'There's genocide in our neighbourhood'
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New Zealanders take lot of pride in their national culture. And rightly so.
New Zealand is one of the few settler cultures lucky enough to have tangata whenua establish a treaty with it based on mutuality, reciprocity and respect. It’s a culture based on a strong sense of equality and "fair go", one that values humility and has that ethos of looking out for your neighbour.
But that doesn’t mean NZ always lives up to these values.
Just look at the ongoing Crown betrayals of te Tiriti, the endemic male violence, the deepening poverty and inequality and the Government's inertia against grave crises we face today such as homelessness, housing, and runaway climate change.
But these values are a strong part of our history. They’re core to our culture.
The cultural history of strong women leaders and of being the first to give women the vote. Of young Pacific and pakeha people standing up against the dawn raids in the 1970s and 80s, against nuclear testing, and against apartheid in South Africa. Of leading the world in creating a welfare state that looked after the most vulnerable in society. And of political leaders in international arenas standing up for human rights.
But despite all this, NZ is largely silent about the crisis of West Papua.
Most politicians don’t mention it. Most mainstream media doesn’t talk about it. Most Kiwis don’t know about it. Yet it’s probably the greatest human rights atrocity in our region.
West Papua's on the western side of New Guinea, bordering Papua New Guinea. Its indigenous people aren’t Asians, they’re Melanesians - just like their cousins in PNG and just like me. However, they’re not independent like PNG. They were once occupied by the Dutch and for the last 54 years they’ve been occupied by Indonesia.
West Papuans have always wanted independence, but when the Dutch pulled out Indonesia saw a chance to occupy West Papua to grab all the mineral wealth and natural resources it has. And it’s got a lot: gold, copper, tin – you name it. It’s so rich I call it “The Africa of the South Pacific”. So, when the Dutch finally pulled out, Indonesia – backed by the United States – saw its chance to invade West Papua in 1961, annexing it by force. And it’s been occupying West Papua ever since.
West Papuans have lost most of their land and seen more than 500,000 people killed. Women have been routinely abused and raped. People’s houses are burnt by militias and land is being poisoned, stripped and destroyed by extractive mining and industrial agriculture with entire villages being displaced.
Police arrest a man after dispersing hundreds of West Papuans attending a ceremony in Timika to commemorate the 50th anniversary of West Papua's independence from Dutch rule in December 2011. Photo: REUTERS
They’re being reduced to a minority population in their own land through Indonesian trans-migration. And they’re being routinely killed, thrown in jail, tortured and abused just for speaking out, resisting the occupation, and fighting for their independence. They can’t fly their independence flag and they can’t talk about independence for fear of reprisal.
I believe all these developments meet the definition of genocide. There is genocide going on next door. That alone should be enough for Kiwis to be concerned.
But there’s another reason. One we ignore at our peril.
NZ’s silence about West Papua isn’t just about how we’re privileging our economic relationship with Indonesia over the human and indigenous rights of West Papuans (NZ exports some $800 million to Indonesia every year and that figure’s expected to grow).
There’s a deeper moral issue here too as there’s an inseparable connection between how we deal with issues overseas and how we deal with issues in NZ.
If we tolerate injustice abroad, we’ll inevitably also undermine our own capacity to deal with injustice at home. It goes the other way too: if we tolerate injustices here, we’ll have less capacity to speak out against them over there.
That’s how the moral universe works: As outside, so inside.
Firstly, this means NZ’s silence over the genocide in West Papua is not unrelated to our collective inability to confront the ongoing realities of colonisation that Maori still experience here.
Secondly, if we don’t speak out about West Papua, one way or another it’ll undermine our ability to address the deepening social and ecological problems here.
These are problems like the corporate capture of mainstream media, increasing subordination of civil service to ministerial control, and the undermining of statutory bodies' independence through threats of defunding.
The destruction of privacy through mass surveillance, passing a whole suite of acts post-9/11 that undermine the independence of the judiciary and breach the Bill of Rights, the long-standing corporate assault against unions, and the commodification of art and culture.
All of these are undermining the bulwarks of democracy in this country. All of which stem from the contradictions of colonisation here.
So speaking out about West Papua isn’t just an obligation we have to look out for our neighbours. It’s also a chance to save ourselves, save NZ’s liberal democracy, and to honour te Tiriti, which means to actually live up to those values that so many Kiwis hold dear.
* Pala Molisa is an accounting lecturer at Victoria University whose research focuses on how social practices such as accounting help to create the conditions for human rights atrocities and ecological crises. He is also a member of the Run It Straight Collective, which has released the short film, Run It Straight, on the crisis in West Papua.
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