On Tuesday May 9, the Australian Federal Government revealed three men from Indonesia's Papua province were found in the Torres Strait on Saturday by Immigration officials. The Australian minister for Immigration Senator Vanstone said “because they arrived on an excised island, they will not be processed in Australia if they seek asylum, and are not entitled to apply for refugee status under Australia's Migration Act.”
The Australian government does not want to assist Papuan refugees because of the problems it creates with its relationship with Indonesia. The arrival of 43 asylum seekers in Cape York in January created a major diplomatic incident between the countries.
Papua is an Indonesian province on the western half of the island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland. Prior to 1969, Papua was the Dutch territory of Netherlands New Guinea. It has also been known as Western New Guinea, West Irian and Irian Jaya in the last forty years. It shares the island with its Eastern neighbour, Papua New Guinea. New Guinea is a tropical island inhabited by Melanesian people, with almost 250 different tribes, each with its own language and culture and is the second most biologically diverse habitat in the world after Amazonia.
New Guinea has been inhabited for 40,000 years. The earliest inhabitants were probably migrants from the Indonesian archipelago arriving in several waves. Due to the island’s rugged terrain and high mountains, different population groups developed in virtual isolation. The first European contact was in the early 16th century , when the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses visited the country he named Ilhas dos Papuas (Land of the Fuzzy-Haired People). The Spanish explorer de Retez saw similarities with his country's African colony of Guinea and called the island “Neuva Guinea”.
The Dutch arrived in 1828. They had been near neighbours for a long time before that date. The Dutch East Indies Company had gradually ousted the Portuguese from Java and the Spice Islands but considered New Guinea to be lacking in wealth. In 1824 they signed the Treaty of London to divvy up the Indies. The Dutch claimed Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas and Irian Jaya and the British took Malaya, Singapore and North Borneo. This treaty roughly defines the borders of modern Malaysia and Indonesia. The Dutch moved into New Guinea as later did the Germans and the British. They carved up the island between them. The German province called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland (the north eastern half of what is now PNG) was annexed to Australia as part of the Versailles settlement at the end of World War I. The island was a major battlefield in World War II and the Japanese were turned back on the Kokoda Track in the Owen Stanley ranges.
After the war, neighbouring Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands claiming West Papua as part of its territory. They gained full independence in 1949 without Papua. The Dutch retained its colonial presence in West Papua and prepared to bring about its independence. Through the 1950s Indonesia persistently maintained their claim to Papua and when invited to present their claim to an International Court of Law declined, given the fact that they had no legal claim on any part of Greater New Guinea.
In 1962, the Americans brokered the New York Agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia. This secret document was made without the consent of the peoples of Western New Guinea after the Indonesian invasion in 1961. At the insistence of the Dutch government, the document also included a guarantee that the Papuan people would be allowed an “Act of Free Choice”.
The effect of the agreement was to transfer authority for the territory from the Dutch to Indonesia. In 1962 President Kennedy wrote a secret letter to the Dutch prime minister De Quay exhorting them to reach an agreement with Indonesia and not to stick to their guns to allow the Papuans “the right to determine their future political status”. On October 1962, the Dutch handed over West Papua to a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). In May 1963, Indonesia took control of the territory with the tacit support of the US.
Papua was formally annexed by Indonesia under the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969. The Act of Free Choice was a controversial referendum to decide whether Papua would become a province of Indonesia or an independent nation. The Indonesian authorities arranged and conducted the referendum and they declared that the result was a unanimous vote against independence. A United Nations observer confirmed the result. It was a sham. While many prominent Papuan leaders were in prison, the Indonesian military hand-picked just over a thousand tribal leaders. These they indoctrinated under threats and military intimidation. The result was a 100% vote in favour of Indonesian rule. The Americans were happy with the result. Although they saw the flaws in the Act and understood Indonesia's intentions, U.S. officials were not interested in creating any problems for a Suharto regime they saw as non-aligned but pro-Washington.
Today, Indonesia shows no sign of loosening its grip on power. Unlike the ex-Portuguese colony of Timor Leste, West Papua’s problem is that it is rich in oil and mineral resources. The multinationals currently active there include Amoco, Phillips, Freeport, Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Shell, BHP and CRA (Australia). The extracted billions of dollars in gold, oil and other minerals all leave the country in the grasping maws of the corporations, the Indonesian military and the Javan elites. West Papuans are left with nothing except poverty in despoiled and polluted environments.
Areas within mining concessions have been dubiously designated as "earthquake zones", requiring the mass resettlement of Central Highlands tribes from their traditional homelands. As well as the land grab, Indonesia’s human rights record in Papua leaves a trail of acts of genocide. Violent military action and extrajudicial killings have claimed thousands of lives. There have been numerous massacres documented from the 1970s that include aerial bombardment, the use of napalm and chemical weapons. The most recent documented mass murder occurred in 2000 when 32 Papuans were killed in Wamena. The government has denied genocidal intent saying their actions are intended to repress separatist activity.
West Papuans are second class citizens in their own country, deprived of their rights and culture and excluded from the upper levels of government, business and education.
In 2000, then Indonesia president Abdurrahman Wahid agreed that the easternmost province would revert to its former name of West Papua but added an ominous rider "As for an independent Papua state ... I will not tolerate efforts to build a country within a country."
The Free West Papua movement have a plaintive and poignant message “"We have struggled for more than 40 years, and the world has ignored our cause."