The 1st December 2019 marks five years since I first helped raise West Papua’s Morning Star flag outside the Scottish Parliament. Thanks to a friend and comrade within the Radical Independence Campaign (R.I.C.), I’d become heavily invested in a social and liberatory movement for a people more than 8,000 miles from Edinburgh – the Free West Papua Campaign. On the night of ‘The Count’ in Ingliston (Thursday 14th September 2014), I formed part of a six-person delegation for the Edinburgh R.I.C. Branch who bore witness to the official proceedings. We were observers remitted to ensure those tallying the ballot papers from the Scottish independence referendum did so accurately. Not ones to sit by idly as we waited, our branch had agreed to host Benny Wenda, an exiled leader from West Papua within our party – sharing our platform before the domestic and foreign press with a struggle for political and social freedom in another part of the world. It was as part of my preparation for the long night ahead that I tasked myself with better understanding the man and the movement which I would be supporting that evening.
Having cast my vote for Scotland’s secession from the U.K. earlier in the day, I spent the afternoon educating myself with all manner of media on the Free West Papua movement. Through English director and filmmaker Dominic Brown’s ‘Forgotten Bird of Paradise’ (2009) – a documentary produced during an undercover fact-finding mission – I was exposed, for the first time, to the history of the brutal Indonesian military occupation of the Melanesian region. A vibrant movement comprising a wealth of organisations including political, militant, and international social actors, the Free West Papua movement has sought to educate others worldwide on the atrocities and indeed genocidal practices that have occurred in the occupied territory since the mid-20th century. Once an overseas Dutch colony, West Papua had been ‘freed’ from Dutch rule in 1945, yet before the liberated country could establish itself Indonesian forces invaded the country (in 1963), murdering thousands as it sought to establish itself as the dominant power, extracting a wealth of natural minerals, gold (including by U.S. company Freeport McMoRan who operate in Grasberg), and creating mass palm oil plantations where great forests once stood.
Working to establish their occupation through ‘official’ means, 1969 witnessed what has become known as The Act of Free Choice (‘Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat’ [Indonesian]), a referendum overseen by U.N. which brought together circa one-thousand-and-twenty-six tribal elders (roughly 0.2% of the population) who were forced at gunpoint to vote in favour of greater integration of West Papua with the Indonesian state. Though the U.N. has acknowledged this vote was illegal and failed to meet international standards, little effort has ever been made to address the consequences of such dangerous malpractices. The two-hundred-and-fifty or so tribe based in West Papua still face strict regulation and a constant threat of military violence, with an estimated 500,000 West Papuans believed to have been killed since the Indonesian invasion more than fifty-six years ago. Yet despite this, West Papuan history remains largely unknown thanks to the blanket banning of international journalists from the occupied territory.
There have been important steps, however, with the formation of many cross-parliamentary groups formed – including International Parliamentarians for West Papua in the U.K. thanks, in-part, to former U.K. Labour Party M.P. Andrew Smith. As more atrocities come to light (including the recent discovery of a mass grave in Iniye containing the bodies of West Papuan women and children murdered by the Indonesian military), international action is more essential than ever. In a ‘landmark’ step, the U.K. Labour Party pledged to ‘to address the ongoing struggle as a core element of British foreign policy under a Labour Government’ should it win the upcoming U.K. General Election on Thursday 12th December, yet this cannot be the sole hope for a suffering people. More must be done to draw international attention to the disgraceful actions of the U.N. and Indonesian governments past and present.
For those eager to learn more, I encourage you to watch Brown’s documentary ‘Forgotten Bird of Paradise’ (2009) which is available for free on YouTube. Similarly, ‘The Road to Home’ (2016) follows the Nobel Peace Prize nominee Wenda over a two year period, offering intimate insight into the intense nature of spearheading an international solidarity campaign from whilst in exile. For those of you based in Scotland, a solidarity campaign was established in Edinburgh earlier this year – West Papua Solidarity Edinburgh (available on Twitter under @PapuaEdinburgh) – that intend to run a number of events locally. This is a fantastic step towards enacted international solidarity and education – one I am particularly keen to see develop after my own efforts to establish a coalition movement amongst university activists in the Scottish capital two years ago failed to garner support. For those so inclined, a number recommended readings would include Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power (Kirksey, 2012), The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua (Saltford, 2002), and Merdeka & the Morning Star: Civil Resistance in West Papua (Macleod, 2015), and West Papua: The Obliteration of a People (Budiardjo and Soei Liong, 1988) – each of which can be purchased cheaply online secondhand. Furthermore, I implore you to listen to the music of the Lani Singers – art stemming from the heartbreak and determination of the West Papuan story.
My evening spent in the company of Wenda on the 14th September 2014 was a life altering experience. Between supporting Benny to step before the international media and that I spent in awe of a leader who has endured so much trauma and violence in his life, I witnessed the human side to someone whom should be heralded as an idol and educator for liberation movements worldwide. There was even time to share a portion of chips and to gift Benny his first taste of Irn Bru (the authentic kind from before the recipe change). As ever, I encourage my comrades to live the political ethos to which they subscribe – education, organise, agitate. If you are positioned to do so, lend your support to the anti-colonial Free West Papua Campaign – donate financially if you have the resources, write to your elected officials, or show your support in person or online on 1st December as activists gather to raise the Morning Star flag. Those in West Papua face prison sentences lasting up to fifteen years for the act. Many can’t do it; but we can.