Hunted for Being Students: West Papua

Nick Chesterfield July 2006

While the situation facing students in Australia is grim because of the actions of the Howard government, please spare a thought for your sisters and brothers, the students of West Papua. They have not been able to attend university or any educational institution in West Papua since March 16 this year, not because of lack of funding, but because they are all being hunted down and exterminated by the Indonesian military (TNI) for the crime of being Papuan and students.

I have just returned from a gruelling and harrowing mission to the West Papuan border to locate the entire university student body of West Papua, reportedly in hiding somewhere in the jungle to escape the brutality of the TNI. The results are not so good, with over 200 feared murdered, 23 in prison and 202 missing. We only accounted for 150 of these young leaders.

These students are just like you and me. They are students of law, health care, engineering, urban planning, arts, media, teaching and seminarians. They are young women and men who decided that they couldn’t stand to see the destruction of their country and the genocide of their people any longer, and took action.

Throughout the beginning of March this year, the West Papuan community organised protest against the giant US- and Rio Tinto owned Freeport Mine, the world’s largest mine. According to student leader from Timika: “Freeport mine is and had been the cause of human rights abuse, destruction of environment and is part of the problem; and the first place, we are the landowners and were not involved in the start of the Agreement. The Indonesians and America signed the Agreement without consulting the landowners,. That is why we students support the landowners to come to negotiations.”

Tens of thousands of people have been killed by the TNI security forces in the Freeport project area, funded at over US$50 million per year by Freeport McMoRan. The environmental devastation wreaked by the company is unparalleled, with poisoned tailings washed into the Aikwa river, poisoning all animal and plant life in its path and wider, and destroying medicine and food sources for the Kamoro and Amungme peoples. One can even see the tailings mess from space.

In this context, students from the main university, UNCEN Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise) in Abepura, just outside of Jayapura, took to the streets to defend their wantoks. Students, including Indonesian supporters, had also just been involved in the occupations of the PT Freeport HQ in Jakarta, which resulted in most of that building getting destroyed in the process. The military were incensed at this challenge to their 43 years of impunity and so issued orders to take out this movement.

“We started protesting on the 15th, by blocking the roads to UNCEN. We continued on the 16th when we made the main demand to close the Freeport mine. The authorities didn’t respond to the demand, and the Brimob {special forces police) and POLRI started to divide us into two groups: 1 from {on} Jayapura side and 1 from {on} Sentani side; and {they} tried to break the roadblock {set up by the students}. Also at the time, there were negotiations undergoing with the police and military, and an airforce intelligence officer was in the protest. He threw the first stones at police to provoke violence. That is when the clash started. Polri and Brimob attacked with tear gas and bullets and were firing into the crowd, and then the students responded with stones and sticks, which is when the police and intelligence were killed. As I was one of the organisers of the demonstration, I know I would be a target, and will be killed. This is why we fled to PNG.”

This was captured on film by Father Peter Woods, who played it to the world when he got back to Australia a few days later. Immediately after the demonstration, students fled to the jungle behind the university where 16 bodies were later found at the most heavily guarded rubbish dump in the region. The TNI launched Operasi Wanyambe to hunt down and eliminate every West Papuan student at UNCEN, and in the words of Ali Murtopo, one of the founders of Kopassus, the creator of Jemaah Islamiyah in 1978, and the man who infamously said “vote for Indonesia or we will cut out your tongues” in the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”: “to kill a snake we have to kill all its babies”.

Students fanned out across West Papua, some hiding for a week, some heading east, and some trying to return to their houses only to find them burnt down and their families missing. The TNI were close behind them, and shot at sight. One group I met with described to me the helicopters chasing them and shooting randomly when they got to an area they had information the students were hiding in. One group tried to flee by boat, but the navy chased them down, rammed the boat and stabbed to death one student first in the water, then in the boat. They picked up three others and they are all in prison, being tortured daily.

Add to this, is a massive buildup of heavy combat military hardware to find the students, and to launch an invasion across the border to PNG. This is imminent. At each border crossing there are four tanks, and in an area where the students were suspected there are now 2500 soldiers hunt ing them down. From the north coast to Sengi, there are 14,500 troops, and 13,500 to the south coast. On the PNG side, there are, well, 5 (five) soldiers.

The TNI are building camps with the militia in the Arso Wembi district amongst many others, and Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah (the hard drinking “Muslim” fundamentalists) have started death squads. Since late February, over 40 people have been brutally murdered at night around Wembi, usually by their throats being slashed and then disemboweled.

One particular incident that occurred was when a young Papuan couple were coming back from the markets in Jayapura. On the evening of March 13, after dark, ninja militias stopped this young couple on the road just east of Arso, late because of breakdown, and killed them with swords. They disemboweled both of them, and allegedly then while still alive slashed their throat. They dumped them in a ditch, covered them with banana leaves, dumped their motorbike on top of them and covered that too with banana leaves. The next morning, our interviewee found them because of the amount of blood on the road, and after alerting their family, ran to PNG.

There is no connection between any of the victims apart from the fact that they are all Papuans and from the same region. The killings are completely terroristic, and completely random. This is clear evidence of a deliberate campaign of extermination of West Papuan people. These are acts that fit the legally accepted definitions of of genocide. The international community must act now. How many acts of Genocide does is take to make the world see that Genocide is happening?
When you think of your struggle with VSU, in West Papua even belonging to the student union is a death sentence for you and your family. One student had his mother captured by Kopassus, severely beaten for three days, burnt with cigarettes and sexually assaulted, and the whole family is under threat. Most students have a litany of losing family members to the military and all students have close relatives tortured at the hands of John Howard’s best friend. This is happening every day – Is it any wonder people will try to get out as quickly as possible to a safe place?

Currently 23 students are in prison for this without trial.

We can make a difference here in Australia and it is our support that will help end this genocide. The actions of our government in appeasing Indonesia are so shameful that even Johnny’s own party are splitting like the mountains around Freeport. The change of our Immigration law is the same as the Swiss border guards turning back the Jews to the Nazis. Will you stand by and let our nearest neighbor suffer the genocide that has been going on for 43 years, or will you do something about it. We – ordinary people – did it with East Timor, and we can do it again. We need every university in Australia to have activities around West Papua and to organise in solidarity with their sibling students on our doorstep. We need people to activate to bring these students to safety, or to make the conditions safe in their homeland. We have already managed to make a very spectacular intervention at the Rio Tinto AGM in Melbourne earlier this year, and get the issue staying on the front page of the corporate media. Let us together hear the cry of freedom of West Papua, raise the Morning Star Flag and Cry Merdeka!

Nick Chesterfield is a long time human rights activist and a coordinator with the Free West Papua Campaign Pacifica based in Melbourne.

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