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“Fiji’s betrayal of West Papuan Melanesians” (ed. in FT 12/10/2019)


“Fiji’s betrayal of West Papuan Melanesians” (ed. in FT 12/10/2019)

Professor Wadan Narsey
Adjunct Professor, James Cook University
Former Professor of Economics, USP.

Fiji Prime Minister Bainimarama has rightly gained international prominence battling for Pacific countries at risks of climate change, likely to hit many countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati, decades into the future.

Yet he is deaf to the West Papuan pleas for help against the genocide and massacres of Melanesian people.

In the history of the South Pacific, the Bainimarama Government will sadly go down as having betrayed Fiji’s once strong solidarity with West Papuan struggles for independence from occupation by Indonesia.

Indonesia, which once proudly fought for and gained its own independence from Holland and which was once a strong supporter for other anti-imperial struggles throughout the world, will ironically now also go down in history as yet another brutal colonizing power which not only attempted to colonize East Timor, but is currently committing genocide in West Papua.

It is an utter historical tragedy that just twenty years ago, Indonesia redeemed itself after its brutal occupation of East Timor, by granting East Timorese a referendum which saw popular approval for independence.

That redemption of Indonesia’s reputation in 1999 was this year celebrated globally when a video was released of the former President of East Timor (Guzmao) embracing the former President of Indonesia (Habibie) on his deathbed, having forgiven him for his own sufferings.

Surely, influential countries in the Pacific like Fiji can do the right thing by West Papuan people, by giving them solid support internationally, instead of siding with the colonizing power and its facetious claims of sovereignty over West Papua.

It is even worse that a relatively rich Fiji gladly receives “aid” from a poorer country like Indonesia, clearly not in the spirit of charity but for political influence in the Pacific.

Once Indonesia also fought for independence

Pacific countries supporting West Papuan independence should remind Indonesia that once upon a time, Indonesia itself was also a colony exploited for centuries by the Dutch, and even earlier by Portugal.

Only after World War II ended with Europe in disarray that Indonesian liberation forces under the leadership of Sukarno were able to declare independence, which attempt was also initially resisted by the Netherlands, which still claimed “sovereignty” over Indonesia, a facetious argument used today by Indonesia against West Papua.

But it was only after international diplomatic pressure and especially with the support of newly independent India, that the Netherlands reluctantly accepted Indonesia’s Independence in 1949.

So despite knowing so well the indignity and oppression of European colonization, why would Indonesia practice the same with other Third World people, like that of East Timor and now West Papua?

Remember Indonesian colonization of East Timor?

East Timor had for centuries also been a colony of Portugal until its rule disintegrated in 1974 with a coup in Portugal.

In East Timor, the pro-independence party Fretilin, under the leadership of Guzmao, Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, declared independence, just as Sukarno had declared independence in Indonesia in 1945 after Dutch rule disintegrated.

But instead of recognizing the moral legitimacy of East Timorese calls for independence, the Indonesian military forces opportunistically invaded East Timor in 1975 and brutally annexed it as part of Indonesia, suppressing pro-independence forces.

Despite the United Nations General Assembly condemning the takeover of East Timor, a few other countries like US and Malaysia, recognized the “sovereignty” of Indonesia over the disputed territory, and this group sadly also included Australia which not only feared Indonesia as a neighboring Asian giant, but began negotiations with it over the division of rights to resources in the Timor Sea.

For more than two decades after that annexation, Indonesian military forces brutally oppressed the East Timorese with torture, executions, massacres and deliberate starvation, called genocide by reputable international law authorities.

Nevertheless, international support for the pro-independence movement continued right around the world, with its two leaders, Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, receiving the Noble Peace Prize in 1996.

Support for East Timorese independence was also incredibly strong around the Pacific, including that from the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement (NFIP) based in Fiji which once hosted Jose Ramos-Horta (who once also honoured my humble abode at 63 Nailuva Rd courtesy of NFIP activist Clare Slatter).

I have little doubt that it was international diplomatic pressure, including that from Pacific Island countries like Fiji, that encouraged the Indonesian President Habibie to miraculously consider granting East Timor a referendum to decide its future.

Indonesia repeating mistakes in West Papua

When Indonesia achieved its independence in 1949, its military leaders also eyed the Dutch colony of West Papua, whose Melanesian people were ethnically different from Indonesia. In a horrible twist of super-power rivalry, Indonesia looked to Russia for help thereby leading US to support Indonesian annexation of West Papua via a sham UN approval process.

The illegal annexation of East Timor was given a superficial legitimacy via a UN administered sham plebiscite through which the Indonesian military selected just 1,026 West Papuans out of a population of one million, and brutally intimidated them into voting to remain with Indonesia.

The UN has continued its shameful charade to this day, by not only allowing Indonesia full membership of its Decolonisation Committee (and the vice chairmanship), but also allowing this same colonizing power to block all attempts by West Papuans for their own independence  or to be even heard such as through a recent petition signed by massive numbers of West Papuans led by pro-independence leader Benny Wenda.

This same Decolonisation Committee farcically recognizes the alleged “sovereignty” of Indonesia over its annexed territories even those recognized internationally as having been seized illegally by Indonesia after the Dutch left.

United Nations is now a pathetic oxymoron paying subservience to the large countries of the world, while totally ignoring smaller countries fundamental human rights. Their overpaid staff should be ashamed of themselves.

Indonesia has for decades continued its brutal military oppression of pro-independence West Papuan people with burning of villages, torture, murder and assassination of pro-independence activists by para-military forces.

Sadly again, tacit support for Indonesian occupation continues from western powers like United States and Britain, whose corporations own Freeport, the largest gold mine in the world.  At stake are also other resources like forests and agricultural land for Indonesian colonists, seized by displacing West Papuans.

Sadly, today there are large numbers of Indonesian colonists in West Papua who may be expected to fight to remain part of Indonesia, such as the rise of an alarming “jihadist” movement threatening the indigenous West Papuan people who are fighting for independence.

Remember the Habibie-Guzmao Miracle

The current Indonesian Government might like to ponder on the great credit and praise which has been accorded internationally to its former and late President BJ Habibie, because of his enlightened leadership as President after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and his willingness to grant East Timor a plebiscite on independence.

The vast majority of East Timorese people voted in 1999 for independence.

But sadly, paramilitary forces supported by the Indonesian military who were opposed to Habie’s principled gesture, continued their waves of violence and terror against East Timorese people and infrastructure, as they do currently against West Papuans.

But in East Timor, an Australian led international force restored order involving the UN Transitional Administration for two years, eventually resulting in formal independence in 2002.

Today’s Indonesian leaders might wish to ponder that despite being incarcerated for seven years, pro-independence fighter and later President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, forgave Indonesia, very much like Mandela forgiving those who had imprisoned him in South Africa.

Just a few months ago, a poignant video circulated internationally of Guzmao embracing and farewelling the late Indonesian President Habibie on his death bed, also aired on ABC News.

While the video does arouse maudlin feelings in the viewer, more importantly it highlights that despite countries and national leaders doing wrong by oppressing other weaker peoples, redemption and reconciliation is still possible. The same ABC news story informed that East Timor’s government had opened a new bridge in Habibie’s name, on the anniversary of the East Timorese independence referendum.

Where is Fiji’s moral compass?

Once upon a time, Fiji joined forces with its Melanesian neighbours Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, to support not just East Timor’s call for independence, but also that of West Papuans and New Caledonian Kanaks.

Sadly today, Fiji has completely compromised its moral principles by supporting Indonesia’s farcical claim of “sovereignty” over West Papua, while Vanuatu and Solomon Islands gamely battle on.

Probably as a result of Fiji Government pressure, Indonesia has been allowed to have Observer Status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, despite its oppression and arguable genocide of Melanesian people in East Timor and now West Papua.

Fiji accepts aid from Indonesia, even for elite indigenous Fijian schools like Queen Victoria School, once a rich source of ethno-nationalist leaders like 1987 coup leader, former Prime Minister and current Leader of Opposition, Sitiveni Rabuka, who is also silent on the West Papuan cause, apart from making nondescript diplomatic noises.

It is ironic that even one former Foreign Minister in the Bainimarama Government, a leader of several military coups in Fiji with the alleged objectives of ensuring indigenous sovereignty, could so easily support the precise opposite on West Papuan struggles for sovereignty, for a few pieces of silver and “military cooperation” between Indonesia and Fiji. How wonderful for both militaries which could compare their respective coups against civilian governments.

Let us remember that Indonesia’s GDP per capita is a mere US3,894 (2018) while that of Fiji is much higher US$6,202 (2018).   Clearly, Indonesia is not giving aid to Fiji as a “rich country giving aid to a poorer country”, but for shrewd strategic reasons, to buy influence in the Pacific and dilute opposition to their occupation of West Papua.

A few days ago, Fiji supposedly celebrated the 49th anniversary of its independence from colonizing power Britain. Everyone knows that there is a moral imperative throughout the world that one people cannot “celebrate” their “independence” if neighbors are denied the same basic human right to independence and freedom from oppression.

For Fijians to celebrate their independence while ignoring the current brutal ongoing oppression of West Papuans by Indonesia, is surely great cause for concern.

There are a few church groups and other organizations which are publicly expressing support for West Papuans. But that support needs to translate into active international support by the Fiji Government, whose current support of Indonesia’s alleged “sovereignty” over West Papua  is shameful and a blot on Fiji’s own independent history.

It makes a total mockery of Fiji’s own joyful celebration of its independence a few days ago.

Surely the morally upright citizens of Fiji have a duty to demand to know why “their government” refuses to fully support the struggles of their West Papuan brothers and sisters against genocide and oppression by Indonesian forces.

Surely, the Government of Indonesia, a country of more than 260 million people and destined to be an economic giant in South East Asia, can take a higher moral ground among developing countries, by stepping back from their oppressive colonial ambitions, that stomp on the basic human rights of the far poorer West Papuan people, the original inhabitants of West Papua.

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