Updated: May 25, 2021 11:40 AM GMT
Many Papuans each year are arrested during May 1 protests to mark the annexation of West Papua on May 1, 1963. (Benny Mawel)
Hundreds of Papuan students and activists held a protest in Jakarta on Dec. 1 to demand that that the Indonesian military and police be withdrawn from Papua and West Papua provinces and a fresh referendum be organized there to resolve the independence issue once and for all.
More than 5,300km east of Jakarta, thousands of Papuans joined a prayer service organized by the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province.
A source in Jayapura said similar prayer services were held in cities and towns in both Papua and West Papua provinces.
Papuans have openly celebrated Dec. 1 as their Independence Day, the day when their independence flag Bintang Kejora, or Morning Star, was hoisted for the first time along side the Dutch flag in the Netherlands in 1961.
The calls for a plebiscite came nearly 50 years after 1,025 Papuan elders chose to integrate with Indonesia in a flawed referendum in July and August 1969.
Their independence demand came despite the central government granting special autonomy to Papua and West Papua in 2001.
Since taking office in October 2014, President Joko Widodo has invested heavily in West Papua (now Papua and West Papua provinces), building, among others, new airports, seaports, power plants, and roads, including the Trans Papua that links almost every town there.
To demonstrate his determination to win the hearts of Papuans, Widodo also freed some political detainees in 2015 and visits the provinces almost every other month.
However, Jakarta’s seeming reluctance to bring to justice military and police officers believed to have been involved in violence and killings in West Papua, however, has raised suspicions among Papuans that the new infrastructure is part of a grand design to exert more military suppression against Papuans.
"Without human rights trials, Papuans will not only see the president as protecting suspected rights violators but also consider his infrastructure projects as being aimed at aiding the military and police to arrest, torture, or even to kill Papuans," said Laurenzus Kadepa, a member of the Papua House of Representatives (DPR Papua).
Violence and killings have gripped West Papua since it was handed to Indonesia in May 1963. Human rights activists believe tens of thousands of people have been killed since then, but the real number is difficult to gauge.
Papuans and rights activists have been pushing the government to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for past human rights violations in West Papua, including, but not limited to, the Paniai shooting in December 2014, Wamena tragedy in 2003, and the Wasior incident in 2001.
Military and police personnel opened fire on a group of protesters in Enarotali town, Pania regency on Dec. 8, 2014, barely two months after Widodo was sworn in as president, killing four youths, including three high school students.
In 2003, members of the army’s feared Special Force Command (Kopassus) and Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) went after a group of armed civilians in Wamena who had stormed into an army warehouse and made off with 29 firearms and 3,500 bullets.
During the chase, they rounded up dozens of civilians and tortured them, resulting in several deaths. They also burned down local people’s houses, churches, polyclinics, and school buildings, forcing thousands to flee.
In the Wasior incident, Manokwari police rounded up, detained, and tortured dozens of civilians suspected of killing five members of the elite Mobile Brigade police in 2001.
Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights said the military and police committed gross human rights violations in those three incidents and recommended that ad-hoc human rights tribunals be set up to try those involved.
Papuans had hoped that Widodo, a civilian with no ties to the previous regimes, would finally give them justice, but a joint team tasked with investigating several shooting incidents in West Papua has missed several deadlines.
In the meantime, violence continues. Nabire Police in Papua arrested KNPB activists Melkisedek Yeimo, Kris Mote, and Yulianus Boma on Dec 1.
On Nov. 29, Christian Albertho Claus Pepuho, chairman of the National Solidarity for Papua Youth and Students (Sonamappa), was beaten up by a mob in Jayapura.
Six days earlier, Sonamappa activist Riki Karel Yakarmilena was arrested for allegedly inciting people to raise the Morning Star flag during a protest in Jayapura calling for an end to American mining company PT Freeport Indonesia’s operations in Papua.
In mid-November, the military claimed more than 1,200 people in three villages around Freeport’s mining site were held hostage by the Free Papua Movement (OPM). The villagers were eventually evacuated but a source in Papua said some 200 Papuans opted to stay put.
"These 200 people are harassed and intimidated by the military almost every day because they don’t want to leave their villages and that raises questions over the whole hostage story," a source said.
Trying members of the military and police for human rights violations in West Papua would not put an end to independence calls among Papuans but it could provide a perfect setting for the government to hold a dialogue with them.
To start with, the trials of military and police personnel responsible for human rights violations in West Papua would give justice to the victims and their families and put an end to military and police impunity.
For Papuans, the military and police in West Papua are occupation forces that treat Papuan people like state enemies that have to be subjugated.
Human rights trials would also reassure Papuans that they are legitimate citizens of the country and their fundamental rights, including rights to life and to live without fear, are protected by the state and that any violation would be dealt with firmly.
Several pro-independence Papuans and their international supporters submitted a petition to the United Nations last September. A copy of the petition, signed by 1.8 million Papuans, was also submitted to the UN Decolonization Committee in a bid to put West Papua back on their agenda.
While both the UN and its Decolonization Committee rejected the petition, it clearly shows the extent of efforts by Papuans and their supporters to achieve independence for West Papua.
Some countries in the Pacific region have also thrown their support behind pro-independence Papuans and have publicly called for international teams to investigation human rights violations in West Papua.
Bringing military and police members to justice for human rights abuses is not an easy task but risking the country’s unity to save some rogue officers is not an act of statesmanship either.
Kanis Dursin is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta