Magazine article New Internationalist

Every Signature Represented an Act of Courage

Magazine article New Internationalist

Every Signature Represented an Act of Courage

Article excerpt

Smuggled under the cover of darkness. Hidden among innocent-looking deliveries. Carried by people not known to the authorities, by volunteers along jungle paths, to highland villages unreachable by motor vehicles. Thousands risked their freedom - and their lives - to spread it in secret across a nation.

It's a lot more effort than we would usually expect to collect signatures on a petition. But this was no ordinary petition - it was a call for human rights and indigenous self-determination in a region where such sentiments are strictly banned. The Indonesian government is determined to hang on to the region of West Papua - a territory which it has occupied by military force since 1963 - and dissent by its indigenous peoples is frequently met with intimidation, violence or arrest. Simply raising the West Papuan Morning Star independence flag could result in 15 years of imprisonment. Distributing a petition calling for an internationally monitored independence vote for the West Papuan people is, in the eyes of the Indonesian state, similarly treasonous.

The petition campaign ran from May to July this year. According to the Free West Papua Campaign, 57 West Papuans were arrested during that time for supporting the petition, and 54 were tortured at the hands of Indonesian security forces. One West Papuan, Yanto Awerkion, is facing a 15-year jail sentence for organizing a gathering in support of the petition.

It is therefore all the more extraordinary that - in just three months - a staggering 1.8 million people signed it. Seventy-one per cent of the indigenous West Papuan population placed their signature - or thumbprint - on paper, in defiance of the occupying regime. Around 100,000 Indonesian settlers living in West Papua also signed in solidarity with the Papuan population.

This result has a huge historical resonance. In 1969, Indonesia's military occupation was 'legitimized' by the ironically titled Act of Free Choice, when 1,026 indigenous West Papuans were hand-picked by the Indonesian military, marched to polling stations at gunpoint and ordered to vote to be part of Indonesia.1

Indonesia's claim on West Papua rests heavily on this fraudulent event involving less than 0.2 per cent of the population. Now, via the People's Petition, the overwhelming majority of West Papuans have risked their life and liberty to call for a new, independently monitored freedom vote. The contrast with the 1969 sham 'referendum' could not be starker.

Gaining a voice

At the end of this summer, the petition was smuggled out of West Papua and officially validated by Dr Jason Macleod of the University of Sydney. As West Papuan leaders handed it to the UN's Decolonization Committee on 26 September, Macleod confirmed that it was 'an impressive example of community organization and mobilization across West Papua, one that reflects the sincere demands of the West Papuan people for self-determination.'

Benny Wenda, International Spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, said at the UN: 'Today, we hand over the bones of the people of West Papua to the United Nations and the world. After decades of suffering, decades of genocide, decades of occupation, today we open up the voice of the West Papuan people which lives inside this petition. …

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