360° Analysis

The Struggle for Independence in West Papua


July 30, 2013 08:30 EDT

West Papuans have always resisted the Indonesian occupation.

The people of West Papua have been struggling for freedom for over 50 years under a brutal Indonesian military occupation. The people of the different tribes are being slaughtered, raped and tortured, and their surroundings have been ruined — hence its future is at risk and insecure.

In their efforts to resist this suffering, Papuan leaders have been arrested, tortured and threatened with death, since their resistance is regarded as a crime. For this reason, the leaders who have been involved in peaceful campaigns for freedom, now live in exile where they continue to be involved in education and activism, encouraging the international community to participate in the people’s liberation.

A Look Back 

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, sits on the Pacific Rim, a few degrees south of the equator and about 150km north of Australia. In 1885, the island and its people were divided by a partition agreement between the Dutch, English, and Germans. This colonial partition, dividing the island into Papua New Guinea (in the east) and Indonesian-occupied West Papua (in the west), remains until today.

In 1962, the Kennedy administration devised the New York Agreement, signed between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United Nations, whereby a relatively laissez-faire Dutch-colonial administration was replaced by Indonesian governance. As noted by Pieter Drooglever, Indonesia gained independence during the Second World War, which meant that Jakarta gained control of the entire Dutch Indies apart from West Papua.

According to Peter King that was the point where the conflict started, since the Dutch indicated they were not willing to hand over the mandate of West Papua to Indonesia. The Netherlands argued that West Papuans had already indicated they were willing to become part of the Dutch through the decolonization process that had already kicked off by the time Indonesia was attaining independence. The Dutch argued that the Melanesian Papuans who were residing in West Papua had no past historical, political or even cultural ties with Indonesia, hence the reason they could not hand over the administration of the island to Indonesia. The Papuans themselves had no say in President Sukarno’s appetite for more land (416,000 sq kms) and pacified President Kennedy’s fear of communism. 

During this transition period from Dutch colonial administration to Indonesian administration, there were approximately 700,000 indigenous West Papuans and around 300 tribes, speaking at least 200 languages.

Under Indonesian rule since, the Papuan population has been overwhelmed by non-Papuans, mostly transmigrasi and free settlers. A demographic study in 2010 — “Slow Motion Genocide or Not?” — showed an indigenous population of 48%, down from 96.09% in 1971, with an annual growth rate of only 1.84%, compared to a non-Papuan rate of 10.82%. It projected that by 2020, West Papuans will be “a small and rapidly dwindling minority,” constituting, at most, 28% of the Melanesian population.   

50 Years of Indonesian Rule

The West Papuans endured decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto, such as the arrest and incarceration of nonviolent political prisoners since the 1980s. Along with the arrests of over 300 hundred civilians during the Third National Congress on October 19, 2011, including that of Edison Waromi and Forkorus Yaboisembut, prime Minister and president respectively, such actions will not deter Melanesians from their nonviolent struggle until they are practicing self-determination within a democratic framework, and are recognized, respected and supported by the international community. (Even though, they were granted “Special Autonomy for the Province of Papua in the form of a Separate Government” in 2001.)

Special autonomy was touted to the international community as a "decentralization" program. But more than a decade since, levels of sickness and poverty in Papua are still the highest in Indonesia. This is largely the result of embezzlement by Indonesian government officials. The Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency claims IDR87 billion allocated for the development of public facilities — schools, health centers, bridges, hospitals and irrigation networks — has been embezzled. To make matter worse, in June 2013, the Finance Ministry was called on to limit the amount of cash transferred to the two provinces.         

Foreign companies and military commanders have been exacting healthy profits from the exploitation of Papuans' rich endowment of natural resources. Such stakeholders show no obvious regard for the survival of an indigenous people or the sustainability of their invaluable environment.

Indonesia’s colonization and military occupation of Dutch-owned West Papua was achieved, and continues, with the blessing of the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, and facilitated by the operation of the world’s largest copper and gold mining firm — owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc., a US corporation.

In addition, for over 50 years, some of the world's largest transnational mining corporations have exploited West Papua's oil and minerals, including Union Oil, Amoco, Agip, Conoco, Phillips, Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Shell, Petromer Trend Exploration, Atlantic Richfield, Sun Oil and Freeport (USA); Oppenheimer (South Africa); Total SA (France); Ingold (Canada); Marathon Oil, and Bird’s Head Peninsula (UK); Dominion Mining, Aneka Tambang, BHP, Cudgen RZ, and most critically, Rio Tinto (Australia/UK).

The exploitation of natural resources by extractive industries results in catastrophic harm to human and environmental health and indigenous societies. Typically, mainstream global media, most of which are in thrall to corporate interests, look the other way when such military or corporate injustices are perpetrated upon indigenous populations.

A Surge of Self-Determination

West Papuans have always resisted the Indonesian occupation. But resistance and self-determination was taken to a new level when 5,000 academics, church and senior tribal leaders established the Federal Republic of West Papua (FRWP) on October 19, 2011. During a four-day congress, thousands flocked to participate in the debates and processes. The organization of an independent West Papuan political force was  an integral and courageous step in a long and costly liberation struggle.

The Indonesian government responded predictably: military and police, many in armored vehicles as well as snipers, hid in trees around the field and opened fire. Four students and two PETAPA (Guardians of the Land of Papua) were assassinated. Participants, including the executives of the new state, were kicked and beaten with batons, bamboo sticks, and rifle butts; they were then tortured into leaping across the oval. Eight hundred people were arrested, with 300 detained in the unrest. Indonesian intelligence’s notorious interrogation techniques resulted in at least 12 fractured skulls.

According to Indonesia, President Yaboisembut, Prime Minister Waromi and three organizers of the congress, had committed treason under Article 106 Article of the Indonesian Criminal Code and were incarcerated for three years (2012—2015). 

Since then, more activists and journalists have been tortured, assassinated, or imprisoned, where they are denied access to medical and legal services and rarely allowed to exercise or shower more than once-a-week. After the Sydney Morning Herald published its investigation, President Yudhoyono offered to release all 50 Papuan political prisoners (rather than launch an enquiry into the stolen children).

Yet the hopes for independence of the 30 political prisoners in Abepura Prison were not dashed, as West Papuans still demand that “the whole of Papua be released.”   

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member