23 September, West Papua, Indonesia: Police shot bullets at protesters, who fired back with arrows. The sky filled with smoke as houses, markets, cars, and government buildings were set on fire. Amnesty International called it “one of the bloodiest days” in the province in 20 years. Yet news of this shocking wave of violence in West Papua, Indonesia hardly made international headlines. These riots began after a video emerged of Indonesian soldiers calling Papuan students “monkeys” — a reference to their dark skin, which is unlike that of Javanese Indonesians. 43 Papuan students were then arrested over claims that they responded to the video by throwing an Indonesian flag into the sewer in protest. Demonstrations protesting the arrests were met with a strict crackdown by Jakarta, during which an internet blackout was enforced and over 33 Papuans were killed.
These protests represent just a fragment of the longstanding conflict between West Papua and Indonesia. Indonesia declared the region (which is made up of the island of New Guinea’s western peninsulas) part of Indonesia following the end of Dutch colonialism in 1961. Since the arrival of Indonesians, native Papuans have called for a Papua “merdeka”: an independent, peaceful, and justly governed Papuan state. Based on the principles of self-determination codified into international law, namely in the United Nations 1960 “Declaration on Decolonization” which states that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination, and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights,” the indigenous people of West Papua have a strong case for independence; however, it will only be obtained if the global community joins calls for Merdeka.
First and foremost, Indonesia did not have justified claims to obtain West Papua to begin with, and it is still regarded by Papuans as a colonial power. The Dutch colonized the region beginning in 1848, but Papuans’ resistance to paying taxes or engaging in forced labor led the Dutch to withdraw in the 1950s. While they intended for West Papua to become an independent state, Indonesia quickly began to assert claims over the region following its independence. The UN agreed to Indonesia’s temporary administration of West Papua with the stipulation that it hold a democratic referendum on independence. The 1969 referendum unanimously affirmed Indonesian rule, though it was far from free or fair: The Indonesian military selected only 1,025 Papuan leaders, who were threatened with execution if they voted against Indonesian rule, to vote on behalf of the entire population.
Since then, the Indonesian government has become notorious for its abuse of human rights in the region. Under Indonesian rule, the Papuan people have suffered everything from imprisonment without trial to rape and torture to mass executions. Though the Department of State has refused to call the repeated incidents of violence in Papua a genocide, between 100,000 to 500,000 West Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian state under its colonial rule, which, at the lowest estimate, amounts to one-seventh of the 1962 population. Those who protest for independence are jailed or killed, as even raising the independence flag can lead to serious repercussions.
In some ways, West Papua looks and operates much like a colony from the Age of Imperialism. The colonized are Black, Christian Melanesians who are ruled by a culture with which they have very little in common. They are an ethnically and linguistically distinct people who have far more in common with Papua New Guinea, the other half of the same island, as well as the peoples of Fiji and the Solomon Islands. However, Indonesia has a policy of transmigration, which promotes large scale immigration of Javanese Indonesians to indigenous islands and seeks to make Papuans a minority in their own land. Now, with one half of the population being non-indigenous, the Javanese population controls key administrative and political offices, allowing them to discriminate against natives.
West Papuans also suffer from economic imperialism at the hands of the Javanese. As a resource-rich country, its gold, copper, and timber generate billions of dollars for Indonesia as well as foreign companies such as PT Freeport McMoran, an American gold mining company. Indigenous Papuans, however, see very little of these profits. Their region is poorer, less educated, and holds more instances of infant mortality than the rest of Indonesia.
While the arguments for independence are clear cut, the plan for a free Western Papua is less apparent. Since protesting or organizing for independence is illegal and highly criminalized in Indonesia, there is a lack of broad-based civilian movements able to work towards independence. Therefore, a viable independence movement would require outside influences to back the Papuans, namely the United Nations and powerful countries such as Australia or the United States.
The independence movement greatly parallels Timor-Leste’s successful campaign for their own sovereignty from Indonesia. After Timor-Leste was freed from Portuguese colonial rule, Indonesia invaded and occupied it for 24 years. While the indigenous populations of West Papua and Timor-Leste have both resisted Indonesian rule through guerilla warfare and resistance, Timor-Leste successfully gained independence through international support. Australia and the United States began supporting Timor-Leste’s claims that Indonesia was committing human rights abuses in the region in 1975, and the two powers called for an independence referendum. Crucially, the United Nations facilitated a referendum in 1999 and established a civil administration and peacekeeping mission that allowed for a stable transition.
What is needed now for West Papua is an international show of support for Papua Merdeka, one that would convince Jakarta that it is no longer politically viable to continue its colonial hold on West Papua. The success of this goal depends upon a reversal of policies by world leaders, especially from neighboring Australia. Australia must principally reverse its policy against supporting any groups or activities that would threaten Indonesian sovereignty. Furthermore, the United Nations needs to start acting on its principles for self-determination. In 2017, the UN Decolonisation Committee announced that it would not consider West Papua’s cause. Without international support, nobody will speak up for the Papuans.
Until then, Papuans will be waiting under occupation, with bullets, instead of the Merdeka flag, flying in the air.
Photo: Image via Roel Wijnants (Flickr)