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Black Lives Matter inspires West Papuans to hope

New Zealand Herald - June 30, 2020

Maire Leadbeater – The global phenomenon that is the "Black lives Matter" movement has rejuvenated indigenous struggles and opened up a new dialogue about the impact of colonialism.

In West Papua it sparked a campaign that may prove to be an important milestone in West Papua's long road to justice. George Floyd's murder coincided with a notorious treason trial of seven Papuan activists, known as the Balikpapan Seven.

No one could escape the irony that the seven young men were before the court because they had taken part in a 2019 peaceful anti-racism protest. They had been transferred to detention in Balikpapan, Kalimantan, thousands of kilometers from their homes and families for so-called "security reasons".

Dozens of Papuans have been before the courts for their role in an uprising that swept across West Papua and many Indonesian cities last year. The trigger was a racist attack by Indonesian militia and army officers on a West Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya. The violence against the students was documented in videos that showed some Indonesian soldiers repeatedly banging on the gates of the dormitory, and abusing the students with epithets such as "monkeys" and "dogs" while hurling stones and firing teargas canisters.

The military responsible for the violent siege on the Papuan students' dormitory last August have escaped sanction. Just three civilians who took part in the violent attack got light sentences, while more than 50 Papuans and one Indonesian were detained on treason charges in connection with the uprising, all of them involved only in peaceful protest.

Unbelievably, the prosecutors sought sentences of between five and 17 years of prison for the Balikpapan Seven, way higher than the months' long sentences for those who had already been tried for participating in protest.

However, this time around the call for their release extended far beyond Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Joining the call were Papuan "elite" figures – politicians, civic leaders and religious figures. And what was novel and truly heartening was the way the issue was taken up by Indonesians. There were support demonstrations in several Indonesian cities, an Indonesian social media campaign "We need to talk about Papua" and some usually silent sectors such as the Indonesian Communion of Churches voiced concern.

New Zealanders joined the global protest on social media and in an open letter call to action to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Sadly, to no avail.

The outcome was a victory of sorts, since the sentences handed down were of 10 and 11 months, far less than the prosecutors demanded. However, still a shocking travesty. Evidence at the trial revealed that Buchtar Tabuni, a leader of a pro-independence group, was not even present at the demonstrations – he was busy with his family farm. It was Buchtar's third time behind bars for similar "non-crimes". He was sentenced to 11 months. Two students who helped by organising logistics such as transport, sound and security were sentenced to 10 months jail.

Meanwhile, Indonesia continues to respond with a "security" approach – 10,000 additional troops last year and a further 816 sent in recently because of the controversy around the latest treason trial.

The litany of abuses against the Papuan people stretches back over more than half a century since they were forced to accept Indonesian rule, their second colonisation following long decades of Dutch rule.

There are not many precedents for the current level of international attention. One that comes to mind happened in the early 1980s when West Papua experienced a kind of cultural revolution. Indigenous anthropologist Arnold Ap formed a music group, Mambesak, and travelled around West Papua collecting songs for preservation.

The traditional music, broadcast on the radio and performed across the country, encouraged a sense of pride and a Papuan identity that transcended tribal barriers. When Indonesia failed to co-opt the movement, Ap became a marked man. However, he was known internationally so his 1984 death from gunshot wounds galvanised global protest.

A conservative Australian journalist, Peter Hastings, said Ap had been murdered because he "personified" indigenous culture.

While Arnold Ap's name and Mambesak music remained at the heart of the Papuan struggle for freedom, the international spotlight moved on.

However, the "Black Lives Matter" movement just grows and grows and, with it, new hope for West Papua.

[Maire Leadbeater is a human rights activist and an organiser with West Papua Action Auckland.]

Source: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=1234383