West Papuans Cry For Help

Recent Features

Features | Society | Southeast Asia

West Papuans Cry For Help

Despite facing a well-armed Indonesian Army, many West Papuans are determined to fight for a greater say in their future. William Lloyd George travels to the jungles of West Papua to meet the rebels.

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.’

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.

Late that night, we see three lanterns flickering in the sea. ‘It’s the rebel port,’ a soldier in the boat tells me. We’re greeted by a group of young men dressed in camouflage shorts and vests. They sit down and chew betel, adding colour to their already red-stained mouths, and laugh among themselves. The oldest of the group, wearing just a loincloth, walks down past a couple of bamboo huts to a river. Under a sky full of stars, the fisherman uses a burning lantern and spear to catch dinner. A short while later, the satisfied soldiers sit around on the floor of their hut telling traditional stories. Through the rest of the night, the sounds of intermittent bursts of laughter and song can be heard.

The next day, we wake up at dawn. Following a gruelling trek through jungle swamp and over steep mountains we arrive at one of the rebels’ strongholds. All the soldiers have come together to greet their foreign visitor. A few wear military uniforms, the rest are dressed in traditional clothes, which consist of feathered headpieces and white clay smeared on their faces. Around their necks many have monkey-paw necklaces; foliage is tucked into bamboo armbands to symbolise protection. They all salute, and a gunshot is fired.

These soldiers are members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN), the military wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Since Indonesia took control of West Papua, the ragtag tribal army has been engaged in a low-intensity conflict with the ‘foreign’ military forces. Poorly armed, the TPN is severely disadvantaged in the face of its well-funded enemy. A few have old machine guns, the rest carry traditional spears or bows and arrows.

‘We were never given a real chance to vote for the future of our country. Instead it was stolen from us,’ says Richard Youweni with a glare fitting for the longest serving commander in the rebel army. ‘We will fight until we have our land back.’

According to Youweni, the rebel army, together with politicians in exile, have repeatedly requested negotiation with Jakarta, together with third party mediation. ‘We’ve asked time and time again,’ he says seemingly frustrated. ‘They never agree to another country looking over, they don't want to internationalise the issue. They don’t want the international community to find out what happened here.’

Despite facing a well-equipped Indonesian army, few appear likely to back down. ‘We may not have so much equipment, but our people want to be free, so we’ll fight until the end,’ says Freddie Laboi, who is given the title ‘coastal commander.’

‘Indonesia doesn’t care about our people, they only want our resources.’

A major grievance and source of conflict over the years has been the Grasberg Mine – the largest copper-gold mine in the world. Owned by US mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, the mine generates $4 billion of the company’s $6.5 billion annual revenue.

The Grasberg Mine has been criticised by environmental groups worldwide – and by Indonesia’s own environment ministers – for the severe damage caused by its waste deposits. The Norwegian government went as far as divesting around $1 billion of shares in Rio Tinto, citing concerns over environmental damage from the mine. Other concerns lie in Freeport-McMoRan–Rio Tinto reportedly paying the Indonesian military millions of dollars every year to protect the mine, forces which have been accused of committing human rights abuses against Papuan villagers.

In the week leading up to the events at the congress, separate protests had been held near the Grasberg mine. While these protests were isolated, the incidents share the same underlying roots and grievances. ‘We’re being exploited by Indonesia and these international companies,’ says one protest leader. Their main demand was a rise in wages. Each miner receives only $1.50 per hour, from a company that is the biggest taxpayer to the Indonesian government and has such high profits that the strikes cost the company over $30 million every day.

While the Indonesian government and international companies make profits from natural resources on the island, the local Papuans live in abject poverty. The United Nations Development Programme says about 35 percent of West Papua’s population lives below the poverty line, contrasting with an Indonesian national average of about 13 percent. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, secondary school enrolment in Papua is only 60 percent, compared with a national average of 91 percent. And, as more companies come to the islanders, bringing non-Papuans, the situation isn’t expected to improve.

According to Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, if the fast rate of resource extraction continues, Papua will ‘lose millions of hectares of forests and be stripped of valuable resources without the benefits of value-adding industries to create wealth and jobs locally.’ Instead, only foreign companies, Jakarta and a small group of Papuan elites will benefit. Wadley adds that the rising interest in Papua’s resources ‘will see an influx of millions of migrants from other parts of Indonesia, likely limiting indigenous Papuans to a tiny minority in their own land.’ Some commentators, he notes, see the rapid development as ‘politically ideological in its aims’ and an ‘effective foil to calls for independence.’

Many of the Papuan activists are aware of the risks of continued Indonesian rule of the island. The day I came out of the jungle, I met with four student leaders hiding out on the outskirts of Jayapura. The day before, they had organised a protest calling for an end to Jakarta’s ‘Special Autonomy.’ The plan was introduced in 2001 to shift power to Papuan people, but few believe it has actually worked. Most argue Jakarta, together with a few corrupt Papuans, are still in charge.

According to Indonesian government spokesperson Herry Sudradjat, separatists have long played up the failure of autonomy to gain political points. ‘The government sees the autonomy scheme as a win-win solution, enabling our brothers and sisters in Papua to govern their own house and to manage their own affairs,’ he says.

However, few West Papuans see Special Autonomy as ‘win-win.’ Instead, they view it as a way for Indonesia to cling on to control of West Papua.

‘We need to reclaim our land before Indonesia destroys it, and our people,’ says Sylebus Bobby using a pseudonym for security. ‘It’s not easy for us though to stand up to them.’

He knows from experience. When he was a young theology student he says he led a protest just outside his university. Standing in front of thousands of students, and a heavily armed anti-riot police unit, he raised the Morning Star flag, which has come to symbolise West Papua’s independence movement. He was quickly bundled into the back of a truck and taken off to detention. Charged under a draconian treason act left over from colonial times, he says he joined dozens of other political prisoners, and spent five years in jail.

In the past, the international community has done little to assist the Papuan's struggle for independence, despite relentless calls and efforts to internationalize the issue. While the international community finally aided the independence of Timor-Leste, little has been done for West Papua. Activists argue that the Grasberg mine has played a big part in that. If the activists continue to defy the Indonesian government, which doesn’t appear to be backing down, then many are concerned about what will eventually happen to these activists, their land and the Papuan people. 

Despite the deaths and violence sparked last week, Minister for Security Djoko Suyanto justified the crackdown, saying, ‘The police raided the rally because it was already considered a coup d’état. They declared a state within a state and did not recognise the President of Indonesia.’ 

But according to the students’ spokesman, if the deadlock continues, then all Papuans will simply intensify their struggle for independence, raising the prospect of a grim end for his people. ‘If the international community doesn’t help us, West Papuan people will slowly perish while fighting for the independence we deserve.’


William Lloyd George is a freelance correspondent. His work has appeared in TIME, The Independent, Bangkok Post, Irrawaddy and Global Post, among other publications. Follow him on twitter at @w_lloydgeorge. To view photos from his trip visit the website of photojournalist KC Ortiz http://www.kcortizphoto.com/

*Indonesia declared indepdence in 1945. Independence was formally recognised in 1949 after National Revolution.