A Suppressed Voice: The Continuing Conflict in West Papua

by Sandra Ivanov. Sandra Ivanov is from New Zealand with a postgraduate education in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was formerly a policy advisor in the New Zealand public service and now primarily works in the development sector. You can connect with and follow her updates on Twitter.

A Papuan woman wearing atribute the Morning Star flag as mark the 51st anniversary of West Papua on December 1, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti).

A Papuan woman wearing atribute the Morning Star flag as mark the 51st anniversary of West Papua on December 1, 2012 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti).

Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia – All of these countries have had internationally recognised events of genocide take place in their history which has, in turn, shaped the way the world deals with the horrors of mass casualties and the difficult, but vital task of post-conflict reconstruction. But genocide is not a thing of the past, it is occurring right now in the Asia-Pacific. West Papua, a region which occupies half of the island of New Guinea is under Indonesian government authority, with most of the 2 million indigenous inhabitants living in remote areas across mountainous and forested territory. The people have been subject to systematic oppression, human rights violations, degrading indigenous culture and exploitation of resources. With restricted access of foreign media into the region, it is critical that there is continual attention given to an obscured case of government abuse.

History: the confiscated freedom of a people
The on-going conflict in West Papua has many facets, however, the main reason for the violence has been the denial of the right for self-governance and autonomy. Under the conditions of colonialism, the people of West Papua have rebelled against the rule of the Dutch East Indies – since 1867, a desire for liberation was expressed, and continued prominently in 1906, 1921, 1926, and 1935. The granting of Indonesian independence in 1949 began a process of decolonisation for the Dutch in the 1950s – Indonesia wished to obtain West Papua as part of the independence deal, claiming it was part of their territory, but the Dutch refused.

Map of the Dutch East India Isles in 1818.

Map of the Dutch East India Isles in 1818.

In 1961, the Dutch prepared for the self-determination of West Papua by setting up a council of mostly indigenous Papuans to create a national anthem and a flag, in which the Morning Star flag was flown for the first time on December 1st 1961 – West Papua’s full independence was aimed to be established in 1970. But Indonesia would not stand for this. On December 19th 1961, Indonesia launched a campaign to return West Papua as part of Indonesia’s rightful territory, and violence between the Dutch Empire and the newly established nation-state ignited. The West Papuans who pursued their right to autonomy were dismissed by Indonesia as they believed the act of independence was a cover up for creating a new Dutch puppet state.

The brute military force of Indonesia attracted international attention where the Cold War superpowers poked their heads in to figure out where their strategic goals fitted into this predicament. The United States stepped in, in 1962 to broker a deal which would be called the New York Agreement – a plan to win over Indonesia and quell the lingering Soviet influence in the country. With Indonesian interests in mind, the agreement negotiations contained no indigenous representation of West Papuans. The decision was made to place West Papua under United Nations control while preparations were made to transfer ownership to Indonesia in 1963.

The New York Agreement involved holding an “Act of Free Choice“, which would give the Papuan people a chance to decide their future. However, this is now more popularly known as the “Act of No Choice”, as the representatives chosen to speak for the West Papuans were picked by Indonesian officials and were gathered under Indonesian military supervision while they made their verdict on integration into the territory. Not surprisingly, the result was unanimously in favour of integration. The West Papuans desired a referendum, a “one-person-one-vote2 system, instead, formal control was handed to Indonesia, beginning a period of military control and human rights abuses.

In a demonstration in the UK, protesters denounce alleged torture by Indonesia in West Papua in 2012.

In a demonstration in the UK, protesters denounce alleged torture by Indonesia in West Papua in 2012.

Enduring human rights abuses and claims to genocide
Once the “Act of Free Choice” concluded, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the results, and West Papua became part of Indonesia. The Under Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1969, Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, confessed many years later that the Act “was just a whitewash. The mood at the United Nations was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible. Nobody gave a thought to the fact that there were a million people there who had their fundamental human rights trampled. Suharto was a terrible dictator. How could anyone have seriously believed that all voters unanimously decided to join his regime? Unanimity like that is unknown in democracies” (Clinton Fernandes, “Hot Spot: Asia and Oceania (Hot Spot Histories)“, 2008), p. 106).

It is estimated that over 500,000 West Papuans have been killed through a range of policies and organised killings. Over time pro-independence organisations began to sprout all across the West Papua region – the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka; OPM) being the most prominent group. OPM, along with its non-violent actions, has also carried out attacks on military and police targets. However, in retaliation to OPM’s early actions, the Indonesian government carried out mass military operations between 1977 and 1978, claiming these operations were required to counter attacks launched by organisations such as OPM. It is reported that over 4,000 people were killed in the highland region of West Papua during this period alone.

Other acts include the use of napalm and chemical weapons against villagers in 1981, and the massacre of 32 West Papuans in Wamena in October 2000. The area of Wamena was targeted once again in 2003 when police raids resulted in killing 9 people, torturing 38, arresting 15, and leaving thousands displaced from their homes to refugee camps where at least 42 people died from hunger and exhaustion.

Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader and Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

Even in the last few years, non-violent action has been targeted by authorities. In 2016, the Legal Aid Institute Jakarta reported that over a period of 6 months, government authorities arrested more than 2,280 Papuans for non-violent demonstrations, and in December 2016, a series of pro-independence demonstrations in many locations across the country resulted in 500 arrests and multiple charges of treason. In 2017, Freedom House reported that more than 2,000 people were arrested for participating in non-violent demonstrations supporting independence (“Indonesia“, Freedom House, 2017).

Academic analysis has demonstrated that there is evidence to claim genocide of West Papuans through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A paper published through the Yale Law School outlines examples of the crimes committed in West Papua, against the articles in the Genocide Convention. It concludes that acts such as torture, disappearance, rape, systematic resource exploitation, labour transmigration schemes, and forced relocation taken as a whole appear to bring about the destruction of West Papuans. These acts “individually and collectively, clearly constitute crimes against humanity under international law”. The International Lawyers for West Papua, a non-government body of legal professionals, also support the findings of intent of genocide against the people of West Papua.

In 2017, the Asian Human Rights Commission released a statement saying that violations of human rights remain unaddressed, that the Indonesian government does not have a strong policy of human rights protection in Papua, and that these frequent violations are caused by the security approach applied. In February 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Indonesia stating concern “about increasing reports of the excessive use of force by security forces, harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions in Papua”.

The movement of solidarity
It was not until the end of Suharto’s rule of Indonesia in 1998 that the stories of West Papuans could be told and reported. During a period of significant democratisation of Indonesia, space was made for Papuans to express their concerns, and political movements were reinvigorated. However, over the decades different rulers of Indonesia had different stances and policies towards the freedom of exercising speech and political assembly. The ability of ordinary Papuans to voice their concerns has therefore been irregular and disconnected.

The Indonesian regime is well known for blocking international access to the West Papua region, including foreign media, international observers and United Nations experts. This makes it difficult for international watchdogs, organisations, and researchers to get objective and reliable information of what is occurring in the region. Those outside of West Papua rely on information from local interpretation and opinions of events, and due to the lack of official reporting on these events, empirical evidence and figures cannot always be collected. History and experiences of people are a valid form of evidence, but each anecdote must be read with an open-mind to understanding other viewpoints and perspectives.

There are also armed groups fighting for the independence of West Papua; for example the West Papua National Liberation Army.

There are also armed groups fighting for the independence of West Papua; for example the West Papua National Liberation Army.

But with the rise of technology and social media, West Papuans have been using creative methods to spread their messages so that the international community are aware of their situation. Their activities have mainly involved non-violent actions through flag raisings, demonstrations, and self-declared national congress meetings to form political manifestos for an independent Papua.

Using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and with access to smartphones, West Papuan activists have uploaded violent acts towards people in the region, as well as showing the exploitation of natural resources such as mining and deforestation. The most common form of non-violent action has been the raising the Morning Star flag on December 1st to support an independent Papua. This action has been occurring for over thirty years, but at a cost of potentially receiving a severe 15 year prison sentence if raised within the Indonesian territory.

Movements of solidarity in West Papua – either through violent or non-violent means – are faced with extreme consequences which include beatings, torture, and unlawful killing. So far in 2018, West Papuans have been arrested for running a disaster relief donation collection, pro-independence groups have been raided with mass arrests, and individuals have been sentenced to treason for involvement in pro-independence activities. The latest changes to Indonesia’s counter-terrorism laws could also have an impact on West Papuan armed groups.

A wave of international support and current developments
Activists in countries all over the world have formed groups in support of an independent West Papua, including international coalitions such as the International Lawyers for West Papua, and the International Parliamentarians for West Papua.

In 2016, the “Westminster Declaration for an Internationally Supervised Vote in West Papua” was launched in London, and supported by the International Parliamentarians for West Papua. The declaration has five provisions, with the main aim of redressing the wrongs from the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”, and “call for an internationally supervised vote on self-determination in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV)“. The declaration continues to circle the globe today in the hope for further support from world leaders.

In addition to the declaration, a petition smuggled into West Papua was reportedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans in support of holding an internationally supervised vote on self-determination. In September 2017, it was presented to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation and rejected because West Papua is not part of the 17 states identified as “non-self-governing territories” by the United Nations. In a statement by the chairman, the committee confirmed that it could not receive “any request or document related to the situation of West Papua, territory which is an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia”, as well as additionally stating that “Indonesia is a good friend of ours“. Whilst the legitimacy of the petition has been questioned, the increasing evidence of the ongoing abuses of West Papuans by Indonesian security forces cannot be ignored.

The Grasberg Mine, located near Puncak Jaya in West Papua, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world (Photo: Kadir Jaelani).

The Grasberg Mine, located near Puncak Jaya in West Papua, is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world (Photo: Kadir Jaelani).

Investment over freedom and justice?
In a region where calls for international investigations over human rights abuses are not followed up, and with the United Nations bodies unable to act on the status of West Papuan independence, it becomes the duty of civil society, activists, journalists, non-government organisations and interest groups to continue lobbying governments and spreading the awareness about the conflict in West Papua.

Tied up in investments, governments are afraid to call out Indonesia for its abuse of West Papuans. Allies of Indonesia are benefiting from the resource rich areas in the West Papuan region where one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world is located. Digging up more than $40 billion worth of resources by U.S. mining company, Freeport-McMoran, the extraction of these resources is expected to continue satisfying investors until 2041 until the mines become of no value.

Yet even as mines are extracted, and forests are torn down, the battle of historical narratives and truths continue, and the people of West Papua have proven they will not rest until a declaration for independence becomes a reality. In the words of academic Nino Viartasiwi: “West Papua was the victim of a large political game played from the 1940s to the 1990s. In the political struggles between the world’s two political poles, the wishes of the Papuans did not matter. Nevertheless, the efforts of the Papuans to deliver their account of history in the 2000s proves that the narration of history no longer belongs solely to the powerful”.

This entry was posted in English, Indonesia, Politics in General, Sandra Ivanov.

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