How the Aussie punk scene fought a forgotten war

A new documentary, ‘Punks 4 West Papua’, tells the inspiring story of the Australian punk scene’s fight for the West Papuans, who’ve been under the control of the Indonesian government since the 60s.

Filmmaker Ash Brennan found out about the movement through his friends in the band Diggers With Attitude, and gave TeamRock an early viewing of his film. Here’s what we learned from it…

**There’s a war in West Papua, but you might not know about it
**Since 1962, the indigenous West Papuan people have been fighting Indonesia’s occupation of their land. The Indonesian government have used torture and murder to control the West Papuans, but they’re fighting back, and Australia’s punk bands are shining a light on the issue. West Papua sits just north of Australia, and the proudly political punks of Oz are sick of the conflict happening unnoticed and unreported on their neighbouring island.

How did it all start?
Since the end of WWII, West Papua was Dutch colony, but at the start of the 60, it was handed over to Indonesia. An agreement between Indonesia, the Netherlands and the US stated that West Papuans should vote on their independence in 1969, but all negotiations took place without consulting the people themselves.

**Did they get the vote they were promised?
**When the vote came around, Indonesia used intimidation tactics to rig it. Hugh Lunn, an Australian war correspondent, remembers the mood at the time. “[The West Papuans] looked solemn, like there was a big cloud hanging over them,” he says. “There were lots of Indonesian officials there. Three men and a boy came out of the bushes with signs [to protest], but Indonesian officials marched them off under arrest.” Hugh says he never found out what happened to the men, and Indonesia’s violent oppression of West Papua began.

**The punks are West Papua’s allies
**“As a punk musician, questioning the government is our stock-in-trade,” says Jody Bartolo, frontman of Aussie punks Diggers With Attitude. He was moved by the fact that the Australian government seemingly turns a blind eye to the conflict in West Papua, which he found out about through social media groups advocating for West Papuan freedom, rather than through the national news. “I felt an impotent rage,” he says. “What could I do?”

**How are they helping?
**“We decided to put on a few shows, and we called them Punks 4 West Papua,” explains Jody. “It was a way to channel that impotent rage and to do something good.” Diggers With Attitude weren’t the only band involved. Bastard Squad, Clever Monkey, Yob Mob and Ironhawk were just four of the 50 bands in total who jumped onto the cause when they found out about Jody’s benefit concerts. Raising awareness about West Papua snowballed from a one-man effort into a nationwide movement in seven of Australia’s cities including Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Hobart. The money raised from the concerts went towards freedom campaigns.

**Do the West Papuans know what’s going on?
**Yes. In April 2015, Jody met with a leading West Papuan freedom campaigner, Benny Wenda, to give his support in person. Benny was imprisoned and tortured by the Indonesian authorities in West Papua, and now lives in exile in the UK. “If I went back to West Papua, I’d be a dead man,” he says.

**The punks are telling the world what the media can’t
**“Many people in the punk community would stand against this, if they only knew,” says Dr Jason Bastard of Bastard Squad. Since 1963, Indonesia has banned foreign media from West Papua and suppressed reporting of the conflict. But the power of a grassroots movement shouldn’t be underestimated – a benefit concert, with flyers emblazoned with the West Papuan flag, was even held in Poland after bands there heard about the Australian movement.

**Australia has strong punk credentials
**The bands thrashing out protest songs in support of West Papua are inspired by the rebels who came before them. AC/DC might be the country’s biggest musical export, but The Saints, formed in 1974, were the first non-American punks to release a record, beating even the Sex Pistols to it. “They were there first,” says music journalist Stuart Coupe. “They’re cited by many as being a pivotal influence.”

**Punks recognise the privilege problem
**Last year, two Australian drug smugglers, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were executed by Indonesian authorities after they and seven others were caught in Bali trying to smuggle over 8kg of heroin. Understandably, there was uproar – but it didn’t sit right with the punks, who knew West Papuans were being killed every day. “It’s unfortunate we only recognise these things as issues when Westerners are involved,” says Simon from Ironhawk.

**What difference did the benefit gigs make?
**“If all that happens is we get to stand up and be counted, then so be it,” says Diggers With Attitude’s Neil Kellington. They didn’t start the movement with a set amount of money to raise – spreading awareness and information about West Papua’s plight was just as important. But in the end, they achieved both. Over $10,000 (£5270) was raised, which helped West Papua secure observer status in the Melanesian Spearhead – an intergovernmental organisation between the Melanesian states of Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. It’s something that Benny Wendu and other freedom fighters have wanted for years, and they’re a step closer to their independence.

You can watch Punks 4 West Papua now. For more information, visit the film’s official site.