“Samoan independence in 1962, if we had gold, they’d kill us too. Free West Papua!”
The rhyming chant rang out on Main Beach Road, as protesters rallied in support of West Papua outside Aggie Greys Hotel in Apia, Samoa.
Facing a long line of Samoan police, members of the Samoa First Union, church and community members gathered across the road from the venue for this week’s 48th Pacific Islands Forum, reports Nic Maclellan for the Islands Business magazine.
Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor crossed to greet the protest. She declined a request to say a few words, but her gesture was a strong signal welcomed by the small group of protestors. They carried banners for “Free West Papua” and waved Morning Star flags – the symbol of West Papuan nationalism.
The Morning Star was first raised in December 1961 in Port Numbay (Jayapura), after the United Nations passed crucial resolutions 1514 and 1541 on decolonisation, later establishing the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation. In 1962, Samoa (then Western Samoa) was the first Pacific island nation to gain political independence.
During the 1950s, delegates from Dutch New Guinea attended the South Pacific Conference (forerunner of today’s SPC – Pacific Community). West Papuan church leaders participated in the Malua meeting of Churches and Missions in 1961 – which established today’s Pacific Conference of Churches. However Dutch New Guinea’s bid for sovereignty was thwarted by the 1962 New York Agreement, Indonesian occupation and the 1969 Act of Free Choice – dubbed the “Act of No Choice” by many Papuan nationalists.
The first foreign investment agreement signed by the Suharto regime after the 1965 coup in Indonesia was with US Corporation Freeport McMoran, to begin mining gold and copper in West Papua’s Grasberg Mountains. In recent months, Papuan trade unionists at Freeport have been engaged in a long industrial dispute with the company.
In Apia, protest organiser Jerome Mika told Islands Business: “There is support for the people of West Papua here in Samoa. We are members of the trade unions, including workers from the Yazaki plant that are losing their jobs, as well as other members of the community. We’re all here to support our West Papuan brothers and sisters.”
Police soon intervened and quietly asked the protestors to move along. One protestor yelled: “Look at all the police. They’re asking Samoans to arrest Samoans to protect Indonesia’s interests.”
Lawyer Unasa Iuni Sapolu said: “We have a right to assemble peacefully and this morning we exercised that right. I don’t need a permit to express my disgust at what is happening to my brothers and sisters in West Papua.”
A police spokesman later confirmed to Islands Business that the protestors were required to obtain a permit from the Police Commissioner to rally in a public place.
The protest came on the morning a large delegation of civil society leaders were to meet with Pacific Islands Forum leaders – the first time there has been a formal gathering of community representatives with all 18 heads of delegation. Through the Forum’s Framework for Pacific Regionalism (FPR), civil society groups have been pressing for action on West Papua – in both 2015 and 2016, the largest number of FPR submissions were about West Papua.
Since the Port Moresby leaders meeting in 2015, the issue of West Papua has been placed on the Forum agenda again. At the 2016 Forum meeting in Pohnpei, however, leaders forged an uneasy consensus, with the final communiqué simply stating that “leaders recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua should remain on their agenda. Leaders also agreed on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia on the issue.”
Unasa Iuni Sapolu called for stronger Forum action this year, disputing that human rights violations are ‘alleged’: “We’re very concerned about the genocide of at least half a million people in West Papua.”
West Papuan leader Octo Mote briefly joined the protesters to thank them for their support. Mote, the Secretary General of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), is attending the Forum in Apia as a member of the Solomon Islands delegation, reflecting the support of the current chair of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of Solomon Islands.
“I thank you very much for your support behind our movement,” said Mote. “The root of the problem is the denial of West Papuan self-determination. Without touching on the root of the problem, the killing will continue because West Papuans will never give up our rights, our land. Put West Papua back to the United Nations is what we ask.”
With larger Forum members such as Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji stressing Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, other Forum member countries have been working through the Pacific Coalition on West Papua (PCWP) to lobby at the United Nations.
Last year, just weeks after the 2016 Forum in Pohnpei, seven island governments individually raised the question during their annual intervention at the UN General Assembly. Longstanding West Papua supporters like Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were joined by Micronesian and Polynesian nations: Nauru, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
During his UN speech in September 2016, Tuvalu’s Enele Sopoaga said: “The principle of self-determination must be respected and honoured. The violation of human rights in West Papua and their desire to achieve self-determination is a reality. This great body cannot and must not ignore these deplorable situations, it must not hide behind the guise of the principles of non-interference and sovereignty.”
Visiting Australia last November, Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told the Turnbull government to “please tell Solomon Islands and those six nations never to interfere or encourage West Papua to join them. Those countries better keep their mouths shut and mind their own business. It is better that it [Australia] speaks to them gently. If it was left up to me, I would twist their ears.”
As a Post-Forum Dialogue Partner, Indonesia has a large delegation observing this week’s Forum meeting.