Papua Conflict


The West Papuan territorial conflict stems from Indonesia’s incorporation of the territory in its post-colonial era. West Papuans refute the 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’ that proclaimed West Papua as Indeonesian territory. West Papuan grievances with Indonesian rule, including human rights abuses, militarisation and frustrations about self-determination, have attracted increasing international attention and concern. A rising Indonesia is gaining influence throughout the region, countering support for West Papuan independence aims, and Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) members (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia’s Kanaks) have become divided over West Papua. Recent clashes between West Papuans and security forces and the emergence of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) have further accelerated tensions. Since the Indonesian takeover of West Papua in the 1960s, an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 West Papuans have been killed.


Key Actors

Where: West Papua/Western New Guinea

Population: 760, 422

Casualties: Over 500,000 indigenous West Papuans killed since the 1960s

Goal: Independence from Indonesia, seeking self-determination for the people of West Papua

A separatist group operating out of West Papua. The group frequently organises attacks against Indonesian security forces within Papua. The group aims to unite West Papuans, both inside and outside West Papua.

An umbrella term for the independence movement established during 1965 in West Papua. The group conducts attacks against Indonesian security forces.

Founded 19 November 2008 by a number of Papua NGOs. A non-violent organization of people campaigning for a referendum for the Papuan people of West Papua.

An intergovernmental organization made up of  four Melanesian states. These include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front of New Caledonia.

The Indonesian government and its security forces have been accused of human rights violations against the Papua movement, despite pledging economic growth to Papua.

International support for West Papuan independence exists but has so far failed to result in any meaningful action. International journalists are refused access to the region, which makes accurate information on the situation, including deaths and abuses, hard to report.

During the ratification of the “Act of Free Choice” at the UN General Assembly, African representatives argued that the act undermined UN principles of decolonisation.

Internal politics within the ASEAN, of which Indonesia is the co-founder, arguably prevents response from nations such as Australia and Papua New Guinea. On the former, Australian-Indonesian relations are subject to the Lombok Treaty of 2006, which reinforces the right to sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs.

The United Nations views West Papua as residing within Indonesian territory and, as such, the mounting civil unrest and violence is deemed as an internal matter for the Indonesian government to control.

The government of Papua New Guinea has attempted to avoid direct military confrontation with Indonesia. Despite this, OPM operates in the country, which has often led to border clashes by Indonesian forces.

The European nations of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany have all claimed land historically in Papua New Guinea. Between 1950-1962, the Dutch government argued that Melanesian Papuans were ethnically and geographically different from Indonesians, refuting Indonesia’s claim to West Papua. This stance was supported by other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States.


The southern coast of New Guinea (‘Papua’) was granted as a British protectorate in 1884, taking the name of British New Guinea. Other countries, namely Germany and the Netherlands, set claim to New Guinea land by establishing trading posts. The territory of West Papua remains a Dutch colony until 1962.

Indonesia proclaimed Papua an important part of the nation in its declaration of independence on 17 August 1945. It was claimed that Indonesia included all parts of the former Netherlands Indies.

Indonesia’s surrounding islands were  colonized by the Dutch, however, as the Republic of Indonesia gained independence as a nation state in 1949, West Papua did not join the country. As the Dutch government acknowledged West Papua’s geographical, ethnic and cultural difference to Indonesia, the Dutch government prepared West Papua for its own independence in the 1950s.

The U.S. urged the Dutch Prime Minister to hand over West Papua to Indonesia, in an attempt to appease a communist friendly Indonesian government. The US government set up a meeting between Indonesia and the Netherlands which resulted in the New York Agreement that gave control of West Papua to the United Nations. 

West Papua was transferred to Indonesia where an agreement under UN supervision mandated Indonesia give West Papuans the opportunity to express freedom of choice by ‘ascertaining’ their will. However, the oppressive Suharto regime catalysed clashes between Indonesian security forces and West Papuan rebels.

In 1963, control of West Papua was transferred to Indonesia. The Papuans were never consulted. However, the agreement did promise them their right to self-management and determination.

West Papuan people are horrified by brutal abuse by Indonesian military and the disappearance of many leaders. As a result, the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) movement is formed to coordinate political efforts to regain independence and freedom from Indonesia

In 1984, after Indonesia installed extensive military warfare and captured traditionally owned land. More than 10,000 West Papuans crossed the border to obtain sanctuary in Papua New Guinea.

Since the fall of the Soeharto government in 1998, Indonesia has undertaken many institutional and judicial developments. Post-Soeharto administrations have also officially acknowledged the long history of human rights violations by security forces in Aceh and Papua and authorized special autonomy arrangements for both.

The ‘Papuan Spring’ of 1999 ended abruptly with Indonesian authorities clamping down on pro-independence activities, and a new hardline president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who declared that without West Papua, “Indonesia is not complete”.

Concessions from Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) led to 2000’s landmark Second Papuan People’s Congress in Jayapura, in which West Papuan demands for independence were made clear.

KNPB (National Committee for West Papua) chairman Mako Tabuni was killed by Indonesian police, whilst many others face lengthy jail sentences for raising the West Papuan flag.

On the morning of 8 December 2014, military armed forces opened fire on hundreds of Papuan demonstrators assembled nearby the district headquarters of the military and police, in the town of Enarotali, in Papua Province.

The demonstration was a reaction to military personnel allegedly abusing Papuan children in East Paniai Subdistrict the day before. After demonstrators started throwing stones and pieces of wood at the building, security forces opened fire into the crowd, killing four people.

A historic meeting was held at British parliament in Westminster where West Papuan leaders and other leaders from Pacific countries and elsewhere gathered together and affirmed their support for the people of West Papua being able to choose their own future to live in a free and Independent nation.

Peaceful protesters are injured and up to 6 are killed after Indonesian police fire live rounds into a crowd of students protesting for independance for Papua.

Up to 41 people were killed in clashes between with security forces and Jihadi-inspired militia.

Over 6,000 Indonesian troops are deployed to various provinces in West Papua, including its captial, to break down protests and anti-racial discrimination rallies.

Clashes between security forces and the West Papua National Liberation Army have escalated since January 2020, which human rights groups say have resulted in at least five deaths. At least two other civilians were killed in another incident.

The separatist group West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) attacked workers at the Freeport mine in Papua province, reportedly killing a New Zealander and wounding many others. The mine has been the target of Papuan rebels fighting for self-determination, who view business and development projects as encroaching on Papuan land.

Reports on the Papua Conflict

For more information and the latest developments on the Papua conflict, please see the list below for a collection of reports written by our correspondents.

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One thought on “Papua Conflict

  • Andrew Johnson

    The OPM took form in 1965 and was introduced to the American public in 1969, e.g. Los Angeles Times 15/July/1969 page 6.
    The Republic of Indonesia was not recognized as an national state in 1949, the state recognized in December 1949 was the United States of Indonesia in which Sukarno’s Republic was one of fifteen member states but during the next eight months by invasion & intimidation the Republic sequestered the other States to itself and in July 1950 Sukarno declared his Republic of Indonesia was now the ruling government of the entire Indonesian territory.
    The ‘New York Agreement’ was not designed or negotiated during 1962, it was proposed by solicitor John Henderson in May 1959 as an illegal or “special United Nations trusteeship over the territory for a limited number of years, at the end of which time sovereignty would be turned over to Indonesia”. However during 1960 it was discovered both the Australia and Malaysian governments refused to play the part of the ‘temporary’ administrator responsible for asking Indonesia to assume control a colony it had already been repeatedly invading throughout the 1950s, so in October 1960 it was decided that the UN itself would have to be asked to act as the administrator. Then throughout 1961 the other friends (McGeorge Bundy and his NSC staff) of the Freeport mining company were unable to get John F. Kennedy to authorize the scheme; however, they told Indonesia about the proposal and Indonesian officials said they liked the idea but would not want to call the trusteeship a trusteeship; e.g.
    So six months later Indonesia’s friend U Thant lured Dag Hammarskjold to the Congo where he was killed and because the presumptive next Secretary General Mongi Slim of Tunisia was made ineligible by Indonesia forcing him to accept the role as President of the 1961 General Assembly two days before Hammarskjold was killed, Indonesia’s friend U Thant became the new Secretary General. Under pressure from U Thant the US helped Indonesia force the Dutch to sign the ‘New York Agreement’ with assistance of another close friend of the Freeport mining company Ellsworth Bunker.