West Papua is a nation in-waiting…
…for self-governance and full sovereignty. It is the western part of an island of New Guinea, currently under Indonesian occupation. New Guinea has been and continues to be home to many Indigenous peoples and tribes, with hundreds and hundreds of different languages and histories. It was artificially “cut” in half as a result of colonisation by various European powers, the Dutch in the west and the British, German as well as Australian in the east. West Papuans are Indigenous Melanesians, with kin in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Bougainville, Kanaky/New Caledonia, and Torres Strait. After centuries of Dutch colonial governance over the area of West Papua, Indigenous West Papuans constituted 99% of the population. Since Indonesian administration, they are now under 50% of the population. These numbers signify an ongoing genocide of West Papuans, who continue to struggle for freedom and recognition.
Their roadmap to Papua Merdeka begins shortly after the Kingdom of the Netherlands recognised the Nieuw-Guinea Raad, a legislative council founded in April 1961, later officially recognised on December 1, 1961 with national anthem (Hai Tanah Ku Papua) and the Morning Star flag symbolizing the right to self-rule and political aspiration. The taste of freedom only lasted for 19 days as Indonesian military seized and annexed the territory through its so-called operation TRIKORA. In 1968, under the watch of UN observers and US diplomats, Indonesia was given control over West Papua when its military picked out a fraction of West Papua’s population and ordered the 1025 of their tribal leaders to vote, under extreme duress, in favor of Indonesian annexation. This was called the “Act of Free Choice.” A 2004 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School explains that “Indonesian military leaders began making public threats against Papuan leaders… vowing to shoot them on the spot if they did not vote for Indonesian control.” In 2016, Benny Wenda, with parliamentarians, lawyers and humanitarians from the UK and the Pacific region demanded that the UN pass a resolution for an independence referendum, in order to make up for its “mistake” in allowing Indonesia to take control almost 50 years ago. More recently, about 1.8 million West Papuans who demand independence, submitted a petition to the UN, which refused it, saying that the West Papua’s cause is outside their mandate. The lack of international recognition and support from governments and the UN is not so surprising given that countries such as US, Canada and Australia are themselves colonial powers that refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples within “their” borders.
Colonisation, genocide and land theft
Indonesia has imposed a brutal military occupation and West Papuans’ fight for self-determination has caused an immense suffering through the bloodshed, massacres, imprisonment, arbitrary detention, marginalization, land deprivation and dispossession. Many are killed, tortured, disappeared, women and girls are raped and children are not born at all. A 2004 paper by the Yale Law School for the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign found “in the available evidence a strong indication that the Indonesian government has committed genocide against the West Papuans”. Indonesian government exercised four decades of heavy restrictions on media and human rights groups’ access to West Papua, and it’s only recently that journalists have been allowed to enter.
As with numerous examples of colonisation and occupation around the globe, land grabs and theft of resources play a major role in West Papua. The Grasberg mine is the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine in the world and it is partly owned by the Indonesian government and the US company Freeport. The mining operations have resulted in landslides, contamination of the surrounding river systems, land and groundwater. Native fish have nearly disappeared from waters of the nearby Aikwa River. Freeport – the company that runs the mine – arrived just four years after West Papua’s annexation to Indonesia. “Freeport needs a lot of government security support to operate,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch. “In remote areas like Papua, this means less monitoring and more potential rights abuses taking place in their mining operations.” In fact, national police and military are in charge of “maintaining order” so that copper and gold can be safely extracted, with tax revenues going to Jakarta.
Resistance and struggle
Driven by the government policy to allow PT Freeport Indonesia to operate in Papua, Papua Liberation Organisation or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) was born to refuse this policy. Beside OPM, another organisation was born in 1999, which is called the Papua Presidium Council or Presidium Dewan Papua (PDP), whose leader, Theys Eluai, was later found dead. Afterwards, another independence organisation, the KNPB (National Committee for West Papua) became prominent. It held huge independence rallies across West Papua. As a result, many of its members have been arrested, tortured and killed. In 2012, the KNPB chairman Mako Tabuni was killed by Indonesian police, whilst many others face lengthy jail sentences of up to fifteen or twenty years just for raising the West Papuan Morning Star flag. In December 2014, a historic gathering of West Papuan leaders in Vanuatu saw different factions of the independence movement unite to form a new body called the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). The key groups include the Federal Republic of West Papua (NRFPB), National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL) and West Papua National Parliament (PNWP). ULMWP is granted observer status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as representative of West Papuans outside the country – constituting West Papua’s first diplomatic recognition since 1963.
Many West Papuans fled and continue to flee the country as a result of ongoing violence, especially against those who are involved in any aspect of the liberation movement. In 2006 a canoe carrying 43 West Papuans including Herman Wainggai, a student leader from a political family, arrived on Australian shore. It was carrying a banner that read “Save West Papua people soul from genocide intimidation and terrorist from military government of Indonesian. Also we West Papuan need freedom peace love and justice in our home land.” This journey was an act of resistance and it brought international attention to the situation in West Papua. Many West Papuans in Australia continue to struggle for freedom, engaging in direct action and political work such as setting up the Federal Republic of West Papua’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Immigration, and Trade in Narrm/Melbourne. In 2013, The Freedom Flotilla to West Papua successfully defied the Indonesian Navy and Australian authorities by completing a 5000 kilometer journey from Lake Eyre all the way to the so-called Indonesian border north of the Torres Strait. Arabunna Elder, Uncle Kevin Buzzacott, delivered sacred water from his own country and ashes from Aboriginal tent embassies around Australia directly to West Papuan leaders. The initiative of Indigenous Elders of Australia and West Papua built global solidarity and highlighted the abuses of human rights and land rights carried out under the occupations of their countries, building a lasting relationship between their struggles for sovereignty.
West Papuan refugees
Many of those feeing West Papua end up in neighbouring PNG. At least 12,000 West Papuan refugees have settled in PNG since the 1980’s and they are still being treated as second-class citizens and border-crossers. Personal experience of West Papuan refugees in PNG is all too familiar with Australia’s deterrent policies and treatment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. A West Papuan married to a Manus woman, Lewis Prai, gives an account of his experience:
“We were transferred from Vanimo to Manus in 1970. It was like a death camp Australian authorities prevented international media and NGOs to visit us. I am a victim of that policy, my parents died at the refugee camp, including my older sister and baby sister we buried them there.”
In 2011, PNG security forces attacked refugee villages, burning houses to the ground and destroying gardens. Though refugees seeking asylum in Australia and being placed in detention on Manus Island is a “new” development, the precedent of this detention centre goes back to 1969 when Australian colonial authorities detained two West Papuan leaders who at the time were about to board a plane to New York to alert the world about the outcome of the sham ‘referendum’ that took place in West Papua. Instead they were arrested and detained on Manus Island, preventing their story from reaching the outside world. Read more about the West Papuan refugees on Manus Island.