On May 5, the Netherlands celebrates Liberation Day, or Bevrijdingsdag. The day marks the end of the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany in 1945. This year though, the Netherlands’ Free West Papua Campaign is encouraging a redirection of attention on Liberation Day toward West Papua, by organising a week of awareness raising for West Papua.
West Papua, of course, is in the Pacific. I say “of course” a little disingenuously – many people, even those who live in this corner of the world, have not heard of West Papua. They might mistake the Morning Star flag – the one used to promote West Papuan independence from the brutal Indonesian occupation – for the Cuban one. And it’s no coincidence we have this blind spot, in fact it’s by design. Indonesia has been keeping foreign journalists out of West Papua, and countries like the U.S.A, Australia and New Zealand have vested interests in Indonesia to the extent that we haven’t sought to penetrate Indonesia’s imposed wall of silence.
But as West Papua’s Pacific neighbours, New Zealand has a responsibility to prioritise discussing West Papua, and challenging Indonesia. What I want to suggest too, as Liberation Day approaches in the Netherlands, is that Dutch New Zealanders hold a dual responsibility to those ends: firstly, as Pacific neighbours, and secondly, as former colonisers. The Dutch colonised both Indonesia and West Papua from the time of its seventeenth century spice trade expeditions. While the Netherlands profited largely from those, and does still – Indonesia is now using tactics learned from the Dutch to keep West Papua oppressed.
So I’m writing to tautoko the Dutch Liberation Day campaign; to ask fellow Dutch New Zealanders to support it, and to outline the situation in West Papua to give those who are in the dark enough of a heads up to support the campaign too. I would love for Dutch New Zealanders to take a moment between 1 and 5 May to promote freedom in West Papua.
West Papua constitutes half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half, Papua New Guinea, is now independent), where indigenous people have lived for over 60 thousand years. The island is in between Australia and Indonesia, but ethnically West Papuans are a part of the Melanesian community, where Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in particular are strong supporters of West Papuan liberation.
The Dutch connection goes back to the seventeenth century, when the Dutch East India Company (or VOC) ships travelled to Indonesia in search of spices. A lot of Dutch people grew up with curry rice, and spice cookies like pepernoten and spekulaas – there’s so much pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and cinnamon in Dutch cooking and baking – and that’s just a familiar, everyday example of the wealth and profit brought the Netherlands through their spice “trade” monopolisation, and colonisation, in the Indonesian region.
After the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt, the Dutch government took control of Indonesia in 1800, and by 1883 claimed West Papua to boot. Britain and Germany took the south east and north east regions of the island respectively. It’s painful in itself to see those dead, straight lines drawn across and down maps, knowing how they carve up real land masses, real communities, and real lives to which their contours – or lack thereof – bear no relation. Even more so, in the case of West Papua, knowing those dead straight lines indicate the boundaries of a genocidal occupation.
It was after World War Two that Indonesia, at least, regained independence. Indonesian Freedom Fighters were able to turn the Japanese invasion to their own advantage, after the Japanese dismantled much of the Dutch administration. They ousted the Dutch.
Only, they then began eyeing up Dutch West Papua. The U.S. too, had been taking an interest, surveying the vast deposits of gold in the mountains, and sweetening up Indonesia.
To avoid war, the Netherlands handed West Papua to the U.N. and by 1961 was supporting West Papuan independence. The Dutch had a hand in creating the Morning Star flag, and writing the independence manifesto. It was a Dutch composer who put together the West Papuan anthem. Our support of the freedom struggle represents a promise on which we soon reneged; and on which we are yet to deliver.
It’s now illegal to fly that flag or sing that anthem because the year after the Morning Star was first raised (and seven years after the Netherlands celebrated liberation from Nazi occupation) the Dutch signed an agreement with the U.S. and Indonesia that ultimately handed West Papua over to its current oppressor. The U.S. had been using its political and economic clout to pressure the U.N. into giving Indonesia a mandate to hold a referendum in West Papua inviting the people to assimilate with Indonesia. And they succeeded, with the signing of the 1962 New York Agreement.
In 1969 Indonesia ran its referendum: the supposed “Act of Free Choice”. An Orwellian misnomer: Indonesia selected 1 thousand representatives out of a population of 1 million, to vote at gunpoint. Since then, West Papua has been under a military occupation, calling for a free, fair and independently supervised election.
Since then, the population of indigenous Melanesians in West Papua has reduced from 100% to closer to 30%. Half a million people have been murdered by the regime, and Indonesia ships about 10,000 sponsored migrants to West Papua annually. It forbids West Papuans from gathering, from raising the flag; and it has been trying to bribe Pacific nations who stand in solidarity with West Papua into silence.
We don’t hear about this in New Zealand because of Indonesia’s strict regulations on foreign media, but also because of our military and economic ties to Indonesia, where New Zealand sends about $800 million worth of exports per year.
And here’s another heads up for us in the Dutch community, in case we thought our days of colonisation in the Pacific were over. Fonterra accounts for $300 million out of our $800 million worth of exports to Indonesia. The vast majority of farms in New Zealand sell to Fonterra, and most of the foreign owned farms are either Chinese, or Dutch. I wonder if this suggests to others what it suggests to me: the Dutch community in New Zealand is still profiting from an ongoing legacy of colonisation here.
That’s why I’m calling on us to support freedom in West Papua this Liberation Day. Our freedom, and our security, be they relative, have come, still come at the cost of another’s. In that case, what may seem a blessing to us also represents a debt – we owe it to West Papua to use our Liberation day to support West Papuan liberation. And I don’t think we can really be free until we do.
Please share this article with any Dutch friends or family in the Pacific, and take a moment between 1 and 5 May to respond to the international Free West Papua campaign’s current call-out. They are asking for people to photograph themselves with a sign reading #LetWestPapuaVote (I’ve attached my image as an example below).
You can also follow the international Free West Papua Campaign online. Check out the fifteen-minute New Zealand produced film Run It Straight, and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu’s seven minute film Free West Papua. Both speak to a school-age audience too, so if you are a parent, teacher or student – consider suggesting these films are played in your school. The French Art Shop in Wellington recently ran a #chalkaboutwestpapua campaign, during which people began making public chalk artworks and statements about West Papua and photographing them for social media – consider chalking about West Papua on Liberation Day!
You can also donate funds to the Wellington Vanuatu Community ASB account for ongoing Pacific-led campaigns in New Zealand (include ‘West Papua’ as reference):
12 3254 0081174 50
Whatever you do, thank you for considering supporting freedom in West Papua this May, around Dutch Liberation Day. It’s truly another step toward liberation.