West Papua Continues To Face Violence In Its Struggle For Liberation From Indonesia

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

“Let the rats run into the jungle so that chickens can breed in the coop.” This is the motto of Operation Clean Sweep, a military operation that was used to force Papuans off their lands in the border regions to vacate land for incoming transmigrants. Tensions between natives of the Indonsian province of West Papua and the Indonesian establishment have only continued to grow in recent years.

Between January 2010 and February 2018, Amnesty International recorded 69 suspected unlawful killings in West Papua by security forces. During Indonesia’s last Universal Periodic Review by the UNHRC, the U.S. raised concerns about freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the Papua and West Papua province, while Austria expressed concern about undue restriction on freedom of expression and lack of accountability of security forces. However the Indonesian government refuses to take responsibility for these allegations. Indonesian diplomats Ms. Ainan Nuran and Ms. Nara Masista vehemently denied the occurrence of various human rights violations, referring to them as a “hoax” at the 71st and 72nd sessions of the United Nations General Assembly.

History of West Papuan Sovereignty

Discovered in 1545 by Spanish sailor Inogio Ortiz de Retes, West Papua is another example of the Western capitalization on a resource-rich foreign nation. Throughout its history, West Papua has been claimed by many countries. However, the one with the most relevance to its current lack of autonomy is the Netherlands, which established the first settlement in the region in 1828. During World War II, Indonesia was shortly occupied by Japan but was liberated in 1945. Aware of the odds of a potential war against them during this unstable time, Japan began to support the rise of radical Indonesian nationalist Sukarno, a staunch critic of Western democracy and believer in a one-party political system.

The Dutch were opposed to permanently relinquishing their control over Indonesia, and thus resorted to military action, establishing the Netherlands Indie Civil Administration, a militaristic organization dedicated to restoring Dutch colonial rule. However, following World War II, the nation no longer possessed the resources to reassert its authority in the growingly nationalistic region due to its poor economy. U.S. threats to withdraw the Netherlands from the Marshall Plan were the last straw in forcing the Dutch’s hand into attending the Round Table Conference in 1949. Here, they agreed to transfer the sovereignty of Indonesia to Sukarno, most likely a plan by the U.S. to dismantle colonialism and ensure its spot as the dominant world power.

However, unable to compromise the ownership of West Papua, both parties agreed to reopen the matter within one year. The Dutch maintained the position that West Papua should be politically separated from the Indonesian Federation due to its “inferior” cultural and socio-economic status, and should be given the opportunity to develop according to their own needs. Throughout the 1950s, the Dutch government began to prepare West Papua for its own independence. By 1961, West Papua raised its new flag and held a Congress where its people declared independence.

Within months, however, the Indonesian military invaded the country causing widespread conflict regarding the territory among themselves, the Netherlands, and the West Papuans. U.S.- sponsored talks in 1962 granted the territory to Indonesia after a transitional period facilitated by the UN. The agreement promised the West Papuans their right to self-determination.

Under the articles of the agreement, UN officials conducted, in 1969, the “Act of Free Choice,” giving all West Papuans the ability to participate in this act of self-determination. However, Indonesian authorities skewed the results by hand-picking a group of 1022 tribal leaders out of a population of 800,000 and coercing them using death threats into voting against independence and in favor of integrating with Indonesia. On November 19th 1969, the United Nations General Assembly merely “took note” of the undemocratic process and the inaccurate representation of the will of the West Papuan people. Many human rights groups such as the Cultural Survival Organization came to the conclusion that through the UN’s lack of action and their awareness of the situation, they have implicitly endorsed the use of state-sanctioned violence to impede on West Papuans’ civil and political rights, as well as a violation of Article 73 of the UN charter.

Since the forceful takeover of the West Papua region by Indonesia in 1962, an estimated 100,000-500,000 individuals have been killed throughout the fight for independence. However figures like these are often unreliable and an under-representation of the actual statistics. This is due to the fact that apart from a recent feature by ABC’s foreign correspondent program in Australia, international media is prohibited from covering the transgressions occurring in West Papua, Internal displacement, lack of resources for record-keeping, and offenses in remote areas are additional reasons as to why the death toll could be under-reported.

Dutch concerns that West Papua would not be able to fully integrate under an Indonesian-state, due to their sub-par development when compared to other regions, remain valid today. The predominantly Melanasian region has a disproportionately high poverty rate of 28%, as well as an illiteracy rate of one-third of the population. However, these statistics are inflated by native Papuan figures. Years of transmigration policies have resulted in non-ethnic Papuans forming a majority portion of West Papua’s population. The World Bank published a report in 1998 recommending that “the rate of new settlement should be slowed and the major emphasis should be placed on the consolidation and improvement of existing sites.” Transmigration has had lasting effects on the indigenous population in West Papua, due to their forced relocation to make way for logging and agricultural schemes, as well as the erasure of their culture.

US Involvement and Interests in West Papua

Since the Second World War, the U.S. has been economically and militaristically involved in the territory of West Papua. The U.S.-based mining company Freeport-McMoRan currently owns the world’s largest gold-copper mining venture located in West Papua. Survival International’s Asia Campaigner Sophie Grig told The Diplomat the following: “The mine has caused environmental devastation by discharging waste directly into the local river, on which the local Kamoro tribe depends for drinking water, fishing and washing, and Indonesia employs soldiers to protect the area resulting in reports of grave human rights violations such as torture, rape and killings of Papuans.”

Wikileaks revealed in 2010 that leaked embassy cables which U.S. diplomats placed blame on Jakarta for failing to address the chronic instability and underdevelopment in the region. However, millions of dollars continue to be spent annually by the U.S. on developing the Indonesian police force, which continues to administer on many accounts political suppression and human rights violations against the West Papuan people.

There are many strategic benefits for the U.S. in making the decision to support the liberation movement in West Papua and refusing to indirectly administer state-sanctioned violence against their people. At the moment, West Papuans may have no choice but to look east towards China for intervention. But if the U.S. steps in, it could possibly help stop the development of a Chinese foothold in the South Pacific. The U.S. policy in Indonesia and West Papua has long been guided by commercial interests in the region, however its influence is shrinking; Freeport-McMoRan recently accepted a $3.9 billion dollar deal with Indonesian state-owned PT Inalum for a 51% majority stake ownership of the mine. This increase of equity was funded by the Chinese. Without U.S. intervention, West Papua may soon become a major battleground between Indonesian forces including jihadis and Papuan guerrillas backed by China.

Recent Developments

Institutional racism as well as separatist stereotypes against the indigenous West Papuan people has exacerbated violence by security forces. Regardless of whether guerilla tactics or peaceful methods such as public demonstrations are used, dissenters will be persecuted, arrested, or even tortured and executed. Anti-racism protests occurred in August 2019 due to videos of Indonesia militia members targeting Papuan students with racially charged slurs surfacing on the web. These protests had a death toll of almost 60 and resulted in the imprisonment of 43 students on the island of Java. With the COVID-19 pandemic occurring right now, they were part of 63 political prisoners who appealed to the UN for automatic release in April, citing their non-existent threat to society and the high risk of contraction. INFORM currently measures Indonesia’s risk of humanitarian crisis and disaster to be medium at 4.7/10.

Inspired by the recent protests in the U.S. against police brutality, the liberation movement in West Papua has adopted “Papuan Lives Matter” as their slogan. This slogan trended on social media, but apart from not allowing international journalists to cover West Papuan issues, Indonesia also has a history of digital suppression. In August last year, during one of the peaks of unrest in the country, internet access was cut off to “prevent the spread of misinformation.” UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet called for Indonesia to restore internet services in Papua. Indonesia’s government, however, opted for a more gradual restoration depending on which areas they deemed to be security risks.

Preceding August’s period of turmoil, a petition was sent to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This petition called for an internationally-reviewed referendum on independence from Indonesia and a legitimate self-determination process with a staggering 1.8 million signatures. “Today is a historic day for me and my people. I consider this petition to be the bones of the people of West Papua, to represent all the people who have been killed,” said Chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua Benny Wenda in Geneva, Switzerland. This statement is quite accurate considering over 60% of the West Papuan population pitched their support by signing the petition.

This insurgence in nationalism was motivated by claims that predominantly indigenous villages in the Nduga regency in West Papua were targeted by airstrikes and chemical weapon attacks administered by the Indonesian government. The establishment vehemently denied these allegations, however photographs appearing in the Australian newspaper The Saturday Paper showed villagers with white phosphorus burns, an internationally-banned incendiary weapon. Many experts believe that the Indonesian government’s intention seems to be to intimidate and discourage the Free Papua Movement, through any means possible. According to Amnesty International, “Investigations into reports of unlawful killings by security forces in Papua are rare. There is no independent, effective, and impartial mechanism to deal with public complaints about misconduct by security forces, including criminal offenses involving human rights violations, leaving many victims without access to justice and reparation.”

Through Teen Lenses: Have you heard about the ongoing struggle for liberation from Indonesia in West Papua? What are your thoughts on the situation?

“Not going to lie, I only heard about the West Papuan conflict as of recently; after doing more research I was appalled at the glaring human rights violations occurring in the area that were being ignored by the U.N.; stories of torture and mutilation hit me particularly hard. The Papuan community deserve the right to self-determination, as of right now the Indonesian government is exploiting their people for natural resources. Ann Clwyd once said: ‘Genocide is the responsibility of the whole world”; it is our responsibility to bring justice to the Papuan people.’” Prajakta Acharya, 17 , Rising Senior, Marshall HS, Falls Church, VA
“The Indonesian genocide of the native West Papuan people is comparable to that of the Rwandan genocide. The forceful crushing of the native population crushing is not just immoral and horrifying, it also hurts Indonesia’s standing as a member of the UNHRC. The island of Papua is the most diverse region both culturally and linguistically in the world, and it should be preserved at all costs.” Patrick Gaucher, 15, Rising Sophomore, Thomas Jefferson HS, Mclean, VA
“It’s ridiculous how long the conflict has been going on, over 50 years, thankfully global media is just starting to take note of some of the heinous crimes the Indonesian government has committed against the West Papuan people. No need to sugarcoat; the events going on can clearly be described as an ethnic genocide. In my opinion, the UNHRC needs to get involved and right their previous wrongs and allow West Papua to have a fair independence referendum.” J.T, 16, Rising Junior, Gonzaga HS, Washington D.C