Broken Promises

Probably many people don’t even know where West Papua is, and the first time I photographed West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda in April 2008 I turned a handy globe around to show it:

© 2008 Peter Marshall
Papua is the island just above Australia – and West Papua its left half

Benny escaped from jail in West Papua by crawling along a ventilation shaft and gained asylum in the UK. He had been arrested for raising the West Papua flag, a crime in his country which has  occupied by Indonesia since 1963.

West Papua was a Dutch colony, and as the Dutch were preparing to grant it independence, Indonesia cleverly played the cold war game and got the US to pressure the Netherlands into giving it to Indonesia to look after. The 1962 ‘New York Agreement‘ did provide for a one person one vote  referendum at a later date for the West Papuans to decide whether to become a part of Indonesia or become independent. but Indonesia reneged on this agreement, instead detaining a thousand ‘tribal chiefs’ for a month and forcing them to vote under threat of death for themselves and their families for union.

The country – at the time renamed ‘West Irian’ had few friends in the outside world, and the US in particular were happy to forget democracy because of their political and financial interests- Indonesia had given a US mining company a very profitable deal on the largest copper and gold mines in the world in West Papua. Despite overwhelming evidence that the vote did not reflect the will of the West Papuan people, it was approved by the UN General Assembly.

Now, Papuan interests are also being sacrificed for agrofuels. Its extensive tropical forests – where many of the tribes live – are  at risk. The West Papuans are calling for a free and fair election as promised.

© 2009 Peter Marshall
Benny Wenda hands a Dutch diplomat a letter calling for a free election

The demonstration marking the anniversary of the New York Agreement, known to West Papuans as the Day of the Broken promises was tuneful but I couldn’t really find a great deal to photograph. There aren’t many West Papuans living in the UK (I was told most of them were there) and only one or two others turned up in support.

Friday lunchtime perhaps isn’t the most popular time for a demonstration, but even so it’s hard to understand the complete lack of support from the left for this event, which had been given some publicity. Britain does have an involvement in the issue, with  UK based Rio Tinto group having a share in those mines, and we were involved together with the USA in putting pressure on the Netherlands to betray the Papuans. We did a rather better job on “our half” of the island, with Australia looking after both British and German New Guinea after the First World War, and the united country being granted independence (though it was not entirely plain sailing) as Papua New Guinea in 1975.

More about West Papua and more pictures from the demonstration on My London Diary.

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