West Papuans fear virus as Indonesian Government slow to shut borders

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For decades, West Papuans have been fighting for their independence and now – with the onset of COVID-19 – they will be forced to fight a war on two fronts, writes Michael R Williams.

THE United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) have had to fight against mass murders, misinformation campaigns, blatant disregard for their democratic rights. But now as the Indonesian Government looks to lockdown parts of the country other than Jakarta and a handful of select cities and provinces, the West Papuan people will be forced to face the spread of a deadly virus. And they will do so without any outside help, nor be given any chance to lockdown their own lands.

On 27March, West Papua saw its first coronavirus death and the people fear that an outbreak would rival that of other major Indonesian cities.

Cities in West Papua are ill-equipped medically to handle the virus. While its population is not as dense as Jakarta, its health care is comparatively abysmal. Over the years, the levels of infant mortality and HIV have been far above any humanitarian expectations. 

In a statement on the 18 March, ULMWP chair Benny Wenda lambasted the Indonesian Government:

"Indonesian colonialism, which has destroyed our way of life and left us without healthcare or the natural support of our environment, has increased the risks of coronavirus to my people. There has never been a more urgent time for Indonesia to allow the U.N. to independently monitor the situation, and for the people of West Papua to assert their independence and traditional ways of life."

The Indonesian Government has locked down Jakarta, but their slow response to COVID-19 has left the country with some of the highest death rates in the world (at some points, over 10 per cent). Major cities like Jakarta are still only in partial lockdown and the people are worried. 

There have been mass migrations from city centres, where population density is allowing the virus to spread at a startling rate. Meanwhile, work is becoming increasingly scarce. Those who still have managed to keep their jobs do so without following any practice of social distancing. 

After seeing the fallout in the major cities, West Papuans fear that the Indonesian Government do not have their best interests at heart in handling this crisis. Especially given Indonesia's continuing attacks on the rights of the West Papuan people. 

Open-source intelligence investigators Bellingcat were able to trace a number of pro-Indonesian propaganda Twitter accounts, some of which steal the identity of famous K-Pop stars. The Indonesian Government has also banned all counter-narrative online content they can get their hands on. That has included Juicemedia’s popular West Papua video (shown below).

And over the past few weeks, media outlets have been critical over the blatant under-reporting of coronavirus cases in Indonesia. 

Shortly after, three student protestors disappeared during a violent protest in Jayapura (a town in northern West Papua) late last year, which included the teargassing of student dormitories. The protests started after a teacher called a native West Papuan a “monkey” — a common slur for the West Papuans.

“The people of West Papua are angry,” said Dutch member of the Free West Papua movement, Raki Ap. “There is a fear that they will let people in to spread the virus.”

"We want to first break the media blackout in West Papua. And when people learn what is happening, they will say: ‘this is absolutely wrong, how did we not know about this?'” Raki Ap continued.

“Being one of the closest neighbours to West Papua, there is a human need [for Australians] to take responsibility. I have read some amazing articles that call it 'a genocide on your doorstep'. Which is actually what is happening right now.”

“How do you say that you are a nation committed to peace by sending your troops to Afghanistan, [yet] turn your backs when your neighbours are fighting a genocide?”

Currently, the main goal for West Papuans is to stay safe, but this will change after the virus passes, said Ap:

“Outside of educating the people, our main goal is to claim the right of independence. Putting West Papua back on the UN decolonisation list. We are talking about reactivating the mechanisms that help countries find their sovereignty. Under international law, it is very clear that Indonesia is illegally occupying West Papua.” 

After the writing of this piece, the ULWMP released another statement, stating that four people have been murdered due to hate crimes or suspicion of coericion with West Papuan Rebels. Some of the victims' bodies showed signs of torture. Two of them were only 16 years old.

The West Papuans, despite the health risk, continue to demonstrate peacefully in solidarity with those who have been subject to unneccessary violence. 

Raki Ap is an activist and apart of the Free West Papua, you can follow him on Instagram here.

You can follow Associate Editor Michael R Williams on Twitter and Instagram @editorscribble.

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