Thursday 1 December 2011

West Papua doco chronicles Indonesia's colonial sins

A new documentary called Strange Birds in Paradise by Charlie Hill-Smith, which I wrote about last year, is now available free to view on Fairfax's BrisbaneTimes website. A lot of Australians will have some memory of the scene shown in this picture - a group of refugees who escaped from West Papua by outrigger canoe in 2006 - because of the uproar generated when Indonesia complained to the Australian government, first when the people were given temporary protection visas and then when those visas were upgraded to full refugee status. They settled in Melbourne. In the film they can be seen performing music that has a political cast. Charlie Hill-Smith, the director, narrates the film.

The film starts with footage of a trip Hill-Smith made in 1999 to West Papua on foot. Hill-Smith was alrready fluent in the Indonesian language when he took that trip. His familiarity with Indonesia is one of the reasons the film contains so much valuable footage, because he is able to communicate with the West Papuans he meets in a language they understand. There's a matey feel to these encounters that reassures the viewer about the truthfulness of the entire enterprise.

Indonesia's rigged plebiscite of 1969 is explained in the film. This is a matter of considerable interest to Australians who are trying to come to grips with the West Papua problem. There's no doubt that the plebiscite was a sham and has led to sham outcomes - there are 50,000 Indonesian army (TNI) troops in West Papua today. Violence flared in 2000, when West Papuans elected their own representatives, after which the TNI invaded, basically, and started killing people, including the elected leader. Hopes for independence were first raised, of course, following the East Timor referendum of 1999. And those events stemmed from the Asian financial crisis of 1997, with Soeharto finally being deposed in 1999. Links in a chain. So far, these events have not materially helped West Papuans. The people on the island continue to experience crushing poverty, poor government services, and inadequate access to money Indonesian businesses - including the TNI - generate as a result of their plundering of the resources found on the landmass.

Fully one third of the country's population is now Indonesian. Indonesia's policies in respect of their colony is to throttle expressions of independence, exclude international media, and exert influence on countries that would be naturally sympathetic to the West Papuans. A style of government such as this seems doomed, though. Calls for independence continue to be raised from within and from outside. I would say that it is only a matter of time before West Papua is declared an independent country. But those who ask for autonomy still need the help of people around the world. Just watching the movie will help, as the more clicks it gets the more credibility the enterprise accrues to itself. Anyway it's a good film. It's entertaining, informative, and well-produced.

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