after gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1961, West Papua was invaded by Indonesia. Intervention from the US and pressure from the UN led to an independence referendum -but it was to be overseen by………Indonesia. Declaring the West Papuans ‘too primitive’ to understand democracy the Indonesian government hand-picked 1026 from the 1 000 000 population to take part – threatening to kill them and their families if they voted in favour of independence. Unsurprisingly the result was unanimously in favour of Indonesian rule.

All the while the world stood by and did nothing. The referendum was formerly titled the Act of Free Choice. Today West Papuans call it the Act of No Choice. You can see why.

Since that time the Indonesian government has enforced its rule of the province with an iron fist. Much like in East Timor it has overseen systematic slaughter, rape and torture. Those resisting occupation are often thrown into jail without food or water and are left to die. Timbil Silaen – who was chief of Indonesian police in East Timor; and Eurico Guterres – who was leader of the pro Indonesian militia there, are both in positions of authority – despite facing accusations of war crimes during the 1990s.

So where does Cameron come into all this? Well he met West Papuan independence leader Benny Wanda when he first claimed asylum in the UK in 2002. And now the West Papuan people hope that, as Prime Minister of the UK, he’ll be brave enough to take a stand against the Indonesian occupation in a way that none of his predecessors –or any others world leader for that matter- has done.

He certainly has the influence. As well as leading a state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, he leads a state whose biggest cooperation happens to be one of the largest investors in West Papua. One reason for the oppression is that the Indonesian government fears the breakup of their fading Javanese empire. The other is that – under the Papuan soil –lies 14 trillion cubic meters of gas. This is extracted by a BP refinery which generates billions of dollars each year.

Were Cameron to make a serious noise about the occupation – including pressure on BP – progress can be made. It would be naïve to expect West Papuan independence overnight but international pressure could lead to at least some letup in the horrendous human rights abuses. And anyway – it used to be difficult to believe East Timor would ever be free.

So what can we do? Join the Free West Papua Campaign, contact Tony Baldry- chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission and contact David Cameron himself. If we- the UK public – speak out loudly enough he has to listen.

We owe it to the West Papuan people; not least Buchtar Tabuni and Victor Yiemo – two political prisoners – who in a far darker photo lean out between the bars of their cage with a simple message for Cameron: “We need you.”

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