West Papua comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea, bordering Papua New Guinea to the east. It is one of the most remarkable places on earth. Swathed in tropical rainforests which are second in size only to those of the Amazon, it is home to many unique species of wildlife including tree kangaroos and birds of paradise. It is also one of the world’s most resource rich areas containing huge reserves of oil, gas, copper, gold and timber. The indigenous population number about 1 million Melanesian Papuans, many of whom still live subsistence or hunter gatherer tribal lifestyles. The diverse tribes of New Guinea speak some 15% of the world’s known languages, despite having less than 3% of the world’s population.
Despite West Papua’s appearance as a tropical paradise, the reality for those living there could not be more different. It has been under Indonesian military occupation since the early 1960s, and over 500,000 indigenous Papuans have been killed during that time.
Formerly a Dutch colony, West Papua was granted independence in 1961, but twelve months later fell under Indonesian control following an audacious invasion by them. Despite sharing no cultural or ethnic similarities with the Papuan people – whom are Melanesian (people of the Pacific) – Indonesia claimed West Papua as its own, under a vision of uniting all the former Dutch and Portuguese colonies in the region. With a poorly trained and inexperienced military, West Papua was no match for the invading Indonesian forces.
There was widespread resistance to Indonesian rule, and the United Nations intervened and agreed to oversee a plebiscite of the people of West Papua. They would be given two choices: to remain part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation once again. This vote was to be called the Act of Free Choice.
What followed has been the root cause of Papuan discontent to Indonesia’s occupation. When the vote took place in 1969, of West Papua’s then population of nearly 1 million people, just 1025 tribal elders were allowed to vote – a clear breach of the terms of the Act that stated every Papuan was to be allowed to vote. Those elders who voted would later tell of how the Indonesian military had forced them at gunpoint to vote in favour of integration.
2009 marked the fortieth anniversary of the bitterly contested Act of Free Choice. Since that day over 500,000 Papuans have been killed, and thousands of others have been imprisoned, raped, tortured or ‘disappeared’. West Papuan cultural practices have also been outlawed under Indonesian rule, with some Papuans receiving jail terms of 15 years if they raise their national flag or perform traditional music.
DVD copies of the film available here