Neles Tebay (pronounced Tibuy) is a charming man. His eyes sparkle mischievously as he speaks and his thick accent and dark Melanesian skin add resonance to his words. With his mobile face and lively eyes he reminds me of Desmond Tutu.
I don’t think you’d have seen him on TV – probably some vacuous celebrity took up the viewing time he could have filled. It’s a huge pity because his presentation, heard by an audience of 60 at a public meeting in Auckland last week, needs wider airing.
His message is that one of our nearest neighbours is in serious trouble and desperately needs New Zealand’s help.
Neles is a Catholic priest from West Papua (that’s the left-hand bit of Papua New Guinea) which has suffered a cruel military occupation by Indonesia since 1962. The local people have lost control of their land and resources which are being stripped out by morality-free multinational firms, leaving a landscape denuded, degraded and destroyed.
The biggest of these companies is Freeport-McMoRan (sic) which has operated the largest copper and gold mine in the world in West Papua since 1967, paying the Indonesian military to provide security. Whole waterways and thousands of hectares of land have been destroyed by toxic tailings. Every day 700,000 tonnes of waste is dumped untreated into local rivers.
Other multinationals, predominantly Malaysian, are logging the local forests for kwila. It’s a slow-growing hardwood which is popular in countries like New Zealand for outdoor furniture and decking. As far as can be ascertained every single piece of kwila coming into New Zealand has been illegally logged.
So how did this all come about?
The former Dutch colonists of Papua New Guinea, with support from Australia, prepared West Papua for independence in the 1950s. However neighbouring Indonesia claimed the territory and invaded in 1962. The United Nations accepted the Indonesian takeover as a fait accompli on condition Indonesia conduct a referendum on self-determination for the territory.
Among its many mistakes the 1969 UN referendum must rank with the worst. The Indonesians hand-picked just 1,022 West Papuans (from a population of around 700,000) and brought them together to take part in the referendum but before they voted the assembled people were addressed by an Indonesian military officer who told them to support integration with Indonesia or they would “have their tongues cut out”. Unsurprisingly they voted unanimously to “remain with Indonesia” and the UN endorsed what it called the people’s “Act of Free Choice” and washed its hands of the dispute.
Over these past 36 years the local people have demonstrated for independence and against the destruction of their lands. An estimated 100,000 West Papuans have been killed in the conflict. Among the many hundreds of human rights abuses documented was the 2001 murder of Theys Uluay, the leader of the OPM (Free Papua Movement), by Indonesian special forces.
How can this be happening on our doorstep without a murmur from our government?
West Papua is strikingly similar to the situation in East Timor where brutal oppression of the people was conducted for decades with our government’s full knowledge but acquiescent silence. It was only when an embarrassed US turned in support of the East Timorese that finally the New Zealand government found its conscience and spoke out against human rights abuses and supported the independence struggle. Up till then leaders of the independence movement were denied visas to come to New Zealand out of respect for our relationship with murderous Indonesian generals.
We can’t expect Foreign Minister Murray McCully to do anything significant in support of Neles and the people of West Papua without real pressure. As with East Timor it is the people of New Zealand who must raise the issue and demand our government act. If it were a million whites under a tyrannical regime we would be up in arms. So why the silence over West Papua?
Neles asked New Zealanders to do several things including: do our best to keep the international spotlight on Indonesia’s human rights abuses in West Papua; stop the importation of kwila and cut our investments in Freeport-McMoRan (from its website our national superannuation fund still has close to a million dollars invested in the pillaging of West Papua).
Neles Tebay and the West Papuan people are our neighbours. We have no excuse to ignore their plight and say we don’t know what’s going on. The New Zealand based Indonesian Human Rights Campaign and the Catholic justice and peace group Pax Christi are working to support the West Papuan people. They in turn need the support of New Zealanders. All our voices can make a difference. Let your’s be heard.