The Massacre Starts Tomorrow

And Britain will share the blame for what's about to happen in West Papua

By George Monbiot
Also Published in the Guardian 30th November 2000

There's an odd component of globalisation, which I find myself at a loss to explain. We are, we're assured, living in a global village, whose people are daily brought closer together. Yet we hear ever less about what is happening in distant parts of the world. There is less foreign news in the papers than there has been for sixty years. Foreign documentaries are almost extinct. Parliamentary debate about overseas issues has all but dried up. In the midst of the communications revolution, we are becoming strangers to each other.

So the massacres due to begin tomorrow will take almost everyone by surprise. Indeed, there is hardly a news editor who has even heard of the land in which they are scheduled to take place.

West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, which has been occupied since 1963 by Indonesia. Tomorrow, local people expect the Indonesian army to launch a one-sided war, bloodier even than the carnage in East Timor last year. The troops and militias have been armed and trained and are awaiting orders. Only the international community can stop them. But, though Western nations such as Britain are up to their necks in it, they haven't the faintest intention of seeking to prevent the Indonesian plan from going ahead.

In 1961, the 800,000 Melanesian people of West Papua were promised independence. Holland, the colonial power, began to transfer the administration to local people. In 1962, Indonesia invaded. The attack failed, but John Kennedy, with Britain's backing, coerced the Dutch into surrendering West Papua to the United Nations, on the grounds that if the Indonesian government were not appeased it might succumb to communism. The UN, as planned, promptly gave West Papua to Indonesia, but on condition that within five years its people would be granted "the right of self-determination". In the event, 1000 Papuan men were rounded up and forced to vote on pain of death for Indonesian sovereignty.

Since then, tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Papuans have been tortured, mutilated and killed by Indonesian soldiers. The government launched a eugenics programme whose purpose, according to the former governor, was to give "birth to a new generation of people without curly hair, sowing the seeds for greater beauty". The Papuans have been pushed out of their lands and replaced by people from the central islands of Indonesia, brought in by the government to pacify the province. Its forests have been sold to logging companies, its mountains to western mining firms. When villagers have sought to defend their lands, they have been bombed and strafed. Now the whole place is about to explode.

Tomorrow, the indigenous people will make a formal declaration of independence. The Indonesian army has been waiting for months for just such a moment. Since August, thousands of commandos and paratroops have been flown into West Papua. British-made Hawk jets have been overflying the province's central highlands. Their deployment there was, according to the Financial Times, sanctioned by Britain's Foreign Office. Militias are currently being trained by the army outside the town of Wamena, one of the centres of Papuan resistance. Some 12,000 firearms have been flown in, presumably for distribution to Indonesian volunteers. Local people, by contrast, are armed with spears and bows and arrows.

The Indonesian army has been encouraging the Papuans to rise, planting agents provocateurs and issuing public statements suggesting that independence ceremonies will be tolerated (all previous rituals have been ruthlessly crushed). Here, as in East Timor, the army will seek to unleash sufficient force to persuade the indigenous people to abandon their hopes of self-determination.

Papuan leaders have repeatedly sought to reach a peaceful independence settlement with the Indonesian government. But while President Wahid seems vaguely sympathetic to their cause, vice-president Megawati, who has, in effect, ultimate control over the province, appears interested only in delivering lucrative logging and development concessions to the army in order to secure its support. The Papuans have approached the British government for help. It has ignored them. And still it continues to sell arms to Indonesia.

When the massacre begins, our officials will doubtless wring their hands and lament the failure of Indonesia's people to resolve their differences by peaceful means. Having seen what happened in East Timor and having failed to do anything to prevent its repetition, the blood this time will be on our hands. We helped to start all this. Now we must stop it.

Papua New Guinea | WB/ IMF Asia | WB/ IMF Struggles