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Fight for freedom: new research to map violence in the forgotten conflict in West Papua


Camellia Webb-Gannon, University of Wollongong; Jaime Swift, University of Oxford; Michael Westaway, The University of Queensland, and Nathan Wright, The University of Queensland

Indonesia has recently indicated it is considering investigating the killings of hundreds of thousands of people in the 1965 “anti-communist” purge under authoritarian leader Suharto.

If the inquiry goes ahead, it would mark a shift in the government’s long-standing failure to address past atrocities. It is unclear if they will include other acts of brutality alleged to have been committed by the Indonesian regime in the troubled region of West Papua.

According to Amnesty International, at least 100,000 West Papuans have been killed since the Indonesian takeover of West Papua in the 1960s.

While the number of killings peaked in the 1970s, they are rising again due to renewed activism for independence in the territory. In September 2019, as many as 41 people were killed in clashes with security forces and Jihadi-inspired militia.

Clashes between security forces and the West Papua National Liberation Army have escalated since January, which human rights groups say have resulted in at least five deaths. At least two other civilians were killed in another incident.

The latest violence was sparked by racial attacks on Papuan university students in Java last year, which prompted thousands of Papuans to protest against the government. The protests brought renewed media attention to human rights violations in the region and Papuans’ decades-long fight for autonomy.

However, because the international media have been prohibited from entering West Papua, the broader conflict has received relatively little attention from the outside world. (This week’s feature by ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program in Australia was a rare exception.)

Read more:
Riots in West Papua: why Indonesia needs to answer for its broken promises

New project to map past atrocities

Late last year, we embarked on a project to map the violence that has occurred in West Papua under Indonesian occupation.

This was in part inspired by the massacre mapping project of Indigenous people in Australia by the Guardian and University of Newcastle, and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s mapping of violence in Sri Lanka.

Our aim was to bring renewed attention to the protracted crisis in West Papua. We hope that by showing the extent of state-sanctioned violence going back decades, we might encourage the kind of international scrutiny that eventually led to intervention in East Timor.

Read more:
Will Australia take a stand on West Papua?

The map only documents some of the massacres that have taken place in West Papua since the 1970s, as conditions in the territory make it difficult to accurately record and verify deaths. The challenges include a lack of resources for record-keeping, internal displacement and frequently destroyed properties, and a fear of reporting deaths. Others have disappeared, and their bodies have never been found.

We also encountered a relative dearth of data from the 1990s to 2010s, in part due to few journalists reporting on incidents during this period.

For the purposes of our project, we relied largely on reportage from the Asian Human Rights Commission and the International Coalition for Papua (both of which have strong connections within West Papua), as well as research by the historian Robin Osborne, Papuan rights organisation ELSHAM, Indonesian human rights watchdog TAPOL and a comprehensive report by academics at Yale Law School published in 2004.

Among the most recent attacks is the torture and murders of scores of protesters on Biak Island in 1998, according to a citizens’ tribunal held in Sydney. Some estimates say the death toll may have been as high as 200.

Though far from complete, our mapping project reveals several broad trends.

  • The majority of massacres have taken place in the West Papuan highlands, the region with the highest ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous West Papuans

  • many killings were committed while Papuans were peacefully protesting for independence from Indonesia

  • given the numbers of troops posted to West Papua and the types of weapons at their disposal, the government should have had full knowledge of the extent of devastation caused by attacks by security forces and militia groups. (Indonesian security forces are generally known for being out of the government’s control)

  • in the vast majority of killings, the perpetrators have never been held to account by the government.

The government claims the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) is conducting inquiries into some of the more recent incidents, although there are concerns the body doesn’t have sufficient powers and the government has previously been reluctant to accept findings of abuses.

Why has the world stayed silent?

Both Australia and New Zealand have been hesitant about intervening in human rights crises in the region, particularly when Indonesia is involved.

In 2006, Australia signed the Lombok Treaty, which assured Jakarta it would respect the sovereignty of the Indonesian state and not support “separatist movements”.

However, Australia – and the rest of the world – did finally act when it came to the independence referendum in East Timor.

Australian troops serving on the East Timor/West Timor border with the UN peacekeeping force in 2000.
Dean Lewins/AAP

In his memoir, former Prime Minister John Howard mentioned East Timor independence as one of his key achievements. However, in office, he showed very little appetite for supporting East Timor independence and ruffling Indonesia’s feathers.

It was largely the diplomatic intervention at the international level by US President Bill Clinton, alongside the deployment of Australian Federal Police (AFP) working as unarmed civilian police for the UN mission in East Timor, that eventually secured the referendum.

Co-author Jaime Swift serving in East Timor in 2006.
Author provided

Media coverage played a critical role in persuading the world to take action. In West Papua, the media have not had the same effect.

This is in part due to what the Indonesian security forces learned from East Timor on how to control the media. The Indonesian government has frequently cut internet services in West Papua, enacted a complete ban on foreign journalists and denied requests from the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights violations.

Despite this, mobile phone videos of abuse continue to leak out.

In the absence of extensive media coverage, Papuan pro-democracy advocates and their supporters have been calling for a UN-sanctioned human rights investigation. There is also significant support from human rights defenders in Indonesia for such an inquiry.

As it now has a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia should fully support such a move. However, the military retains considerable influence in the country, and holding commanders suspected of human rights abuses to account remains politically difficult.

Read more:
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In fact, President Joko Widodo last year appointed as his new defence minister Prabowo Subianto, who himself has been accused of human rights abuses.

Given these challenges, what will it take for the world to show enough moral courage to force change in West Papua?

The right way forward is clear. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Indonesia needs to put an end to the media ban in West Papuan, support an independent UN investigation and hold accountable those responsible within the government for violent acts.

If Indonesia does not take this course of action, then diplomatic pressure from the world will be required.The Conversation

Camellia Webb-Gannon, Lecturer, University of Wollongong; Jaime Swift, DPhil (PhD) candidate, University of Oxford; Michael Westaway, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Archaeology, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, and Nathan Wright, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Overcrowded homes and a lack of water leave some Indonesians at risk of the coronavirus

Scope Images/Shutterstock

Sharon Bessell, Australian National University and Angie Bexley, Australian National University

A lack of access to a household toilet and clean water are putting many people in parts of Indonesia at risk of infection from the coronavirus.

These findings come from a study we carried out in 2018 that examined multidimensional poverty in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here we draw on data from one district, where we surveyed 2,881 women and men over the age of 16 years.

The study used the Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) to assess 15 dimensions of poverty including household access to a toilet and hand-washing facilities with adequate water and soap.

Read more:
Can you get the COVID-19 coronavirus twice?

The results are relevant now, as responses to the pandemic include increased hygiene, particularly hand washing, and physical distancing or isolation.

Barriers to hand washing

One-quarter of people surveyed reported having no place in their house or yard to wash their hands. There was a clear urban-rural divide: just over 30% of people living in rural areas had no place in their home to wash their hands, compared to about 8% in urban areas.

Access to hand-washing facilities varied dramatically between regions. As might be expected, the more remote the region and the more difficult the access, the greater the level of deprivation.

The islands off the west coast of South Sulawesi, which are part of the Pangkajene and Islands Regency, are so remote they are often missed from household and poverty surveys. The IDM study found 59% of people living in the islands had no access to hand-washing facilities at home.

Having to go outside the home to wash hands has serious health implications as it shows people are unable to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary to protect themselves and their families. In the context of COVID-19 that may be deadly.

Access to soap is also challenging. Around 13% of people reported not being able to use soap to wash their hands. The percentage of people with sufficient water but unable to use soap was higher in urban areas (15.9%) than in rural areas (12.4%). People in rural areas were far more likely to lack both soap and water.

These findings show poverty prevents people from exercising levels of hygiene needed to stem the spread of coronavirus in both rural and urban areas – but the issues are different in each, and so must be the responses.

An open drain in Makassar city, Sulawesi.
Sharon Bessell, Author provided

Barriers to physical isolation

The IDM survey asked about issues that prevent people from being able to isolate themselves.

A lack of access to private toilet facilities was a significant reason people had to go into public spaces. Almost one-quarter of respondents did not have access to private toilet facilities (in their own house or yard).

Lack of access to toilets was concentrated in rural areas where almost 29% of people reported no access, compared to less than 3% in urban areas. Almost 9% of respondents used only public toilets, with men (10.1%) more likely than women (6.9%) to rely on public toilets.

Almost 6% of people used toilets shared with other households. Women (7.2%) were more likely than men (3.9%) to use private shared toilets.

Read more:
Too many left behind: the failing of COVID-19 prevention measures in informal settlements and slums

In these situations it is not possible for people to physically isolate. The most basic human functions require people to interact in spaces shared with others and in conditions of poor hygiene.

Our findings showed more than one-quarter of people surveyed needed to go out regularly to collect water for household use. This increased to one-third of people in rural areas and was just over 10% of people in urban areas.

People in rural areas were twice as likely as those in urban areas to report not always having water for domestic use, such as washing clothes and dishes. Almost 13% of respondents reported not having enough containers to carry or store enough water for more than one day.

Almost 19% of respondents said their home was too crowded to be able to live comfortably. This was more likely a problem in rural areas, but one in ten people in urban areas reported significant overcrowding in their homes.

This poses a very significant problem: even if people can remain in their homes, overcrowding means they must be in very close physical proximity to others.

The pandemic challenge

The pressures to go into public spaces for water or to access toilets, combined with overcrowding within homes, indicate the high risks faced by those who are poor. The option to physically isolate is not available.

The challenges facing Indonesia are enormous. With sufficient political will, planning and resources it is possible to ensure people have soap for hand washing, particularly in urban areas where access issues are less acute.

Read more:
Sanitising the city: does spraying the streets work against coronavirus?

Providing people with access to hand-washing and toilet facilities in their homes is a massive infrastructure and social equity project, which cannot be achieved in the short term. Providing safe, public access points is now a matter of urgency, as is greater public awareness.

Despite these sobering findings, Indonesia is better placed than many countries. Poverty (measured by consumption expenditure) has been declining over time and fell below 10% of the population in 2019.

In some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, poverty is far higher and the challenges will be far greater.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions and support of the members of the Australian National University-Individual Deprivation Measure Program team, particularly Janet Hunt, Mandy Yap, Masud Hasan, Helen Suich and Trang Pham.The Conversation

Sharon Bessell, Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Angie Bexley, Senior research fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.