BRISBANE Catholic academic Dr Greg Poulgrain’s intense engagement with West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) began more than 30 years ago.
So he is keenly aware of the sufferings of the people of this country just north of Australia – a country he describes as one of the most “topographically amazing” on earth.
The indigenous residents are suffering a multitude of injustices – from rape and murder to the multinational theft of the island’s rich natural resources which include gold, copper, oil, timber and fish.
He’s supported these people in numerous ways and in their appreciation for “Doctor Greg” as they call him, they’ve also given him a traditional name which translates as “one who watches over the black people”.
The population is mainly Christian with about 30 per cent “Katolik” as the local people call the Catholic Church.
Recent media reports quoting sources such as Fr Cayetanus Johanes Tarong, superior of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in West Papua, speak of the killing of at least 100,000 people by the Indonesian military forces.
Indeed the entire Christian community throughout Indonesia has suffered intensely with about 110 churches reportedly closed in the past three years.
On May 19, Fr Tarong led a delegation to meet with officials of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to seek help to ease what has been described as a “humanitarian crisis” in the region.
Right now Dr Poulgrain is trying to fund an indigenous dance troupe from Laura in Cape York, Australia, to visit these suffering people.
“A cultural visit from another group of indigenous people will give them a terrific morale boost,” he said.
“The local Indonesian authorities are also supportive.”
Thanks also to his efforts, Australian Catholic University has decided to provide two scholarships next year for West Papuan students.
And Dr Poulgrain is currently awaiting approval from the Indonesian Government to send a medical team – headed by Queensland eye specialist Dr Bill Glasson – to carry out eye operations on such conditions as glaucoma and cataracts.
Dr Poulgrain said while his relationship with West Papua has been rewarding, it’s also been dangerous.
Such as the riot he was caught in a couple of years ago.
“The young army officer saw me … pointed his M16 rifle straight at me. I froze.
“I thought: ‘This is it’.
“After what seemed ages he raised the barrel slightly and fired a shot over my head.”
Dr Poulgrain described the attitude of the Indonesian army to the indigenous inhabitants of the province as one “where they use casual brutality with impunity”.
“The life of these poor people is worth nothing, particularly in the eyes of their special military force the Kopassus.
“The Indonesian army has been in control since the takeover in 1963.
“The world has a fair idea of what has happened in Timor.
“But what the Indonesian army has done in West Papua – in relative secrecy – is a hundred times worse than in East Timor.”
The United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has said the West Papuan people are in danger of extinction, Dr Poulgrain said.
“A spokesperson for the Indonesian Embassy disagreed with me on this – but where have all the indigenous people gone?
“Look at population growth before the arrival of the Indonesian occupying forces and compare it with now.
“Based on population growth when Dutch left in 1961 there should be 3.4 million by 2008; there’s only 1.8 million.
“And PNG by contrast has 6.2 million which gives some idea of typical population growth in the region.”
Dr Poulgrain, as a member of the Brisbane archdiocesan Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, prepared a special briefing report for Archbishop John Bathersby earlier this year.
In preparing the report, he drew on his long contact with West Papua as well as his research as lecturer in South East Asian history and politics at both Queensland and Griffith universities.
Dr Poulgrain has also written many scholarly articles on the region’s politics and a book The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, 1945-1965.
The briefing report to Archbishop Bathersby gave a detailed political history including several incidences of major massacres of the West Papuan people by Indonesian forces.
For example in 1977 when Indonesian military rule was introduced into the Papuan highlands “ex-Vietnam Bronco OV-10 war-planes, specially equipped by the Indonesians with six rather than the normal four machine guns each, were used to decimate the population … the death toll exceeded 20,000 Papuans”.
The report lists cases of army personnel poisoning food and water supplies of the indigenous people and of official neglect leading to rampant poverty and diseases such as HIV-AIDS and TB.
Regarding corruption the report says: “Special attention should be given to the exploitation of forests in (West Papua) as most of the companies engaged in illegal logging (untaxed) are linked with the Indonesian army”.
It is for these reasons that Dr Poulgrain ultimately described his relationship with West Papua as love/hate.
“I love the openness and basic human decency of indigenous people.
“Then there is the province’s amazingly diverse topography – the astonishingly steep cliffs; the rivers that disappear into the ground only to reappear elsewhere.
“What I hate is the corruption, the injustice and acts of cruelty towards these people.”
Dr Poulgrain, who has visited the province at least a dozen times in the past decade, said he was becoming increasingly concerned about the situation of Christians there and throughout the whole of Indonesia.
“According to religious and human rights organisations, Islamic extremist groups and local governments in Indonesia closed 110 churches from 2004 to 2007.
“Certain extreme Islamic groups coerced local governments to send orders to churches prohibiting any religious activities.
“Churches that did not comply were burned or otherwise damaged.”
Dr Poulgrain entreated Australian Catholics to become more aware and supportive of the West Papuans.
In terms of practical support, he said funding the Laura dance troupe to attend the Lake Sentani Cultural Festival in West Papua from June 19 to 21 was a good starting point.
The funding situation became urgent after the previous dance group pulled out.
“It’s crucial that we in Australia keep contact with these people,” he said.
“If we can send a group of indigenous dancers to their island it will be a great morale boost.
“There is already reported to be great excitement in West Papua about the prospect.”
Funds to support the Laura dance troupe can be sent to “Papua Support”. the Archdiocesan Development Fund, BSB 064786; Account: 519190100.
Dr Poulgrain can be contacted on 0414 761612.