Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020


West Papua

8:51 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

One of the great privileges of being a member of parliament is that you get the opportunity to shine a light on important issues that are too often ignored. Tonight, I want to do something that I've tried to do many times over the last decade in this place, and that is to bring attention to the plight of the West Papuan people. West Papua, which covers the two western peninsulas of the island of New Guinea, was occupied by the Dutch until 1969, when it came under the control of Indonesia. Since that time, Indonesia has killed more than 500,000 Indonesian Papuans—half a million men, women and children—simply because they were fighting for freedom and for independence.

I first became aware of the West Papuan cause through my involvement in the East Timorese independence movement. The conflict and bloodshed following the 1999 Timorese independence referendum resulted in the evacuation of hundreds of East Timorese refugees to Australia and, as a young doctor, I flew to Darwin to help with medical checks and ensuring that those refugees were able to settle temporarily here in Australia. I later travelled to Timor-Leste, where I visited the graves of many East Timorese people killed in their bloody struggle, and heard firsthand about the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military. There are some eerie parallels with the conflict occurring in West Papua.

Our assistance to Timor-Leste during the referendum was a bright spot in an otherwise dark history. In the 1970s, Gough Whitlam assented to Indonesian President Suharto's plan to occupy what was then referred to as Portuguese Timor. We failed to investigate and hold anyone to account as they murdered Australian journalists—the Balibo Five. They were murdered by Indonesian security forces in Timor in 1975. Indeed, subsequent administrations cooperated and conspired with the Indonesian military and President Suharto to obscure details about conditions in Timor-Leste and to preserve Indonesian control of the region. Of course, after Timor-Leste's independence, Australia spent well over the next decade undermining our newest neighbour, behaving reprehensibly in our maritime boundary dispute. Indeed, it's going on right now, with the secret trial of Bernard Colleary, who had the temerity to blow the whistle on the illegal spying of one of the world's poorest nations. It seems we've learned nothing.

The West Papuan people today face oppression and violence under Indonesian rule, just as the East Timorese did. For decades now, the West Papuans have endured a brutal injustice. Since the effective takeover by Indonesia in 1969, they have suffered a UN process that's been rigged against them and endured countless human rights abuses. What has been occurring in West Papua is described by many people as a slow-motion genocide. Half a million West Papuans have been slaughtered at the hands of the Indonesian military and militia. It's a genocide that's facilitated by the support given to the Indonesian government by Australia through military training and other support. Successive Australian governments have also supported Indonesia's actions in more insidious ways. Indonesia refuses free access to West Papua by the media and UN observers yet Australia has remained silent and we have been silent in the face of the countless deaths of peaceful protesters.

In the second half of last year, we watched the violence dramatically escalate in West Papua. It became international news. West Papuans were killed while protesting and were detained and charged with treason for doing nothing other than flying their flag, the Morning Star. This week seven West Papuan activists and students are on trial for treason for their involvement in the protests in Jayapura. For decades the Indonesian government has discriminated against West Papua's Melanesian people. There's been a deep-seated racism at the approach of the Indonesian authorities. The protests last year were sparked by Indonesian militants and soldiers, who called West Papuan students monkeys. The seven defendants—Buchtar Tabuni, Agus Kossay, Stevanus Itlay, Ferry Gombo, Alexander Gobai, Irwanus Uropmabin and Hengki Hilapok—face between five and 17 years in prison. Their trial is a travesty of justice, something that's recognised by many decent Indonesian people who have opposed sending these activists to prison for treason.

Just like we did for decades over East Timor, the Australian government has been silent in the face of systematic human rights abuses. There are many Australians who stand in solidarity with the people of West Papua, and I'm certain there would be many, many more if this tragedy received the attention it deserves. Over the years I've worked with many of these incredibly passionate, decent people, some of them from West Papua, like Ronny Kareni, Jacob Rumbiak, Rex Rumakiek, some of them Australians, like Peter Arndt, Louise Byrne, Jennifer Robinson, Jason McLeod and Joe Collins, some musicians, like David Bridie, who dedicated so much creative energy to the West Papuan struggle, and some Indonesian human rights activists, like Veronica Koman, an amazing advocate for justice here in Australia. Some put themselves at great risk simply for speaking out.

Over the years I have worked with this wonderful community on West Papuan self-determination and human rights and have witnessed them come under surveillance from the Indonesian authorities yet they remain resolute in their determination.

In parliament here in Australia some brave MPs have spoken out, politicians from across the political divide, people like Jane Prentice from the Liberal Party, Laurie Ferguson and more recently Ged Kearney from Labor. The Greens have always stood in solidarity with the West Papuan community. In Indonesian President Widodo's recent visit, our parliamentary leader, Adam Bandt, confronted him directly on the issue, despite our Prime Minister refusing to raise it. I hope that soon my parliamentary colleagues will do what I haven't been able to do, and that is to organise a parliamentary visit to West Papua to see firsthand the situation and report it back to the world. I hope I can support such a visit in some way.

I may be leaving the parliament, but I will continue fighting to stop Australia from repeating the mistakes of the past. I'll continue to support West Papua in standing against oppression and injustice, West Papuans like the 1.8 million people who managed to covertly and under huge threat sign a petition calling for self-determination only a few years ago. Their struggle is our struggle. As the West Papuans say: 'Merdeka'.


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