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The battle for West Papuan independence from Indonesia has intensified with deadly results

ABC Foreign Correspondent - May 12, 2020

Sally Sara, Anne Worthington and Victor Mambor – In the highlands of Papua, in easternmost Indonesia, villagers are returning to the burnt-out remains of their abandoned homes.

A woman slumps on the grass, overcome with grief, as men dig a pit for the remains of those who could not escape the bloodshed.

The air is filled with the sound of wailing.

Witnesses who fled the attack say they saw bombs rain down from Indonesian helicopters.

This is the aftermath of a secret war being waged just a few hundred kilometres north of mainland Australia, captured in video obtained by Foreign Correspondent.

Since late 2018, West Papuan separatists have engaged in an escalating series of deadly skirmishes with Indonesian security forces as they renew a decades-old push for independence.

Indonesia has sought to suppress news of the conflict getting out, restricting foreign media from entering the contested provinces and even cutting off the region's internet access at the height of the revolt.

Hundreds have been killed and local authorities say up to 45,000 Papuans have been displaced – a number Indonesia disputes, suggesting only 2,000 have fled.

While the flashpoint for the current wave of violence is a 4,000km road project, the origins of West Papua's independence struggle go all the way back to the Cold War.

The birth of a movement

It's the early hours of the morning when West Papuan civil independence leader Victor Yeimo emerges from the darkness.

He's travelled through the night to illegally cross the border from Indonesia into Papua New Guinea for an exclusive interview with Foreign Correspondent.

Mr Yeimo has previously been jailed by Indonesian authorities and fears he will be arrested again. "All my life I worry about my life," he says. "Not only me, I worry about my people's lives."

Mr Yeimo is part of a new and emboldened generation of activists demanding independence in West Papua. He is pushing for a referendum on West Papuan independence.

"For us it is better to fight before dying, for our dignity," he says. "Fighting is a duty, a role of a young generation like me."

The island of New Guinea is divided by a line. On one side of the border is independent Papua New Guinea and on the other is the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, collectively known as West Papua by independence activists.

It's been under Indonesian rule for more than 50 years after being handed over in a United Nations-endorsed agreement during the Cold War.

In 1969, Indonesia held a ballot called the Act of Free Choice. But few more than a thousand hand-picked Papuans were allowed to vote.

Indonesia declared a unanimous victory. Most West Papuans felt robbed and an independence movement was born.

The Indonesian Government says its two easternmost provinces have been granted "special autonomy status with significant privileges to ensure the participants (sic) of Papuans in their development".

But West Papuan activists say special autonomy is not the solution. They want independence from Indonesia and a "final democratic solution".

"Indonesia tries to give us development," Mr Yeimo says. "That is not our aspiration."

The flashpoint

Snaking for thousands of kilometres through thick jungle and over bare highland peaks, the Trans-Papuan Highway will soon link the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Indonesia says it's an essential infrastructure project that will improve transport and access to markets and services for people living in this region.

But West Papuans fear the road will aid the Indonesian military and open up their resource-rich lands to exploitation by outside business interests, at the expense of local people.

In December 2018, the contentious highway project provided the spark which reignited a smouldering conflict.

A group of armed West Papuan separatists ambushed and slaughtered at least 16 Indonesian road workers in Nduga, a district in Papua's remote central highlands.

Indonesia responded to the massacre by sending hundreds of police and soldiers into the area to hunt down those responsible for the attack.

Foreign Correspondent has secured some of the first independent eyewitness testimonies from civilians who fled their villages to seek refuge in the jungle.

"They had a helicopter flying above us and they threw bombs," Irian Kogoya tells Foreign Correspondent.

"People were murdered, got arrested, tortured, forced to make a hole so when they got killed they would be hidden there."

Indonesia has denied using bombs but admits grenades were launched during the security operation.

Raga Kogoya, a local community leader in the central highlands' main town of Wamena, says she's stopped counting the dead and injured from the attack.

She now takes care of traumatised children displaced by the fighting. Of the 220 people taking shelter near her village, most are children.

One child living with Ms Kogoya tells Foreign Correspondent of her ordeal.

"When the first bombing happened they killed my father," she says. "I felt broken hearted. Indonesia must take responsibility because they killed my father."

In a tragic consequence of the violence, children as young as 12 have been brought into the ranks of the independence fighters, led by 19-year-old Egianus Kogoya, Raga's cousin.

The use of child soldiers is banned under international law.

"The kids don't come because Egianus called them or asked them to, but those whose fathers got shot, tortured, then died – after that many would come out," she says.

"Many school children in Nduga have come out to join the war."

Videos have emerged that allegedly detail human rights abuses by the Indonesians.

One clip shows a shallow grave containing the bodies of three Papuan women and two children. Human rights workers claim the victims were shot by Indonesian security personnel.

Indonesia denies committing human rights abuses and says its soldiers are "a professional military organisation under [a] strict code of conduct and rules of procedures in conducting operations, including an obligation to respect and promote human rights".

"Human rights principles have also been incorporated in the rules of engagement," the statement from the Indonesian embassy added.

The Indonesian embassy in Canberra said the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was "currently conducting an enquiry [in]to the incidents in Nduga as well as the riots in a number of places in Papua, including in Wamena in August 2019".

But the ABC contacted the NHRC in Jakarta, which said it was "not investigation (sic) Nduga incidents but remains open to investigate Nduga incidents if and when in the future there are (sic) new evidence".

Human rights activists are now calling for the UN to be allowed access to Nduga to investigate.

For now, there appears no end to the conflict in sight. Some armed separatists say they will continue to target Indonesian civilians working with the security forces.

"We will kill, we will fight," says Sebby Sambom, a Papua New Guinea-based spokesman for the armed independence movement. "We will continue to fight – no compromise."

Ms Kogoya is determined to alert the world about what is happening in her country, fearing the West Papuan movement will be weakened and the indigenous people "wiped out".

"They are killed and slaughtered like animals," she says.

An internet blackout

It was a fresh outbreak of violence in August 2019 that saw Indonesia crack down on Papuans' ability to get the word out.

After weeks of bloodshed, Indonesia ordered an internet blackout for West Papua. But video, photographs and written accounts continued to leak out.

Tensions had flared up earlier in August when a group of Papuan students were arrested in Surabaya, Indonesia, following reports an Indonesian flag was damaged outside the building where they lived.

Indonesian mobs gathered and racially abused the Papuans, calling them monkeys.

Thousands of West Papuans, many of them students, took to the streets demanding an end to racism and calling for independence.

But peaceful protests quickly turned violent, with demonstrators and security forces clashing and civilian militia groups joining the fight.

Indonesia deployed 6,000 police and troops to West Papua and Papua to quell the unrest.

On August 28, Indonesian security forces opened fire on protesters in the town of Deiyai in Papua. Video of the incident was posted on social media.

Indonesia said the officers acted in self-defence and the crowd "ignored the pleas of the officers and attacked them with arrows".

"The law enforcement officers tried to disperse the crowd with warning shots and tear gas but the attacks continued," the Indonesian embassy in Australia said in a statement.

Law enforcement officers were "forced to fire, in line with their obligation to restore public order".

But a local church report and local media said the protests turned violent after a Papuan youth was run over and killed by an Indonesian security vehicle.

Mr Yeimo hopes for a peaceful solution and that the dream of West Papuan independence will become a reality in his lifetime.

"After the night, there will be sunrise in the morning," he said. "The people of West Papua hope that one day the Morning Star will rise up."

[Watch Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8:00pm on ABC TV and streaming on iview, Facebook and YouTube.]

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-12/west-papua-secret-war-with-indonesia-for-independence/1222796