Papua Conflict

West Papua, Pacific

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 Indonesian 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.

The security forces - in this case the military and police - when handling the expression of opinions by the people of Papua, both in Papua and other regions in Indonesia - should as much as possible make it a priority to handle these expressions in a way that avoids violence or arresting Papuans just for delivering the message

Lukas Enembe, Governor of Papua

Key Facts

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

The Key Actors


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.

Hundreds of university students took to the streets of Jayapura, the provincial capital, to demand an independence referendum. 

The British Government stated its support for a visit to West Papua by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. With this announcement, Britain became the 82nd state to formally support the proposal, following calls from the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS).

Amid increasing violence, West Papuan leaders have declared a provisional “government-in-waiting” the day before the December 1st anniversary of West Papua’s declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1961. 

Currently living in exile in Oxford, former ULMWP Chair Benny Wenda is appointed interim President of the ‘provisional government-in-waiting.’

The Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Stef Blok stated: ‘it is important to have such a visit’ by the High Commissioner ‘as soon as possible’. He also noted the government’s awareness of large-scale opposition in the Netherlands against Indonesia’s Special Autonomy Law. 

The head of the Papuan People’s Assembly declared its rejection of the Indonesian government’s draft, which proposes to negate the authority of the Papua provincial governor, the MRP and the Papuan Representative Council (DPRP).

  • On April 2, the WPCC released an open letter addressed to the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (SMG), calling for attention to the degenerating situation in West Papua. It also urged President Widodo to follow up on his promise to meet the Papua pro-referendum group.

On April 6, Greenpeace’s report titled ‘License to Clear: The Dark Side of Permitting in West Papua’ details that nearly a total of a million hectares have been released from the forest estate for plantations in Papua province since 2000. It also urged the Indonesian government and the provincial governments to protect the area designed for palm oil plantations in Papua from further deforestation.

  • On April 25, Indonesia’s top intelligence official in Papua Province Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha was shot and killed near a church in remote Darubet Village in Papua’s central highlands, 20 miles northeast of the giant Grasberg copper and gold mine. Separatist group The West Papua National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for this death, with no other casualty reported in the ambush. General Danny is the 1st general to die in action in Indonesia’s history.

Following the death of regional intelligence chief Brig. Gen.I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, the Indonesian government announced an updated list of terror groups on April 29, which included Papuan armed group KKB. Mahfud MD, Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister, stated during Thursday’s press briefing that ‘the government has deemed that organizations and people in Papua who commit mass violence are categorized as terrorists,’ and that this is in line with the 2018 Counterterrorism Law.  

On April 30, PT Telkom Indonesia confirmed that internet services to Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia’s Papua province, have been cut. They said that this was due to the disconnection of the Sulawesi Maluka Papua Cable System at the Biak-Sarmi line. Additionally, Puncak reported mobile and internet services having been cut as the armed conflict is flaring.   

On May 6, an army spokesman announced that Indonesia has deployed 400 more soldiers – the 351/Garuda Battalion – in Papua’s easternmost region. Papua’s interim president Benny Wenda warned that Papua appears to be facing the largest military operations since the 1970s. The 315/Garuda Battalion took part in East Timor and Aceh’s bloody conflicts, and have earned the nickname ‘Satan troops.’

On May 9, Satgas Nemangkawi, Indonesia’s special police unit, arrested WP National Committee spokesman Victor Yeimo in Japayapura. He was arrested on grounds of treason for a 2019 statement that called for a referendum on independence.

On May 15, Indonesia’s ambassador to Papua New Guinea Andriana Supandy called on Papua New Guinea authorities to act over the threat of East Sepik, an illegal group claiming to form an army unit to help West Papuan pro-independence rebels fight Indonesian forces. The video features a group dressed in military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles, voicing support for the West Papuan rebels. The Indonesian embassy has been informed that Papua New Guinea’s government officials are investigating the video.    

More on this Crisis


West Papua: The Neglected War?

West Papua, a Melanesian nation bordering the island of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific, has struggled for decades to exercise its right to self-determination

Read More »

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