Australia urged to 'step up substantially' to halt violence in neighbouring West Papua

Exclusive: West Papua continues to be rocked by bloody violence as Indonesian security forces and pro-independence protesters clash. And Australia has been urged to do more to end the bloodshed.

Australia has been urged to “step up substantially on the issue of West Papua”, with  Vanuatu’s leaders taking to the stage of the UN General Assembly to "emphatically condemn" alleged human rights violations in the region. 

Following reports of a mass exodus from the town of Wamena, in the Indonesian province of Papua, and increased violence on Monday, Vanuatu urged global leaders to assist West Papuans. 

“We condemn, emphatically, violations of human rights of the indigenous people of West Papua,” Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas told the UN. 

A Papuan activist with his face painted with the colors of the separatist Morning Star flag shouts slogans during a recent rally.
Source: AP

The island nation’s foreign minister declared “history will judge us”, urging Australia to step up. 

"We're very worried because it's happening right now there is a crisis going on,” Ralph Regenvanu said.

“Some international law experts have called it genocide; I mean it fits the criteria of a genocide. History will judge us and we have to be on the right side of history. 

Vanuatu's Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabimasmas at the UN.
Source: FR170574 AP

"Australia's got to step up substantially on the issue of West Papua, particularly because it's on the Human Rights Council, it is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum." 

A report in The Guardian cites the death toll in Wamena as high as 41 after Indonesian troops opened fire on an anti-racism rally made up of high school students.

Activists said Papuans responded by setting fire to several buildings. 

On Saturday, the Indonesian Embassy stated the official death toll was 33 – saying most died in the fires and some 3,500 locals were displaced following the chaos. 

Smoke rise from a burning building during a violent rally in Wamena, Papua Province, Indonesia.
Source: AP

But a report in The Guardian has suggested the actual death toll was at least 41, with one witness saying he saw up to 20 people shot dead by police, while Papuans tried to fight back with rocks and arrows. 

“Papuans are also terrified. They are thinking, 'if the government is so quick to help settlers leave, what is being planned after that’,” one Wamena local told The Guardian. 

Exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda was among a group of Pacific leaders who met with the UN Secretary-General earlier this week to stress the importance of a UN visit to the region. 

“I continue to lobby that in here in the United Nations to send the UN High Commissioners to West Papua but Indonesia (will) not allow,” he told SBS News. 

“So I hope that Indonesian government and President Jokowi will allow the UN High Commissioner to visit West Papua because this is a human rights crisis happening right now in West Papua.” 

West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda.
Source: Supplied

In recent weeks, Indonesia has deployed more than 6,000 troops into West Papua to quell the growing push for independence and Amnesty International has called Monday’s violence, one of the bloodiest days for Papua in 20 years. 

But Australian has urged restraint on both sides, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne urging “absolute restraint” to deescalate the situation. 

“We are obviously very concerned about the reports of violence in Papua [and] West Papua,” she told SBS News this week.

“They are matters which our post in Jakarta is following up with authorities there.” 

A Papuan police officer carries a riffle as he controls the crowd after protesters torched Buruni market during a violent protest in Fakfak, West Papua.
Source: EPA

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson Penny Wong condemned the violence, but also stayed neutral. 

“We have raised concerns about human rights violations in West Papua and we will continue to work to uphold the universal right of all people to peacefully express their political views including in West Papua,” she said in a statement. 

“Labor fully respects the territorial integrity of Indonesia; respect for each other’s territorial integrity is enshrined in the Lombok Treaty, which remains the bedrock of security cooperation between our two countries.”

Published 28 September 2019 at 7:48pm, updated 29 September 2019 at 2:26pm
By Virginia Langeberg