This is our struggle, says West Papuan activist

Published in The Martlet | March 20, 2003 | Circulation: 17,000

Octovianus Mote has a message for students: keep working for justice, and don’t give up hope.

The West Papuan human rights worker and Yale professor spoke at the Community House in the Gorge on March 9, expressing his hope for Papuan independence from Indonesia. When students approached him after the informal gathering, Mote burst into a smile and explained that the student movement is what gives him hope these days.

“A lot of young student activists try to protect [Papuans] in many ways,” Mote told the meeting of twenty students and social justice activists. “The young generation, they’re really brave.”

“There are very radical university students who are not Papuan, but who have been born and raised in West Papua,” he added.

“They stand for West Papuan independence. They said, ‘This is our struggle.'”

Mote became a student activist while attending an Indonesian university in 1981. Today, he teaches Genocide Studies at Yale University in the U.S. and is touring North America to educate about human rights in his home country.

West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is located on the west half of Papua New Guinea, an island in the South Pacific. Formerly a Dutch colony, the territory was handed over to Indonesia’s dictatorship in 1969, after an election many Papuans considered a sham. Since then, the Indonesian government has relocated between 350,000 to 850,000 Indonesian settlers onto Papuan land, dramatically watering down the indigenous population. Mote says the process has accelerated in recent years.

He stresses, however, that the problem is not simply the Indonesian government. The United States has backed the regime since the Cold War, for instance providing weapons and military backing during Indonesia’s violent takeover of East Timor in 1975. Today, the US continues its long-time military support for the Indonesian regime, hoping to keep it on side for the current “War on Terrorism.”

“Why is the Bush administration willing to support the Indonesian military, which is well known for human rights abuses?” Mote asked. “The U.S. government is crazy with war. They support this regime because there is a personal interest.”

Multinational corporations are also coming under increasing criticism for their operations in West Papua. Two mining companies in particular‹Freeport McMoRan (U.S.) and Rio Tinto (U.K./Australia)‹operate a large gold and copper mine on the island, with the cooperation of the Indonesian government. Mote said the mine’s operations have been marked by killings, kidnappings, disappearances and environmental destruction.

Despite the many tragedies, Mote said that Papuans remain hopeful.

“Truth is slow, but the Papuans believe it is coming out,” Mote said. “They just keep fighting. Papuans will not stop. We die now or later. They will fight without any weapons, but with peace and struggle.”

For UVic student Jen Preston, who attended the talk, Mote’s stories were both disturbing and inspiring.

“I think part of the hope that came out of it came from hearing about the student movement, and the very fact that more people know about what’s going on in West Papua,” Preston said.

“The situation in West Papua‹with the student movement working as allies‹is so important,” she said. “It’s just like people here working as allies with people who have been oppressed systematically, whether through colonization, or any form of discrimination or oppression.”

Preston said students at UVic have a responsibility to learn about what is happening in the world and in Canada, and take action. We are connected by our consumption, and by continuing colonization of First Nations, she added.

“I don’t think getting a degree is a ticket out of social responsibility,” she said. “We’re at a point where people need to work together for social change.”

The March 9 gathering was organized by the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership and Kairos, a Canadian church coalition.

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