West Papua’s Struggle For Independence


Protests have erupted across Indonesia’s eastern region of Papua this week, following an incident where forty-three Papuan students were tear-gassed, barricaded and detained on Friday night, August 16, by Indonesian forces. As reported by the Australian Broadcasting Channel (ABC), students were held without charge for nine hours, following an allegation that the students in the Surabaya university dorm had ‘disrespected the Indonesian national flag’. Allegedly the flag was found ‘nearby’ and had been damaged. Prior to the arrests, Indonesian nationalists were seen outside the dormitory, taunting the students by calling them ‘monkeys’ along with other derogatory slurs, and cutting electricity to the building. The arrests and treatment of the students have tapped into an enduring independence movement across Papua, with riots erupting in Manokwari and Jayapura. In the process, buildings have been burned down, including a jail and a market. To protest, West Papuans have waved the Morning Star Flag – an act punishable by 15 years imprisonment. In response, the Indonesian government deployed thousands of additional officers to West Papua – already the most militarised region in Indonesia. The detainment of the students is only the latest in a long line of mistreatment, violence, and abuse suffered by West Papuans, stretching back to 1969.

Papua is the Western half of New Guinea, an island off the North coast of Australia, to the East of Indonesia. Originally a Dutch colony, Indonesia acquired Papua after the infamous UN-backed ‘Act of Free Choice’ in 1969. The Act was intended to be a referendum for the populace of West Papua to decide between independence and integrating with Indonesia. In reality, Indonesian forces hand-picked 1026 leaders from across West Papua to vote for their constituents. If the leaders did not vote as ordered, they, along with their families, were to be killed. While this act of forced integration forms the basis of the Papuan independence movement, Papuans are constantly reminded that they are not welcome in Indonesia. They face daily racism, with riots and civil movements for independence violently quashed. They also face severe impoverishment, despite being one of the most resource rich areas in Indonesia.

The current President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) has urged for calm in the aftermath of the student arrests. Jokowi was quoted by the ABC: “It’s OK to be emotional, but it’s better to be forgiving,” during a statement with his Chief Security Minister where he pledged a complete and fair investigation into the incident. The moderate leader has made peace with Papua a leadership goal. Jokowi has focused his efforts on improving the economic wellbeing of Papuan residents through infrastructure projects. However, the effectiveness of this strategy is under question – the use of economic solutions to resolve deep-seated racism and historical grievances is problematic at best.

Widodo came to power in part because of his promises to erase stigma against Papuan citizens, over five years ago. According to Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Indonesia, Papuans still struggle with systemic issues daily. Many Papuans have perceived that land rights and banking facilities tend to favour Indonesians. Such perceptions extend to the infrastructure projects being constructed in Papua. Papuans are also being displaced by demographic changes to the population. According to Harsono, between 1971 and 2000, Indonesian settlers grew by 10.8 per cent, while Indigenous West Papuans grew by only 1.8 per cent. Such deep-seated racism and systemic issues risk derailing Widodo’s goal to end the stigma against Papuans.

According to Camellia Webb-Gannon, lecturer at the University of Wollongong and affiliate of the West Papuan Project, the use of economic means to end stigma has been largely ineffective. “Widodo has not been capable of controlling the Indonesian military in West Papua,” she said in her article in The Conversation. During his time as President, incidents of violence from Indonesian forces towards Papuan protestors and civilians has increased. According to the International Coalition for Papua, over 6000 West Papuans were arrested for political activism for the years of 2015 and 2016. This was partly due to an increased level of political activism as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) was formed from the disparate West Papuan independence groups. Violence from West Papuan guerilla forces has also increased. As violence from the two groups grows, ethnic distinctions will become more critically defined, and racism will be perpetuated.

The creation of the ULMWP signalled a shift in the fight for independence. Webb-Gannon notes that this is not something Widodo has taken notice of, stating, “He also doesn’t seem to realise that economic development is not the solution to ending the armed resistance in the region – West Papuan leaders want a political resolution, not an economic one.” According to Webb-Gannon, Papuan leaders are now calling for a new independence referendum. The call has received support from a number of Pacific Island nations (including Nauru, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), as well as a number of parliament members in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, such a request is unlikely to be approved. Papua is far too valuable for Indonesia to lose, due in part to the high levels of ores and minerals such as gold and coal. Any attempt at national independence would likely lead to greater conflict between Indonesian security forces and West Papuans. This in turn, would exacerbate ethnic distinctions between Papuans and Indonesians, create a stronger independence movement, and likely exacerbate racism.

In an article for the BBC, several protest members were quoted on their experiences of racism in Indonesia. “I have been turned away from student boarding houses and told that they will not receive boarders who are Papuan students,” said Benfa, a Papuan student in Yogyakarta. Such racism is common, and effectively negates any positives that could be received from economic assistance provided by infrastructure projects.
Evidently, Widodo’s plan to assist the Papuans is not working. Racism perpetuates violence and legitimises the treatment of West Papuans in the eyes of the public. It seems clear that in conjunction with providing economic assistance, Widodo and his administration should be deconstructing the underlying issues and beliefs that perpetuate racism against West Papuans. Ideally, such changes to societal perceptions would occur in conjunction with or before a referendum on independence. However, given the ‘value’ of West Papua to the Indonesian government, a quest for independence may deteriorate relations, and even possibly lead to conflict.

Failing a referendum on independence, regional autonomy could be ‘granted’ to the West Papuans. However, such autonomy must be different from the autonomy granted to West Papua in 2001. According to Akihisa Matsuno, of the Osaka School of International Public Policy, the Special Autonomy Package of 2001 failed to consider and include important elements of autonomy presented by a group of Papuan experts. The law was then imposed on Papuans without genuine consultation, and subsequently failed as West Papuans demanded greater freedoms and Indonesian forces responded with oppression. A true autonomy should include sincere and honest collaboration between the Indonesian government, the ULMWP and West Papuan leaders, ideally, moderated by an individual or group that can ensure honest commitment to any potential agreement. Autonomy should also allow for self-regulation and respect from the Indonesian government. Whether this is achievable depends on the Indonesian government taking greater control over security forces, and reducing societal and systemic racism against West Papuans.

Moving forward, there must also be serious consideration paid to the needs and desires of the West Papuan community. As evidenced by both recent protests, and previous attempts at granting the community autonomy, it is frequently the case that the needs of Papuans are ignored or overlooked. However, in doing so, it perpetuates the idea amongst security forces, the government and the public that West Papuans are lesser. In order to resolve this, greater Papuan representation and collaboration between the Papuan Independence movement and the government must be achieved. However, equally important is holding those who aggravate or attack Papuans to account – social justice is a critical component towards greater freedom and equality. Perhaps Widodo, and the current administration could start by thoroughly and fairly investigating the events that led to the arrest of forty-three students in Surabaya.