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The Hellish Truth Behind Papua's Paradise

We like to feel that a Lost World exists, peaceful and 'primitive'. The reality is different

The Independent, 8th February 2006

"Tomorrow," said Galile, "I will take you to the Bird of Paradise. We know where they live. You will hear them, and maybe see them too. They are very beautiful."

My Papuan friend and I were sitting in a thatched hut in a tiny village high in the rainforests of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. I was, I was proudly told, the first white person ever to come here. As firelight flickered on the walls, Galile was telling me about the wildlife that inhabited the rainforests. It was what he thought I wanted to hear, but it wasn't what he really wanted to tell me.

"You see," he said, staring into the fire, "we are happy that you come here to see our forests. But we want to know why the world does not see the other things that happen to us. Why do you not see the killings of our people? Why do you not see how the soldiers destroy our culture? I tell you now - West Papua is being destroyed. And I want to ask you: why will no one listen?"

I had no answer for Galile then, and I have none now. West Papua rarely makes the news. When it does, the stories are of the kind which made headlines yesterday: the discovery of new species of Birds of Paradise or tree kangaroo; the "Stone-Age paradise" of tribal New Guinea. Perhaps we like to feel that such an untouched, Lost World exists, outside of time, peaceful and "primitive". The reality is very different.

West Papua is certainly one of the most remarkable places on Earth. Swathed in tropical rainforest which is second in size only to that of the Amazon, it is home to around 250 tribes, who have inhabited the country for an estimated 40,000 years and speak, between them, 300 separate languages. Most continue to live in small villages, harvesting sweet potatoes, growing sago and raising pigs as their ancestors did before them.

But paradise stops there, for West Papua is an occupied land, whose people have no freedom to choose their own government and little control over their land and resources. It is a country in which calling openly for freedom is punishable by torture, or even death. It is a country which is closed to foreign journalists and human rights workers, and which is flooded with thousands of soldiers, ready to strike at the least sign of dissent. Look at West Papua through the travel books, and it looks like paradise. Look a little closer, and it can start to seem like hell.

Until the mid-20th century, this remote land was part of the Dutch East Indies. In 1949 the Dutch gave up most of their empire to the new nation-state of Indonesia. They argued, however, that West Papua was part of Melanesia, not Asia, and that it should remain separate. In 1961, they granted it independence.

Months later, Indonesia invaded. The UN was forced to intervene, but it was swiftly made clear to its diplomats what the outcome should be. It was the height of the Cold War, and the West was keen to appease Indonesia, which was being wooed by the USSR and China. As one British diplomat put it at the time, "I cannot imagine the US, Japanese, Dutch, or Australian governments putting at risk their economic and political relations with Indonesia on a matter of principle involving a relatively small number of very primitive peoples."

The US, the Netherlands and Indonesia agreed that the UN would stage a face-saving referendum in which the Papuans would be asked to choose between independence and Indonesia. In 1969, seven years after Indonesia invaded the country, the UN stood by as Indonesia rigged the vote. Declaring that the Papuans were too "primitive" to cope with democracy, they produced 1,026 "representative" Papuan leaders, threatened them with death if they gave the wrong answer, and then asked them to vote. The outcome was never in doubt.

Indonesia then embarked on a campaign to wipe out Papuan culture. Those who resisted were murdered, tortured or "disappeared" with a horrific ferocity. At least 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesians since occupation; according to some human rights workers, the figure could be as high as 800,000.

West Papua's rich natural resources - gold, copper, timber, oil, gas - were sold off to foreign or Indonesian corporations, many of them linked to the army or the government. Millions of hectares of tribal land were confiscated, and objectors swiftly dealt with. Soldiers murdered, raped, tortured and brutalised the people of West Papua with impunity. They still do.

Eighteen months ago, a group of us in the UK set up the Free West Papua Campaign to raise awareness of the situation. Every day, we are contacted by people in West Papua, who risk their lives to talk to us. In the last few months alone we have been sent photos of villages burned by the army, and refugees starving in the jungle. We have heard of dissenters being slashed with razors by soldiers, or having petrol poured on them and set alight. We have heard of men jailed for a decade simply for raising the West Papuan flag in public.

What the people of West Papua desperately want, as Galile told me in that highland village, is the world's attention. They need our media, our governments and our NGOs to see what is being done to them - and to do something about it. The world needs to see, and to stop, the genocide that hides behind those images of paradise.