Human Sacrifice

West Papua, in Indonesia, is being surrended for the sake of geopolitics

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th September 1999.

The West’s concern for human rights, the Indonesian government has been promised, stops in East Timor. If the army stops massacring the East Timorese, suggests Don McKinnon, the New Zealand foreign minister hosting the inter-governmental conference, the global powers will turn their backs on butchery elsewhere. “We do not consider,” he told the BBC yesterday, “any other parts of Indonesia in any way as being the same as East Timor.” The West is still playing geopolitics with Indonesia’s people.

For there is another occupied territory, whose existence lies beneath the scope of Mr McKinnon’s elevated worldview, but whose story is almost identical to East Timor’s. West Papua, or Irian Jaya as the Indonesian government calls it, is the western half of the vast island of New Guinea. Holland held onto it when the rest of the Dutch East Indies became the Republic of Indonesia, for it lies on a different continent, two and half thousand miles from Jakarta, and is peopled by a different race.

New Guinea, its Melanesian inhabitants had long demanded, should be allowed to form a single, independent state. At length, the Dutch and Australians agreed. But in 1963, after this plan was disputed by the Indonesian government, the Dutch handed West Papua to the United Nations. In violation of every principle the UN was established to defend, the US insisted that it be given to Indonesia. When President Kennedy was asked how the handover could be justified, he replied, “those Papuans of yours are some seven hundred thousand and living in the Stone Age.”

In truth, there were over one million West Papuans who, having failed to master the art of time travel, were living in the 20th Century like everyone else. But Kennedy’s racist realpolitik gave the Indonesian government the green light to pursue its own.

The Indonesian army wasted no time in demonstrating the benefits of integration. The Papuans trained for political life were rounded up and kicked to death. Tribal villages were strafed and napalmed from the air, then machine-gunned from the ground. Detainees were electrocuted and had nails hammered through their feet. As Papuan men took to the forests armed only with spears and poisoned arrows, the Indonesian army, equipped by Britain, France and the US, began a full-scale pacification programme.

Girls were raped then killed with a bayonet in the vagina or a stick up the rectum. Tribal leaders were taken up in helicopters and dropped, alive, into their villages. The slightest spark of resistance would trigger off punishment bombings. As vast mineral and timber concessions were handed to British and American companies, the global superpowers raised not a squeak of protest.

The United Nations had insisted that Indonesian rule in West Papua could be ratified only when a full and free referendum had taken place. The Indonesian government argued that this would be too complicated. Instead, it insisted, representatives should be chosen to vote on their communities’ behalf. President Suharto announced that anyone who voted against integration would be guilty of treason. In 1969, 1,025 men selected by the army were lined up at gunpoint, and the population was recorded as having unanimously chosen Indonesian rule. The UN left the Papuans to the tender mercies of one of the most violent governments on earth.

By the mid-1980s, Indonesia had started to apply its final solution to West Papua. Hundreds of thousands of Javanese people were shipped to the territory, in order, the governor explained, to give “birth to a new generation of people without curly hair, sowing the seeds for greater beauty.” The programme was assisted by the World Bank and implemented by British and Canadian development consultants.

In 1987, working with the photographer Adrian Arbib, I spent six months in West Papua, traversing the island on foot, documenting Indonesia’s atrocities for our book Poisoned Arrows. We found that the Papuans were being herded into model villages, while the migrants sent to displace them from their lands were scarcely better off, dumped far from home without food, schools or hospitals, and forbidden to return. We saw British armoured personnel carriers, recently re-equipped for counter-insurgency by a British company, being sent to quell dissent. We spoke to thousands of Papuan people, and, aside from a couple of junior officials, failed to find one who did not want independence.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest have been clear-felled, and many of the most fertile lands have been expropriated for massive agro-industrial projects. The massacres and torture continue unabated. Yet, as the lubricious Mr McKinnon indicated yesterday, the Papuans can be sacrificed to help the West save face. Human rights will be defended only as convenience dictates.