Last week, thousands of natives gathered in West Papua to attend a congress to mark 50 years since Papuan people declared their independence. It was meant to be a peaceful meeting, but on the last day, to the surprise of the security forces waiting outside, several Papuan leaders read out a declaration calling for the independence of West Papua from Indonesia, raised their forbidden national flag, and installed a symbolic government.
Half way into the declaration the police stormed the congress in attempt to break up the meeting. The unarmed attendees fought back. While the number killed in the clash is yet to be confirmed, it is reported to be at least half a dozen. Dead bodies have been found scattered around the island. Some behind the police barracks, others in ditches. Hundreds were injured, and some are still missing.
In response to accusations of a heavy handed response, the island’s police chief said,‘The reason we broke in was because the Congress violated the permit. The permit was only to talk about the basic rights of Papuans.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Human rights groups around the world were quick to chime in with criticism for the police response. Speaking over a crackly line, a West Papuan activist who wished to remain anonymous told The Diplomat: ‘We were just discussing our rights in a non-violent way, there was no reason to storm in like that, it was terrifying…All we want is our land back.’
The activist is referring to the inclusion of West Papua under Indonesia sovereignty. Although Indonesia gained independence in 1949*, the Dutch government kept control over West Papua until 1961. Keen to get his hands on the resource rich region, Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno, made repeated attempts through the United Nations to gain ownership. Frustrated with a lack of progress, Indonesia deployed tens of thousands of armed troops to take the western half of New Guinea Island by force.
The Kennedy administration, keen to avoid confrontation and the loss of another Asian country to communism, brokered the New York Agreement between the Dutch and Jakarta in 1962.The agreement transferred control of the colony to Indonesia on the condition it committed to hold a referendum on independence, to be called the ‘Act of Free Choice.’
In 1969, 1,025 handpicked Papuans – out of a population of over 1 million – were chosen for the vote. These ‘representatives’ unanimously chose for West Papua to remain within Indonesian sovereignty. Amid allegations of threats to voters, a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefing that year found ‘the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made,’ while the US ambassador to Indonesia said, ’95 percent of indigenous Papuans wanted to have freedom.’
Across West Papua, the Act was seen as a complete sham, fuelling protests and inspiring parts of the population to take up arms. The Indonesian military launched widespread campaigns to quell dissent. Thousands of refugees fled the country and members of the resistance set up armed groups deep in the jungle, where they remain today still fighting for independence.
Foreign journalists are rarely granted permission to visit West Papua, and if they are, the trip is heavily restricted. Having arrived in Jayapura, the largest city on the island, I am whisked to the coast and into a boat. I am traveling to meet the rebels, but to avoid detection we take a lengthy boat trip along Papua’s pristine coastline.