by Joseph Jarnecki
Indonesia’s national motto, Unity in Diversity, rings with ironic cruelty for the indigenous population of West Papua.* For Papuans, neither unity nor an acceptance of their diversity has been forthcoming from successive governments in Jakarta. Under Indonesian rule, they have instead faced systematic discrimination from state agencies and violent repression from the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI – “Indonesian National Armed Forces”). Whilst armed resistance by Papuans has been limited since 2005, peaceful protest has not. Large-scale demonstrations occurred in August 2019 across the peninsula while international pressure has continued to mount on Indonesia. In this context, 2020 seemed to offer a chance for change. The onrush of coronavirus, however, has brought such hopes to a screeching halt. As the pandemic tears its way around the globe, international support withers, and Papuans endure a discriminatory and chronically under-supported health care system. In this moment, therefore, it is all the more important to take stock and continue to highlight the story of West Papua.
Formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, West Papua’s decolonisation has played a key role in the Indonesian state-building narrative. Whilst independence was won for the majority of the peninsula in 1949, Dutch New Guinea remained a colonial possession. This did not sit well with President Sukarno’s newly-formed government which, following the ‘successor state principle’, held that all former Dutch pacific colonial territory should naturally be inherited by Indonesia. As such, the protracted diplomatic struggle that the Sukarno Government undertook to “liberate” Dutch New Guinea was, and still is, perceived as foundational to the narrative of a post-colonial Indonesian state.
By 1962, the Netherlands finally bowed to mounting international pressure to reach a resolution and the New York Agreement, arbitrated by the United Nations, was signed. Central to this deal was a guarantee that Papuan natives would have an ‘Act of Free Choice’ before 1969, as to whether they wished to remain part of Indonesia. Eventually occurring in 1969 itself, the plebiscite marks the first major Papuan grievance with the Indonesian Government. Contrary to the agreement’s terms, which gave a vote to ‘all adults, male and female,’ Indonesian authorities ran a ‘collective consultation’ of just 1,025 participants. Those selected were assembled, often at gunpoint, to witness speeches by TNI generals and were then asked to raise their hand if they wished to remain within Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, the vote returned a unanimous result against West Papuan independence.
Following the vote, brutal repression, including acts of torture, rape, forced disappearance, and murder, were pursued by the Suharto Administration to prevent Papuan popular mobilisation. Alongside the brutality, economic policies incentivising the entrance of foreign resource-extraction companies were pursued at the cost of native land rights and traditional lifestyles, such as subsistence farming. Moreover, those limited economic opportunities offered to West Papuan inhabitants were largely fenced off from native Papuans and were reserved for Indonesian transmigrants, whose influx destabilised the Papuan demographic majority.
With Suharto’s resignation and the subsequent renaissance of Indonesian democracy in 1998, Papuans were optimistic. They expected reduced TNI repression and the possibility of increased local autonomy. Instead, the TNI, who generate much of their own budget from enterprises in the region, has continued to crack down on native Papuans, and successive promises from Jakarta to decentralise power and allow journalists access to the region have come to nothing. A broad picture, therefore, shows four core Papuan grievances: the weight of history, state violence, economic marginalisation, and discrimination.
All of these contributed to the protests which, beginning on the 15 August 2019 to commemorate the New York Agreement, were exacerbated the next day by the arrest of 43 Papuan students. Accused of damaging an Indonesian flag found outside their residence, the students were barricaded into their building by Islamist and Nationalist groups, who attacked the students physically and verbally. These groups were reportedly shouting ‘Monkeys, get out’ as they attacked. Eventually, the police stormed the building, and mass protests quickly followed across the peninsula.
By the end of the month, The protests escalated to the burning of government buildings in the regional capital of Jayapura, and the symbol of Papuan independence, the Morning Star flag, was raised across the territory. In response, the Indonesian Government shut down internet access to the region and deployed 6,000 additional security personnel, bolstering the estimated 45,000 already stationed there. These troops then cracked down on protestors, undertaking mass arrests and shooting into crowds of Papuans. The death toll recorded was at least 59. Though protests restarted to a lesser extent a month later, the repressive tactics employed by the TNI were sufficient to quash any sustained popular gatherings.
Alongside direct violence, the Indonesian state relies on two elements in order to sustain its hold on West Papua. First, the compliance and indifference of the domestic and international community. Both the UK and Australian governments support Indonesian sovereignty over the region and domestic party politics avoids the topic, arguably because of the region’s resource wealth—the Freeport gold mine alone represents 1.59% of Indonesia’s GDP. Second, transmigrants settling in West Papua in the 20th century received a land incentive, generally confiscated from Papuans, and benefited from the structural exclusion of natives from settler communities and well-paying jobs. Though land grabs have slowed, Papuans still experience segregation, and the provision of education exclusively through the Indonesian language drives cultural assimilation. These factors go some way to illustrate why Papuans, who made-up 96.09% of West Papua’s population in 1971, are expected to account for only 28.99% by the end of 2020. It is a depressing reality that West Papua is often called ‘the Pacific’s Palestine’. Compared to their East Timorese cousins, Papuans have been unable to secure a legitimate referendum on their future; their resource wealth, coupled with the absence of pressure on the Indonesian Government alongside the distraction of coronavirus, seems to indicate that the status quo will continue.
Whilst the situation for Papuans seems bleak there is nonetheless a significant domestic and international grassroots movement agitating for their right to live in peace. Papuan political leaders like Jacob Rumbiak and Benny Wenda continue their campaigns, support for West Papuan membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group is growing, support structures like the West Papua Project at Sydney University are building awareness and tools for Papuan resistance, and the music of groups such as the Lani Singers drives the transnational exposure of Papuan culture. The fight for dignity and the right to self-determination is not lost.
*In this article, the term ‘West Papua’ is used to refer to the Indonesian ruled territory covering the western half of the island of New Guinea. Originally colonised by the Dutch, the region has seen various name changes in the post-colonial period. Most recently, the land was bifurcated by Indonesia in 2003 into the provinces of ‘West Papua’ and ‘Papua’. As such, if making references to these, this article will use the phrases ‘West Papua Province’ and ‘Papua Province’.
Joseph Jarnecki is a MA International Conflict Studies student at King’s College London and the Coordinating Editor for Strife blog. His research interests include the politics of knowledge production, the proceduralisation of democratic accountability, as well as violence and (in)security. He completed his BA in International Relations at King’s. You can follow him @Jarnecki.