Apia confrontation highlights sensitivity over West Papua

A confrontation between media and Indonesian officials in Samoa last week has highlighted the depth of feelings in the region about West Papua.

Pacific Islanders are increasingly speaking out over their concern about reports of human rights abuses in Indonesia's Papua region, and the cause of West Papuan self-determination aspirations.

A protest supporting West Papua's independence was staged during the summit outside the Forum's venue in Samoa's capital Apia, which upset Jakarta.

Following the protest, Indonesia government representatives held a press conference. One of the representatives, Franzalbert Joku, told reporters in a rowdy exchange that the Forum summit was not the place for the Papua issue to be discussed. The sound of raised voices briefly drew local police to the venue of the press conference.

The co-ordinator of the Samoa First union who had organised the protest, Jerome Mika, later said he disagreed with Mr Joku's comments.

"The theme of the whole Pacific Leaders Forum was about looking at leadership and being able to find ways to be able to help and prosper our Pacific region." he said.

"I think it's appropriate for us to be dealing with issues of West Papua at the Forum. Samoa's independence was in 1962 and West Papua's been colonised since the 1960s.

"It's important for us to stand up for our Pacific brothers and sisters and we ask as a Pacific Leaders Forum that they consider working through putting West Papua on the decolonisation list," he said.

Indonesia's Ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga, Tantowi Yahya, was alongside Mr Joku at the heated press conference where local journalists were taken to task. The ambassador was later asked by the ABC if it was reasonable to expect Pacific journalists not to ask questions about West Papua.

"No, it's not our authority to say that, but our concern was only that we are afraid that those quote unquote additional issues would overshadow the main objective of the conference," he explained.

Mr Yahya indicated that Indonesia sees much of the reporting by international media in regards to West Papua as unbalanced.

"In many ways what happens lately, many that speak of Papua do not really know what happens in Papua today. In other words, they are not well equipped about the information in a balance manner," he said.

"They [media] have been pampered with information, which sometimes are fabricated news, twisted news and even hoax and we from Indonesia don't really get the right chance to tell the people about what happened."

The General Secretary for the Pacific Conference of Churches felt the comments made by Mr Joku about West Papua 'doing fine' did not make sense. Reverend Francois Pihaatae was not impressed.

"Whatever the Indonesians say, I will never, never believe that something is fine in West Papua, because we have evidences that are going out every day that the living of these people is rough, the killing of these people is real."

At the heated Apia press conference, Mr Joku - an indigenous West Papuan - accused Pacific Islanders of being misled on a human rights situation that had largely improved.

"It's regrettable that Pacific Islanders all of the sudden want to address the Papua issue, now," he said.

"The Papua issue has been at the forefront since the late 50s and early 60s. We have seen our worst. Where the hell were the Pacific Island nations when we really needed that kind of expression and that kind of concern coming from them?"

Mr Mika was appalled by Mr Joku's remarks about Pacific Islanders raising concern about the state of West Papua.

"I think it's arrogant and we won't be bullied by people like the Indonesian representative," he said.

"I think that it also shows just the sort of behaviour and the condescending behaviour that we are getting as Pacific when we should be standing together for our West Papua brothers and sisters."

The West Papua independence issue was not advanced at the Forum summit as hoped by supporters, but a number of Pacific countries plan to raise their concern about Papua to within the United Nations.

Pacific concerns are due top be heard at the annual session of the UN General Assembly which got underway this week.


Photo by Loop Samoa. Caption: Free West Papua protest in Apia, Samoa during the 48th PIF Leaders Summit