By Andy Paine
On February 15th, Indonesian soldiers turned up at the West Papuan village of Mamba. They were hoping to avenge a soldier who had been killed nearby by Papuan guerilla independence fighters.
In the middle of the village, as more than 1000 villagers fled to the local catholic church, soldiers shot 26 year old Janius Bagau in the arm. There was no evidence he had anything to do with the killing – he just happened to be there. Two of his brothers, Justinus and Sony, accompanied Janius to the nearest hospital.
That night, Indonesian soldiers turned up at the hospital, interrogating the three young men about their knowledge of guerilla activities. They pulled the intravenous needle from Janius’ arm and bashed him until he died. By the end of the night his two brothers, who had been completely healthy, were also dead. Both the Papuan governor and the leader of guerilla forces later confirmed the three were civilians who had nothing to do with the guerillas.
You most likely didn’t hear about the death of the three brothers, same as you didn’t hear about the three school children murdered on their walk home from school on November 20, or the four church leader who were killed in four seperate incidents over a couple of months late last year. Many Australians could name a number of Americans killed by police over the last few years, but deaths that happen on our doorstep – West Papua is just 300 km from the Australian mainland – go virtually unnoticed.
There are a few reasons for this. One is the simple bias of our media towards what happens in the Western, anglophone world their readers can identify with. Another is the longstanding restrictions on foreign journalists entering West Papua placed by the Indonesian government. But another is the sheer regularity of these kind of attacks. When hundreds of thousands of Papuans have died over half a century in incidents like this, some would say it hardly still qualifies as “news”.
Even Papuans don’t necessarily these as isolaed incidents. Prominent Papuan activis Selpius Bobii put out a statement following the deaths, where he lists 10 villagers killed in an anti-guerilla crackdown in the central highlands area. He follows this with “Such incidents have commonly occurred in different places and at different times in the Land of Papua starting from 1 May 1963 to the present”, and compares current President Joko Widodo to the former military dictator Suharto.
Across the Arafura Sea in Australia, a small but determined network of Papuan expats and supporters continue to advocate for West Papuan people’s rights. Faced with the vastness of the issue, how removed it seems from our everyday lives, and the reluctance of the Australian government to cause any tensions with Indonesia; it has been an issue that consistently struggles to gain the prominence in our national consciousness that one would think it should.
In recent times, Papuan supporters have been working on a new tactic that attempts to change that. They have studied the weapons used by the Indonesian military, and traced them back to Australian factories and corporations.
They have spotlighted companies like Thales, who sell armed Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicles to Indonesia’s notorious special forces unit Kopassus. Or Rheinmetall, who who sold more than 100 tanks to the Indonesian military as well as other weapons. Both these companies are trans-national mega corporations, but manufacture these weapons in Australian locations including Brisbane. Then there is Australian owned company Elecro Optic Systems (EOS), who make remote control weapons systems with names like “plug and play interface”.
In the last few months, there have been protests at the facilities of Thales, Rheinmetall and EOS in Brisbane as well as similar actions in Melbourne. In each case, activists have pointed out the obvious but unpleasant fact that weapons made and sold by these companies are frequently used by the Indonesian government on their own citizens. Shining a light on these companies and where their products go is a way of trying to slow the flow of weapons into West Papua, but also a way of trying to pinpoint individual agency in an issue that frequently seems too big, too entrenched and too overwhelming to confront.
Identifying Indonesian weapons that are manufactured and marketed by ordinary Australians and often subsidised by the Australian taxpayers is a way of tracing accountability for killings like that of Janias Bagau and his two brothers. Deaths like those in February are easily reduced to statistics when they are part of a 60 year colonial occupation, but those names added to the ever escalating Papuan death toll are real people, as are those who kill them and those who make the weapons. Going directly to the places these weapons are made, carrying pictures of the deceased, is a way of bringing back the humanity to an issue that is easily abstracted as just politics or just business.
All three of these companies, as well as having operations based in Brisbane, will be appearing at the Land Forces weapons expo that will take place at the Brisbane Convention Centre from June 1-3. They will join more than 600 other weapons manufacturers there showcasing their merchandise. For the companies and personnel involved, Land Forces is just about selling products, removed from personal costs. The event promo is a masterpiece in euphemistic corporate language designed to obscure what they are used for – “A three-day Industry and Defence Conference Program, built around the themes of: Industry Capability – Equipping Defence; Innovation and Technology for the Future Force; Civil Defence – Preparing for Community Crisis.”
Those attempting to disrupt Land Forces are trying to cut through this kind of obfuscation and talk about what is really being bought and sold there. Every successful sales pitch at Land Forces, every business card exchanging hands at the official networking events, means more weapons in the hands of those who can always justify their use. To refuse to accept the corporate jargon of the arms industry is to bring the focus back to the humanity of those involved – from the people of Brisbane in whose city it is taking place and whose state government is the major sponsor, to the thousands of attendees buying and selling weapons, to those like Janius Bagau who are on the receiving end of their products.