Saturday, 30 September 2017

Interview with Peter Woods: On West Papuan independence

Over the past two days we have heard news of a petition with 1.8 million signatures presented by West Papuan political activists seeking national independence, to the United Nations.  I have written about West Papua on the blog before but I wanted to find out more, so I approached Peter Woods, an Australian, to ask him some questions. This interview is the result.

MdS: Ok, so [the voice recorder is] running. Can you, Peter, just give me a little bit of background of yourself and how you got involved with the West Papuan people?

My involvement goes back a long way. My wife and I went with our little baby girl to Indonesia at the beginning of 1977 and we went to teach at a church school, a school for lay pastors, in West Papua. We first, initially, went to Java, to Bandung, to study the language, and then at the beginning of ’78 we were in Manokwari, the city of Manokwari, on the western part of West Papua, the eastern side of the bird’s head, quite a large town there. So, we were there from ’78 til 1983 and because of my wife’s health problems – she got chronic malaria – we ended up moving.

First, we got medical attention and then we went to central Java. We were aiming to go to the highlands but for various reasons it didn’t work out to go back to West Papua, which we were very disappointed about but that’s just the way it all worked out for us. We never thought that we would be involved again and while I supported financially some students for some years, it wasn’t until I made a brief trip in ’95 back to the Indonesian Council of Churches – they had their general assembly in Jayapura – I went back as the Anglican Church representative. And then it wasn’t until the end of ’99 and the beginning of 2000 that I began to be more actively involved, voicing my concern about human rights and the issue of self-determination for West Papua, which all of [the] Papuans who had spoken to me during the time that we lived there had actually told me about (and I said I couldn’t be involved while I was actually in the country otherwise I wouldn’t last very long). So that’s just the way it worked out.

And so, really, I suppose my involvement more fully has been since I met Jacob Rumbiak, who was a political prisoner for 10 years in Indonesia, and he came to Melbourne. So I’ve been, I suppose, advocating for West Papuan self-determination and drawing attention to their plight for a long while. While I was pastoring in the Anglican Church I brought two motions to our general synod in Melbourne about West Papua and both of those times – I think it was 2002 and then 2009 – they were supported unanimously by all clergy and lay people. So that was really good, because they had that on the books. In terms of what it does? Not a lot. However, it’s been useful for me to open some doors.

MdS: Jacob Rumbiak, when did he come to Australia?

He came in 1999 and he was - ostensibly - under house arrest. With the downfall of Soeharto, he’d been in – I don’t know how many - prisons throughout those 10 years and he was then released. The last time he was in Cipinang - I think - Prison with Xanana Gusmao. They were negotiating together as to who was going to push first, and so East Timor was to be first [followed by] West Papua, but it hasn’t happened yet for West Papua. So, he made his way to East Timor posing as a Papua New Guinea observer for the United Nations, and was able to get smuggled aboard an RAF flight out and got to Darwin. And he was given papers to stay. He’s now an Australian citizen.

MdS: So, he lives in Melbourne?

He lives in Melbourne. To be honest, despite my friendship with him, I think that he probably is the intellectual architect of the movement, has been for a long time. Together with those who were ex-political prisoners inside, [they] were able to form some unity organisations and then finally that culminated in the Third Papuan People’s Congress in 2011, which I went to. I was an official attendee though I didn’t actually go in because it was surrounded by 2000 troops and tanks and the whole deal, but I was able to get my recording devices in and so was able to bring out a lot of interviews and a lot of film [and] photographs about what happened there. And out of that the declaration was made, the one that wasn’t made in 2000 when they had their second congress, they never declared independence. They’d made the declaration then and they declared a Federal Republic of West Papua.

MdS: In 2011?

In 2011. The five key leaders of that were put in jail for over three years and Forkorus Yabaisembut was the president, prime minister Edison Waromi. And since then there’s been ongoing activism within the country and outside. And the good thing is the culmination of the three political groups – the Federal Republic [for West Papua], the [West Papua National Coalition of Liberation], and the [West Papua] National Parliament, all representing different resistance groupings - they came together in Vanuatu and formed the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. They signed what they called [the] Saralana Declaration [on West Papua Unity]. And so that was in Vanuatu. That was facilitated by the West Papuan group within Vanuatu and also the Pacific [Conference] of Churches. They facilitated that series of meetings and after three days they were able to come together.

So that’s the thing which really has put the international movement on a strong footing because over the years – and we’ve heard it said constantly, the Indonesians have said it and other international groups have said it – “We don’t know who to talk to because there’s so many groups.” But over these last three years there’s been the one united political grouping and as a result of that significant things have happened, for instance the admittance into the Melanesian Spearhead Group as an observer – hopefully they’ll be having the same footing soon – they’re now noted in the Pacific Island Forum (in the past they’ve been ignored), and a significant thing that’s happened which is what I’ve just noted recently on Facebook, was the presentation of the petition with 1.8 million signatures. There was a petition within West Papua, and also a petition internationally. And so Benny Wenda in the name of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua … that [petition] has been presented. That’s going to have huge repercussions, I think.

MdS: What’s actually happening? Where is that being presented to, which country?

Presented in New York. In September, they have their general assembly each year. That was presented in New York.

MdS: They have presented it [already]?

Yes. And so even though the vice-foreign minister of Indonesia said there was no petition – his name is Mr Fachir – but in fact it has been presented. Part of the terms talk about issues of human rights but mostly there was no genuine referendum given to the West Papuans in 1969. The New York Agreement was signed over their heads anyway in [’62]. And so that opportunity for self-determination is still to be played out and the West Papuan nation needs to be put on the list of countries yet to be decolonised. So that decolonisation committee, which is still a body within the United Nations, has to be activated for this.

And now, also, the good thing is that for the last general assembly four different prime ministers from Pacific nations raised the issue of human rights, and self-determination, for West Papua. There is a growing momentum and there is good relationship with that other political body which is called the [African], Caribbean, [and] Pacific [Group of States], they are going to find increasing numbers in that group to bring something to the United Nations. To make any change there has to be two-thirds anyway, so there’s got to be a lot of lobbying. But I think these things take a long time and it has been going on a long while. There seems to be a momentum now which hopefully will carry.

MdS: There was an ABC story about the petition that came out yesterday and it had a quote from the foreign minister saying that Australia recognised Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua. I was wondering what is the best way to go about addressing this … It seems like they did one thing for East Timor … And you’ve already linked East Timor with West Papua when you said that the two fellows were imprisoned together in Java. What’s the best way to go forward to change the mind of the Australian government about West Papua?

It seems to me that nothing’s really going to happen easily to change the policy of either the Coalition or Labor. That has been the stated position for governments since Menzies’ time. Menzies initially supported the Dutch plan.

MdS: What was that?

To bring West Papua to independence. So initially we supported the Indonesians, at least the unions did, in doing blockades to the Dutch, whatever, when the Indonesians after WWII declared independence and wanted independence from Holland. But then once Indonesia was settled (I mean, there was a variety of things that happened in their history) … So Indonesia, which of the islands were going to be in this new creation – because there was no such thing as Indonesia – once all that was more or less settled, Australia supported the Dutch in retaining West Papua because it was never part of the original Dutch East Indies, and it was in a different category. There was all of that history and then in 1960 the Dutch set about a plan to, over 10 years, bring the West Papuans to independence.

And so they had elections. They were more localised elections, but there was something called the New Guinea Raad – or the New Guinea Council – on which Papuans sat, and also local Dutch. That’s when they chose their flag - Nicholas Jouwe and others were the ones who were part of that – and a national anthem, and an emblem. There were a number of things written down, not exactly a constitution, but what’s tantamount to a formal preparation of a nation state.

Soekarno objected to that, declared war, made a number of invasions, incursions, in which they were soundly beaten by the Dutch, and also the West Papuans who were a police force, as well, and in the army.

But in the end they were bulldozed by America and there was a variety of reasons for that. Two principle ones, one [being] the political scene. Soekarno was seen to be cosying up to both China and Russia in terms of - they were non-aligned, but – coming under the influence of the Communist Bloc. And of course, this was Cold War time. And of course, the Communist Party was a huge party, [of] over three million members in Indonesia. And then also the advisor to Kennedy was good friends with a man who was the chairman of a mining company called Freeport Sulphur, and they were aware of the assaying that had been done by the Dutch in the 1930s, that there was gold and copper in the mountains. And so, for economic reasons America also chose to not support the Dutch.

And that’s when Australia, after initially sending representatives to the inauguration of the New Guinea Council, with the Papuans, changed its tune. And so, we no longer then were going to support the Dutch but we in fact were part of the architects of the New York Agreement, done in ’62. So essentially no government in Australia has changed its position since then. [Australia] raises issues of human rights behind the scenes but we’ll only publicly support Indonesia. And a few years ago, after the 43 refugees arrived and were given asylum here, and not sent back - from West Papua - then there was [a] tremendous diplomatic furore over that.

MdS: From the Indonesians?

From the Indonesians. They withdrew their ambassador for six, nine months and whatever. But out of that came the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia. And that’s pretty much locked us in to supporting Indonesia. So, there’s no sign whatsoever of Australia changing its position. And the things that were said by Gareth Evans and other foreign ministers about “the fools who were supporting [the] East Timorese quest for independence”, all of those exact things have been said about those who support West Papuan independence. There’s no difference. You can line them up side by side. Bod Carr said the same thing.

So, Australia would not encourage a move by the Melanesian/Pacific nations to increasingly support West Papua in those forums but in the past, [Australia has] been able to shut it down. But they have been unsuccessful now, especially because of the increased momentum through the Melanesian Spearhead Group and that’s why I say the Pacific Island Forum is now focusing on West Papua. In the past Australia has been able to shut that down.

MdS: You sent me that PDF about the Saralana Declaration, that’s a pretty important step forward because it unites all of the West Papuan independence groups under one umbrella, and so it gives more force to the things that they say. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. All the significant international developments have happened since then. And there have been a few prime ministers from the Pacific that have spoken up at the United Nations, at the human rights hearings in Geneva, but not much has happened in the general assembly. And that’s why these latest public speeches by four Pacific nations including [the] Solomon [Islands] and Vanuatu have been so important and significant.

MdS: What’s the position of Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea and Fiji at the moment are holding out. Papua New Guinea is a little bit like Australia. We’re very close to Indonesia geographically and therefore it makes it very difficult for them but there’s been multi- multi-millions from Indonesia pouring into these countries to seek to sway opinion and to stifle any support for West Papua. Indonesia has an unlimited budget.

MdS: You mean bribes?

Bribes and development, I gather. But I think they own the taxi companies and the markets. So, there’s a tremendous presence of Indonesia in Papua New Guinea. However, the grassroots level in all of these countries greatly supports the Melanesian people of West Papua and their right to self-determination. So that doesn’t always translate into parliament, however [there are] mixed messages: sometimes they say that they’re pro-West Papuan pursuing this, other times they’re not. And so, it’s probably difficult for the Indonesians to try and figure out what’s happening next.

So that’s where Australia is at. I think that if push comes to shove we will probably abstain in any decision that might be made at the United Nations, and maybe privately, behind the scenes, as they have been for many years, talking with independence people. That’s how it works, isn’t it? They have to say one thing publicly, diplomatically, and then other things also happen behind the scenes.

MdS: It’s a big thing. To get the Australian government to change its policy, especially let’s say, the Labor government, which is probably going to be elected in 2019, is obviously an aspiration of people like Jacob Rumbiak and the others.

We’ve spoke with many politicians over the years and we’ve made delegations to Canberra. The Greens have a policy of supporting self-determination. And there is a group called International Parliamentarians for West Papua, and there are a number of parliamentarians on this. And so, we’re really hoping that the people of conscience and of principle will in a sense cross the floor over this issue. People like Russell Broadbent who is a backbencher but I think a significant one on the Coalition. He’s very critical of the refugee policy. And I’ve seen him a couple of time about [the] West Papuan issue, he’s more pessimistic about whether there’ll be any change there. We don’t hold much hope but who knows. Anything can happen.

Who would have expected that John Howard facilitated the referendum in East Timor? No-one expected that. He was leant on by the Americans, who said, “You have to handle it over there.” And there was significant upheaval within Indonesia that allowed that possibility to happen. And if things had been different with Wahid - the president of Indonesia who was there for a while - around the turn of the century - he was very supportive of West Papua, allowed them to change their name back from Irian Jaya to Papua or West Papua - I think that things could have been different.

But Soekarno’s daughter got in and she changed her tune and so there we go. One thing that has had impact over the years is when there’s been pressure on Indonesia through sales of armaments – embargo - and also non-cooperation with the military. Those things in the past have impact. But currently America and Australian don’t have any energy for that.

Above: West Papuan independence activists holding boxes containing part of the petition that was sent to the United Nations in September.

Above: At the signing of the Saralana Declaration. From left to right: Jacob Rumbiak, Leonie Tangghama, Octo Mote, Benny Wenda, Rex Rumakiek.

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