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.    

Following the West Papua government, national anti-corruption agency KPK, and NGO EcoNusa’s review of administrative and legal violations, the West Papuan government rescinded the permits for 12 concessions in 5 districts. These spanned 661,889 acres altogether

On 6 June, the Jayawijaya District police confirmed the death of an indigenous Papuan following a brawl with a military member, showing clear evidence. Military officials were reported to have even convinced the victims’ relatives to settle the case outside the law, and even offered a bribery of IDR 100 million for their silence.

The Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Desk of the Papuan Tabernacle Church (JPIC Kingmi Papua) reported that Nemangkawi joint security forces killed three civilians in a security force operation against the West Papua National Liberation Army. Their names are Patianus Kogoya and his wife Paitena Murib, and Erialek Kogoya. In addition to these casualties, three other civilians were wounded.

On 11 June, fully-armed Indonesian police members came to the book launch of ‘Papuans prosecuted for demanding dignity,’ written by human rights defender and former church worker at the Centre for Empowerment and Development of Women in Jayapura. This has caused an interruption, but after the police left the premises, several plain cloth police officers came to continue monitoring the event and justified it as a routine patrol.

On 15 June, the West Papua Council of Churches’ open letter condemned President Widodo’s designation of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) as a terrorist organization, and argued that Indonesian actions in West Papua are ‘colored by a colonial gaze.’ They also denounce the successive Indonesian governments for treating Papuans ‘like monkeys.’ In light of Indonesia’s rejection of the RP2 resolution at last week’s UN General Assembly, the letter also condemned Indonesia’s gross hypocrisy of speaking out about the ongoing Palestinian and Rohingya genocide. ‘Indonesia is desperately trying to cover up its own crimes against humanity in West Papua,’ stated President Benny Wenda.

On 15th July 2021, the Indonesian House of Representatives passed a Revision of the Special Autonomy Law. There have been protests against the bill which have been cancelled by police to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The revision aims to improve Papuan participation in all levels of government and frees up more funds to use towards development in the region. However, Papuan leaders and other features of civil society were not consulted in the design and implementation of this bill, becoming another example of Jakarta ignoring the self-determination of the Papuan people. Additionally, the bill does not address other major grievances like increasing militarisation, degradation of autonomy, and the release of political prisoners, nor does it enshrine mechanisms to prevent corruption which plagued the initial implementation of the Special Autonomy Law in 2001.

On 21st July 2021, Benny Wenda called on Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the US to provide covid vaccines directly to West Papua as the delta variant surges into the region. Wenda highlights that Jakarta has fundamentally failed to develop effective health infrastructure in its Papuan provinces. This is compounded by internal displacement caused by recent Indonesian military operations, that has resulted many Papuans’ moving into temporary camps – which will become hotspots of disease. Reuters reporting highlights that West Papua has the lowest rates of vaccination across the Indonesian archipelago and hospitals are already reaching capacity. This can be partially attributed to distrust of the central government in the region.

On 31st July 2021, following a dreadful assault by two Indonesian military policemen who stomped on the head of 18-yeard old Steven Yadohaman, a disabled indigenous Papuan, the ULMWP called on Indonesia to be suspended from the UN Council of Human Rights. Spokespeople from the organisation likened this latest crime to the murder of George Floyd in the United States. Describing the incident yet another example of the systemic racism and abuse experienced by Papuans from the Indonesian state. Representatives from the Indonesian Air Force have stated that the two officers will be tried in a military court.

On 13th August 2021, it became known to international audiences on the deteriorating health of Victor Yeimo, the leader of West Papua National Committee (KNBP). KNBP is the largest non-violent advocacy organisation for West Papuan independence. Initially arrested in May, for his alleged role in widespread anti-racism protests that took place in 2019, Yeimo has been kept in isolation without visitation from family or legal advisors. Furthermore, he has several pre-existing health conditions that make him vulnerable to COVID-19, and current vaccine supply constraints prevent Yeimo from getting vaccinated. Other reports indicate Yeimo is being fed nutritionally poor foods that could lead to stomach ulcers, this treatment could be classified as torture.

On 1st September 2021, the Organisation for African, Caribbean, and Pacific States released a statement calling for UNHRC investigation into the West Papua. In the release OACPS acknowledges the work and leadership shown by the Pacific Island Forum on this issue and asserts that the organisation recognises that Indonesia “exercises full sovereignty” over the region.

On 2nd September 2021, four Indonesian soldiers were killed in a midnight ambush at Kisor military outpost by an unidentified group. This attack is the latest escalation in conflict between Indonesian armed forces and various militant independence groups in West Papua.

On 3rd September 2021, three palm oil producers had their licenses revoked due various administrative and legal deficiencies, locking them out of a collective 90,000 hectares. This swathe of land is traditionally held and corporate intrusion into those spaces is playing an active role in alienating indigenous peoples from their land.

On 9th September 2021 on the eve of an Australia-Indonesia 2+2 meeting where the foreign minister and defence minister of each country discuss upcoming challenges and opportunities for cooperation, the Australian West Papua Association advocated for the human rights abuses in West Papua to be put onto the agenda. Australia has a major role in the training of Indonesian counterterrorism and anti-human smuggling personnel, and the provision of materiel for Indonesian security services. The transcript of the 2+2 conference makes a brief reference to human rights and the work of the PIF, without specific mention of West Papua.

On 12th September 2021, reports indicate that thousands of people have fled their villages fearing military raids as the TNI searches for more members of the West Papua Liberation Army, who claimed responsibility for the attack, after making two arrests already. There are calls by the TNI for the villagers to return home, their reluctance to do so highlights the estrangement and fear the average Papuan holds regarding Indonesian security forces.

On September 16th, the West Papua National Liberation Army-Free Papua Organisation attacked a medical outpost in remote Kiwirok. 22-year-old healthcare worker, Gabriela Meilan was killed in the attack, and other medical staff were beaten. The clinic, bank, and school buildings were also burned down as part of this violence.

On September 21, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, has called on Indonesia to give Victor Yeimo, who is currently in custody, urgent medical attention to prevent his death. According to her statements, in congruence with other reporting on the issue, Yeimo has been denied medical attention for months – treatment that is tantamount to torture.

On September 24, residents of Kiwirok have been evacuated from their village after important facilities were burned, and the conflict between the TNI and rebel groups intensify. The conflict represents yet more internal displacement of Papuans and Indonesians alike, severely disrupting their everyday life.

On September 29, during the 76th UN General Assembly the Prime Ministers of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu in separate statements. Both Melanesian leaders stated that the slow progress regarding UN investigation into human rights in West Papua is lamentable, particularly with the energy the Pacific Island Forum has campaigned to put this issue on the international agenda.

On October 2, 17 pro-Papuan independence activists were arrested in front of the American embassy in Jakarta. This protest was organised to mark the 1962 signing of the Rome Agreement, the legislation that marked the transition of West Papuan from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The police claimed that the arrests were enforcing health regulations to contain the spread of covid-19.

On October 7, a man was arrested inside a sports arena for wearing the Morning Star, the flag of West Papua, on his shirt. Brother Frater Anton Syufi was arrested at 4am Sunday morning and then released the same day at 7pm. The apparent criminalisation of the symbol of Papuan autonomy is a sure sign of the palpable tensions between Jakarta and West Papua.

On October 22, Green Peace Indonesia published a report highlighting the damaging effects of illegal palm oil plantations in West Papua. This issue is at a critical intersection of climate change and indigenous land rights. The deforestation of traditionally held Papuan lands contributes to the eradication of their culture, and marks Indonesia out in the wider fight against climate change. Read the report here

On October 27, Indigenous Papuans won a major lawsuit against palm oil firm, preventing it from expanding its operations further. Despite this important legal win, these remote communities do not hold land titles to pre-emptively prevent any future attempts at commercial cultivation of traditional lands.

On October 28, the continued violence in the highlands of West Papua has seen displaced peoples cross the border into Papua New Guinea. These border crossings commonplace because of the mountainous terrain, and it poses a major health problem for Papua New Guinea. West Papua has the lowest rates of COVID-19 vaccination in all of Indonesia, and PNG’s health system is being pushed to its breaking point due to the disease.

On November 5, Benny Wenda, the leader of the ULMP government in exile, has launched the ‘Green State Vision’. The plan is a response the expansive Jakarta led development of West Papua, that is being pursed at the cost of the environment. Deforestation to pursue mining and create palm oil plantations are being described as an ecocide of Papuan traditional lands and the world’s third largest rainforest.


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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