A Far Way From Paradise: State Violence and Insurgency in West Papua

On April 27th, Union of Catholic Asian News reported that separatists affiliated with the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, O.P.M.) in the Indonesian province of Papua murdered a construction worker, more than likely in response to security forces killing an O.P.M. commander a few days prior. Father John Bunay, co-ordinator of the Papua Peace Network, worries that civilians are paying a terrible price for a rapidly escalating insurgency.

Rather than responding with careful or discerning investigations, this murder will compel Indonesian security forces to indulge in collective reprisal. In December 2018, after members of the O.P.M.’s armed wing captured and murdered Indonesian construction workers in Nduga, military personnel incinerated local homes, displaced hundreds of civilians, targeted non-combatants, and killed dozens of people. Political scientist Hipolitus Wangge argues that this strategy only alienated West Papuans and reminded them of their seemingly endless struggle to break free from foreign domination.

Since the late 19th century, Papuans have endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of various regimes. Cultural Survival says that Dutch imperialists, while claiming to respect international law at the Hague, launched punitive military expeditions in rural areas of West Papua between 1907 and 1915. Anthropologists and explorers like Luigi D’Albertis emerged from the jungle with the severed heads of local Papuans, preserved in jars like a plant. Dutch policemen, upon gaining full control of West Papua, refused to train Papuan recruits because they did not consider them “as human beings. At least not as full human beings,” according to Jurriaan Koning.

Indonesia’s incremental colonization of West Papua since the sixties has been exceptionally cruel as well. Kjell Anderson says that Indonesians, much like their former Dutch overlords, perceived Papuans as primitive savages impeding the inevitable progress of “modernity”: namely, the exploitation of West Papua’s ample oil and copper reserves. Whenever Papuans tried to resist Jakarta’s trans-migration schemes, which flooded thousands of Javanese settlers into West Papua and turned the indigenous population into a minority in its own territory, the Indonesian military reacted with extreme and indiscriminate violence.

Scholars at Yale Law School compiled a damning study of the Indonesian National Army’s barbaric misconduct. In May 1970, for example, soldiers shot a pregnant villager, dissected her fetus, and warned terrified onlookers that the military slaughtered 500 Papuans in the district.

Jakarta eventually veered away from large-scale troop deployments and relied on subtler means to decimate uncooperative Papuans. Indonesian authorities gave “peace-offerings” laced with deadly and highly infectious diseases like cysticercosis to the Ekari people, and while public health clinics often refused to hand out oral contraceptives to indigenous Dani women, they eagerly injected them with dangerous sterilization drugs like Depo-Provera. In America, ethnic studies expert Bayan Abusneineh says that hospitals administered Depo-Provera to Black and disabled women “as a method of population control.”

Australia was also complicit in Jakarta’s ruinous suppression of West Papuan nationalism. The Asian Human Rights Commission reported in 2013 that Canberra supplied Iroquois helicopters to the Indonesian military in the late seventies, who used them to strafe villages and mow down innocent civilians in West Papua’s remote Central Highlands. Royal Australian Air Force personnel participated in “mapping exercises” alongside Indonesian counterparts in West Papua at the time. Napalm and cluster bombings wiped out entire communities as Indonesian soldiers threw Papuans into wells, boiled or buried suspected insurgents alive, tortured victims with razors, and forced people to eat their own feces. Officials in Canberra denied having any information about Australian involvement in these crimes.

Yet the Australian Special Air Service (S.A.S.) regiment still conducts anti-terrorist exercises with Indonesian Kopassus troops – a unit which spends more time spying on and harassing peaceful Papuan political and religious activists than arresting armed separatists in the O.P.M., according to Human Rights Watch. Investigative journalist Peter Cronau emphasized that S.A.S. anti-terror training included helicopter assault courses and specialized weapons practice. The Kopassus could very easily repurpose these tactics for brutal counter-insurgency operations in West Papua.

Moreover, scholar Jaap Timmer noted that the Kopassus allowed Islamic fundamentalist militias like Laskar Jihad (L.J.), until its disbanding during the War on Terror, to wreak chaos and division among the predominantly Christian inhabitants of West Papua. Fanatical L.J. members opened offices in several Papuan towns, staged provocative rallies, and generally terrorized local Papuans – much to the satisfaction of authorities in Jakarta. The Kopassus may have even transmitted the lethal techniques it learnt from Australian S.A.S. to allies in Laskar Jihad.

Despite Jakarta’s decades-long rampage in West Papua, Australia shows no sign of severing its extensive links with Jakartan police units guilty of gross violations. Though the Australian Federal Police insists that it “delivers training programs in a manner that reflects and supports Australia’s strong support of human rights,” according to A.B.C. News, observers on the ground beg to differ. Police tend to have far more in common with death squads than normal law enforcement agencies.

The West Papua Advocacy Team revealed in 2014 that the Indonesian military is outsourcing its repressive apparatus to policemen in Densus (“Detachment”) 88. The Solomon Star alleged that Densus 88 murdered Mako Tabuni, an esteemed leader of the National Committee for West Papua, a peaceful pro-independence organization. Indonesian N.G.O.s like KontraS also published reports exposing the detachment’s rampant use of physical abuse and arbitrary detention.

If Jakarta hopes to calm the festering animosity between Indonesians and Papuans, it should consider establishing a truth and reconciliation commission. Historians, political scientists, and legal scholars like Paul Antonopoulos, Drew Cottle, Elizabeth Brundige, and Xiang Yuan all agree that Indonesian governments are responsible for killing around 500,000 Papuans since 1969. Jakarta cannot afford to ignore or downplay this genocidal record any longer. Indonesian soldiers destroyed countless lives and must be held accountable for their actions.

Papuan activists and lawyers must look to the truth and reconciliation process currently underway in Aceh for inspiration. The Helsinki Agreement of 2005 brought an end to Jakarta’s thirty-year war against the Free Aceh Movement. Much like in West Papua, Indonesian soldiers committed heinous atrocities and murdered thousands of civilians to quell this rebellion. The Agreement obliged both parties to co-operate with a truth commission in order to dispel any lingering hostility and mistrust.

The Helsinki Agreement contains many provisions that could serve as blueprints for a durable peace settlement in West Papua. It decreed that Jakarta should grant amnesty to imprisoned insurgents, demobilize separatists, withdraw Indonesian security forces, reintegrate combatants into society via job programs and apprenticeships, implement systemic institutional reforms to restore the rule of law, and allow the Acehnese to create their own political parties without interference.

However, transitional justice expert Galuh Wandita warns that Aceh’s truth commission is flawed: the commission does not have jurisdiction to retrieve evidence or gather testimonies from persons and organizations outside of Aceh. A truly holistic West Papuan truth and reconciliation commission (T.R.C.) must avoid these pitfalls at all costs: the mining and logging activities of American companies like Freeport or Scott Paper displaced Papuan tribes to disease-ridden coastlines, promoted a plantation economy which deprived Papuans of their traditional cultivation practices, and dumped toxic waste into rivers. This irreparable environmental damage constitutes proof that foreign companies collaborated with Jakarta to deliberately impose “conditions of life calculated to destroy indigenous West Papuans as a group.” It would be a monumental insult to survivors to let these corporations escape justice simply because they are based outside of Papua.

Additionally, as the Lowy Institute recommends, a West Papuan T.R.C. should incorporate distinctly Melanesian reconciliation customs. Sociologist Marcus Campbell amply demonstrated that before the arrival of Christian missionaries, ritualized gift-giving ceremonies renewed harmonious relations between warring tribes and are key to understanding peace-building in Melanesian society. The Melanesian Spear Group, comprising Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia’s Kanaks, could even send custom chiefs or elders to West Papua as consultants during the T.R.C. process.

Unfortunately, authorities in Papua New Guinea and Fiji are currently unlikely to take part in this endeavour. Port Moresby and Suva will not sacrifice lucrative trade or development aid deals with Indonesia to defend West Papua’s right to self-determination.

Finally, given its history of conflict resolution in the Pacific, New Zealand can play an instrumental role in brokering peace in West Papua. Journalist Mark Scott chronicled how Kiwi diplomats and unarmed soldiers helped bring an end to Papua New Guinea’s relentless siege of Bougainville in the late nineties. Wellington even provided vital logistical and security support during Bougainville’s independence referendum in 2019.

A New Zealand keen to exert its soft power in Melanesian islands cannot turn a blind eye to incessant human rights violations in West Papua. A Kiwi intervention could bolster Wellington’s standing in the region and potentially lay the groundwork for West Papuan autonomy – either within or outside Indonesia.


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