South Africa: Ramping up trade, SA ignores Indonesia’s human rights violations

The visit by the South African government and 17 unnamed South African companies to Indonesia last week has thrown into stark relief the ANC government’s hypocrisy in its international relations with countries that are guilty of human rights abuses

South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS), by Anna Majavu* / Monday, 29 September 2014

The visit by the South African government and 17 unnamed South African companies to Indonesia last week has thrown into stark relief the ANC government’s hypocrisy in its international relations with countries that are guilty of human rights abuses. Indonesia ended its brutal military occupation of East Timor in 2002 but continues an equally merciless military occupation of West Papua.

Somehow this doesn’t appear to have pricked the consciences of our government officials or the companies who went on a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) business junket to Indonesia, even though South Africa, as a UN member state, has just adopted the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People flowing from the first ever United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples this week. West Papuans are, after all, an indigenous people in the Pacific whose human rights are being violated by Indonesia.

The declaration adopted by the UN this week calls for “control by indigenous peoples over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources” and the “demilitarization of the lands and territories of indigenous peoples”. It also says that indigenous peoples should have the right to self-determination through self-governance.

But indigenous rights appear to be trumped by commercial imperatives. According to the DTI, South Africa is Indonesia’s largest trade partner in Africa. The department of international relations and co-operation has previously listed some of the companies doing business with Indonesia as DigiCore, Murray & Roberts, Skyriders, Fresh World, Explochem, Denel, and AEL.

West Papua was colonised by the Netherlands in 1898 and eventually handed over in 1962 to the United Nations. While preparing for their independence following 160 years of colonisation, Indonesia invaded West Papua and later cut a deal with the United Nations. This deal involved a sham election in which only 1026 handpicked West Papuans – out of a population of one million – were allowed to vote for or against continued colonisation by Indonesia. After receiving death threats, all voted for colonisation.

Since 1962, Indonesia has banned all forms of freedom of expression and association in West Papua, as it did in East Timor before it was liberated. Since 1962, Indonesia has killed almost half a million West Papuans and driven thousands into exile.

The ANC government is aware of this, as it was of the history of East Timor (now Timor-Leste), which was colonized first by Portugal, then invaded by Japan, before being occupied by Indonesia’s military dictator at the time, Suharto, who carried out a genocide until he lost power in 1998.

The mass killings, tortures and other atrocities carried out by the Indonesian military in East Timor prior to its liberation in 2002 were overlooked first by Nelson Mandela during his presidency, and then by president Thabo Mbeki. Indonesia supported the struggle against apartheid, cutting diplomatic and commercial relations with South Africa and refusing to allow South African ships to dock at its ports from 1963. And so in 1997 when then Indonesian dictator Suharto visited parliament, not only did Mandela literally roll out the red carpet for him, but the few dozen officials from Cosatu-affiliated unions who hurriedly cobbled together a protest outside were arrested before Suharto could see them.

Mandela was said to have a “special affection for Indonesia”, visiting the country four times between 1990 and 2002. This is particularly heinous given that Suharto, who took power in a coup and held onto power for 31 years, was Indonesia’s unelected dictator for three of those visits.

Mbeki then kept up the good relationship, paying homage during a visit to Indonesia in 2005 to the Indonesians who had been forced into slavery by South Africa’s colonisers in the seventeenth century. Mbeki also waxed lyrical about a partnership between the Pretoria zoo and Indonesia’s Surabaya zoo while failing even once to mention Indonesia’s brutal genocide in West Papua. Also under Mbeki’s presidency, a “strategic partnership joint declaration” was signed between Indonesia and South Africa, apparently “elevating the long-standing relations between the two countries to a new level”.

Given that South Africa’s indigenous people suffered similar genocidal massacres for hundreds of years, one would expect the ANC to stand with the people of West Papua. Instead, the ANC government appears to have no relations at all with West Papua, only with Indonesia – the colonial power – and neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

President Jacob Zuma is clearly following in the footsteps of his predecessors, favouring strong trade and diplomatic ties with Indonesia over freedom for the indigenous Black citizens of West Papua.

Ironically, the digital age and the advent of social media have led to greater exposure of the Indonesian killings in West Papua because of a macabre “trophy” practice by Indonesian soldiers and intelligence agents. They photograph the dead bodies of West Papuan activists after killing them, in order to win praise from their military superiors. These digital photographs and videos are circulated widely and quite quickly end up being publicly available on social media.

The brutality of Indonesia’s colonisation is also currently in the world news because seven weeks ago, two high profile French journalists were arrested in West Papua for the crime of political reporting while travelling on tourists’ visas. Indonesia has effectively barred foreign journalists from reporting on human rights abuses in West Papua, insisting on a special “journalist visa” which is granted only to those pursuing anthropological stories. All story proposals must be submitted to Indonesian intelligence in Jakarta before the visa is granted, making it impossible for a human rights story to pass muster.

The French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, now face a five-year prison term for violating their visas. Their West Papuan contacts have not been so lucky. West Papuan liberation movement regional leader, Martinus Yohame of the West Papua National Committee, was assassinated a few days after meeting with Dandois and Bourrat. And another liberation movement leader, Areki Wanimbo, was arrested a day after granting the journalists an interview and remains in prison.

With trade that has steadily risen over the years and which now stands at over US$ 2 billion per year, it is clear that the ANC is placing the business of local South African capital before justice for the indigenous West Papuans. Indonesia has a new president, Joko Widodo, and this should present an opportunity for the ANC government to press for freedom for West Papua. West Papuan activist and exile, Paula Makabory made the point in a recent seminar that West Papua has vast resources of nickel, copper, oil, gas and timber and so Indonesia is not likely to grant West Papua its freedom without huge international pressure being brought to bear.

The ANC failed to support the people of Timor-Leste, but it is not too late for them to help bring about freedom for the people of West Papua.

*Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.