They came from across their nation: tens of thousands of West Papuans gathering for the Third Papuan People’s Congress this week; an historic exercise in democracy, defiance and unequivocal bravery. After fifty years of occupation by Indonesia, facing the most appalling systematic brutality, they would be excused for giving up on peaceful means of resolving their plight, or indeed for giving up the struggle completely. But they have not.
Instead, they came together peacefully, under the watchful eye of armed Indonesian security forces; they re-affirmed their goal, not of damaging or undermining Indonesia, but of realising their basic rights; they welcomed representatives of more than two hundred tribes and various religions from across West Papua; they celebrated their cultural identity and raised their banned national flag; and with truly impressive transparency and professionalism they elected those who would speak on behalf of their independence movement for the coming years.
It was all to much for the Indonesian authorities. Within half an hour of the Congress concluding on Wednesday, troops moved in, firing tear gas and lashing out with their rifle butts. Quickly live ammunition was fired, reportedly killing a number of Papuans including those trying to help their wounded. Forkorus Yoboisembut and Edison Waromi, respectively elected as West Papuan Prime Minister and President by the Congress, were singled out and abducted, along with a number of others, who are now likely to face charges for treason.
Of course this is hardly surprising behaviour from the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which has consistently relegated the Papuans, along with other marginalised groups such as Ahmadyyia Muslims, to the status of second class citizens -or worse. Barely two months have passed since cronies in the farcical legal system brought the Indonesian state’s utter bigotry to new lows; handing puerile prison sentences of just months to soldiers who tortured and murdered an elderly Papuan priest; as well as to members of a mob who beat to death three Ahmadyyia Muslims, then rubbing salt in the wounds by handing a similar sentence to a survivor of the mob attack, for daring to defend himself.
Add these moves to the grim catalogue of rapes, extrajudicial executions and restrictions on religious practice, all against the backdrop of continuous hate-based propaganda from the state, and it is easy to understand why the prospect of free speech, cultural pride and free elections terrifies Yudhoyono and his thugs so much. Wednesday’s murders and arrests have simply reinforced the government line: that there is no room for democracy in Indonesia or in occupied West-Papua.
Nevertheless, though expected, these events remain truly sickening, and once again highlight the need for Indonesia’s neighbours, and indeed the wider international community, to urgently bring its leaders to task. The violations and crackdowns now are more flagrant than ever; the brutality is clearly increasing; and the fact can no longer be ignored that Yudhoyono is leading a protracted state pogrom against numerous groups not fitting with his narrow and frankly racist vision of the 21st Century Javanese Empire.
Those who lost their lives in West Papua this week did so whilst calling for human rights and for freedom. Those dreams are still alive – but right now they seem a long way off.