Obama should help a people blighted by a US corporation

2 Mar 2010
Obama should help a people blighted by a US corporation
Carmel Budiardjo, TAPOL
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As the much-heralded visit of President Barack Obama draws near, it is worth remembering that, unlike any other US president, Obama enjoys a special affection among Indonesians.

Most Indonesians know that he spent several years in Indonesia as a child and probably still remembers the language he used when he played on the streets with local children. For Indonesians, a US president who can actually speak their lingo is indeed a novelty.

In The Audacity of Hope, he wrote at some length about Indonesia, not just about his childhood recollections, but also about events in Indonesia in the 1960s, showing that he has keep abreast of developments during the terrible years of the authoritarian military dictatorship.

"By any measure," he wrote, "Soeharto's rule was harshly repressive. Arrests and torture of dissidents were common, a free press nonexistent, elections a mere formality." He went on to write about ethnic secessionist movements, mentioning Aceh in particular where, he wrote, "the army targeted not just guerrillas but civilians for swift retribution - murder, rape, villages set afire. And throughout the seventies and eighties, all this was done with the knowledge if not the outright approval, of US administrations."

In Dreams From My Father, he wrote about his stepfather's great unease and silence about his one-year military service in New Guinea, now called Papua.

The country Barack Obama will be visiting in March has in many ways changed beyond recognition from the country he wrote about a few years ago. But one place where virtually nothing has changed is West Papua, which was incorporated into Indonesia 40 years ago.

But how many Americans or Indonesians are aware of the fraudulent nature of the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969, or indeed of the massive revenues Indonesia rakes in from this highly profitable piece of real estate? Papuans know only too well that large tracts of their homeland have been changed beyond recognition by an American company called Freeport.

Although Papua has abundant natural resources and is host to this copper and gold mining company, which is Jakarta's largest taxpayer, the vast majority of indigenous Papuans live in dire poverty, with a health service that barely penetrates the more remote regions of the vast territory, where HIV/AIDS is estimated to be 15 times the national average and mother and child mortality are the highest in Indonesia.

In anticipation of the Obama visit, attention has been focused on agreeing to a strategic partnership. The joint statement is likely to applaud the accord between Jakarta and the resistance in Aceh in 2005, but no one expects Obama's host, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to breathe a word about Papua. Yet this is where Obama's audacity would be well deserved. Having so pointedly condemned the failure of past US administrations to acknowledge the repression in Aceh, he now faces the challenge of speaking to his host about Papua.

For the past decade, Papuan organizations and human rights NGOs have stressed their firm belief that Papua should become a land of peace, and have called on Jakarta to enter into dialogue as a way of resolving the many problems that still bear down heavily on the Papuan people.

As a Nobel Peace laureate, Obama should understand these aspirations and support any meaningful initiatives to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
According to recent information from our sources in Papua, there are 50 political prisoners there, among them men sentenced to five, 10 and even 15 years simply for unfurling their Morning Star flag in peaceful demonstrations.

One of them is Filep Karma, who was arrested in December 2004 and is serving a 15-year sentence. For six months, he has been suffering from an acute urinary infection, which, according to the local doctor, urgently needs specialist treatment in Jakarta.

But Karma has not yet been provided with the funds he needs to finance the trip for himself and a relative and for a week's treatment at a specialist hospital. He justifiably insists that those who have held him in captivity for so long should provide the funds needed to cure him.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged that men and women around the world jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice were far more deserving of honor than him. He can himself now honor the dozens of political prisoners in Papua in a practical way by proposing their immediate and unconditional release.

Papua has for decades been a restricted territory for international journalists, human rights researchers and independent observers, while reports paint an alarming picture of the overbearing presence of the Indonesian Military, which has created a climate of fear. No doubt some were hoping that Obama could include Papua in his 60-hour itinerary, given that the governments of both countries benefit from the exploitation of Papua's minerals.

Since operations began in the 1970s, the Freeport mine has turned a mountain into a deep crater and seriously polluted the surrounding rivers. Tribal people who lived for generations on the slopes of the mountain were evicted and resettled in coastal regions with devastating consequences for their health and livelihoods.

Peacefully flying the Morning Star flag, which means exercising the right to freedom of expression, has for decades been treated as an act of treason. Three years ago, a prohibition on the use of regional symbols such as the Papuan flag was codified in a presidential decree, in violation of Indonesia's ratification in 2006 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Having criticized US administrations for turning a blind eye to such violations of basic human rights during the Soeharto era, Obama could use his enviable reputation as a world leader to remind his host of the need to repeal laws and regulations that criminalize freedom of expression.

Just imagine how welcome this would be not only to Papuans who will have nothing more than glimpses of Obama on their TVs, but to civil society organizations in Indonesia and indeed to Obama's huge following back home.

The writer is the co-founder of TAPOL and a human rights campaigner.