John Gratton Wilson has taken his message about the plight of the West Papuan people to the world. KATRINA LOVELL reports about his connection to a country he says few people know about.
Every day Warrnambool’s John Gratton Wilson will put on one of the 10 T-shirts in his drawer that contain slogans calling for freedom for West Papua.
Even if it is hidden under his jumper in winter, you can be sure he is probably wearing one.
The message emblazoned on the T-shirt sits right across his chest in a symbolic gesture towards a topic that he holds close to his heart. John is passionate about the issue and he is not afraid to tell anyone who will listen. “Some people call it an obsession,” he said. “I’m a 71-year-old activist.
“Most of the world wouldn’t have a clue where West Papua is.”
John will wear one of those T-Shirts, no matter where in the world he might be.
“I’ll go to other parts of the world to let the Indonesians know that we’re not happy,” he said. “I’ve been to Vanuatu, I’ve been to New Zealand, I’ve been to Washington, been to Prague.
“I go to the Indonesian embassies in those countries, fly the flag and wear the T-shirt.”
He said the T-shirts had attracted many positive reactions from the strangers he will pass by while on his travels, whether that be in Spain or Cuba. “I will often get the thumbs up,” he said.
Just three months ago when he was in Prague, he went to the Indonesian Embassy and stood on the footpath outside with his flag and was very vocal about calling for freedom for West Papua. John said he was just wrapping up his flag and getting ready to leave when the police turned up, followed by an intelligence officer a few minutes later.
“They speak Czech and I speak English. There was a bit of argy-bargy that went on – I was supposed to get a permit to demonstrate. Nothing came of it and I walked back home,” he said. John said somebody had to make the world aware of what was going on in West Papua.
In June, while he was visiting his daughter in Canada he took his flag down to the harbour where the cruise ships arrive, and for an hour or so for four days he raised the Morning Star flag on a stick and talked to anyone who would listen.
On his last day, after being told by security to move on, he stopped an elderly couple in their 90s and discovered the man had been a marine stationed in West Papua during World War II. “He said: ‘Bloody glad someone’s working to help the poor buggers we left behind,” John said.
“I mean damn it, these people helped our troops in the Second World War. They were also helping the Americans and the Dutch and the English stave off the Japanese invasion of Australia. They made a significant contribution,” he said.
This year for the first time the south-west branch of the Australian West Papua Association marched in Warrnambool’s Anzac Day parade in honour of their efforts, and also participated in Rememberance Day.
John, who moved to Warrnambool about two years ago after living in Mortlake for 36 years, has the Morning Star flag permanently flying above his house. “I did the same in Mortlake, and it gets a bit tattered,” he said.
A new flag arrived in the mail late last month just in time to fly on December 1, the anniversary of the day the Dutch declared the country’s independence and its Morning Star Flag was first raised. John said people in West Papua were now not allowed to fly the Morning Star flag in their own country. “If they can’t do it, I’ll do it for them,” he said.
A gathering on the Civic Green on December 1 included a flag-raising ceremony and a choir sang the West Papua national anthem. He said the flag-raising ceremony had been taking place in Warrnambool for about two decades, and the south-west branch of the the Australian West Papua Association has about a dozen members who raise awareness of the plight of the people in West Papua.
John said he had written many letters and emails to Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, but had never received a reply. He said both major parties had ignored the issue.
Most of the world wouldn’t have a clue where West Papau is.John Gratton Wilson
The group also raises money from selling T-shirts, badges and book stalls to send to West Papuan refugees who are in camps on the border in Papua New Guinea. The money goes towards helping the refugees with their health and education needs.
John said he only learned about the situation in West Papua after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which killed 250,000 people, mainly in Sumatra and Aceh.
“We put our hand in our pocket, we didn’t have a lot of money. I think we gave $400 to the tsunami relief,” he said.
John said an Amnesty International report from about five years ago found that at least 100,000 people had been killed in West Papua since the 1960s. “That’s 40 people a week for 50 years,” he said, although he believes locals put that figure as high as 200 a week and consider it a genocide.
In 2011, John visited West Papua on a bird-watching trip to the Arfak Mountains.
“It was like Kokoda, it was very tough. On the first day of the trip the bird guide went into the bush, grabbed a stick and whittled this stuff on it with his machette, great big bush knife, and then came over to me and put it in front of me. And while he had his hand on it, I grabbed the stick and I said ‘Papua merdeka stick’ and his face lit up. Somebody else knew what was going on in his country,” he said.
Merdeka means Papua freedom, and the stick forms part of John’s collection of West Papuan items which also includes a whole shelf in his book case filled with books, DVDs and CDs.
John is also passionate about conservation and sustainabilty, and while he has an electric car it is also a chance to drive home his message about West Papua. The number plate reads: “WPAPUA”.
He has only been to West Papua once. “I don’t imagine they would let me in again,” he said, admitting that he didn’t expect to get a visa when he went in 2011 after he’d written so many letters to the embassy.
His passion for the West Papuan people increased after his visit, and fighting stage four prostate cancer that has metastisised and spread to the lymph sytem and bones hasn’t dampened his enthusiam.
“Sooner or later it’s going to catch up with me. I just keep on. You can’t give up on these people.”
He said the United Nations was the only one who could fix the situation in West Papua after it gave the approval for Indonesia to take over the region in 1963 .
“For the locals it’s all been going down hill ever since,” he said. “It’s right on our door step. West Papua is closer to Queensland than we are to Melbourne. Apart from Papua New Guinea it’s our nearest neighbour and we look the other way.”
He said the country was rich in both copper and gold and was home to the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine.
John said he has been heartened by the growing support for self-determination for the indigenous rightful owners of the land. He said while he was also concerned about the injustices towards other indigenous populations around the world, his focus was on West Papua because it is Australia’s closest neighbour.