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Why is West Papua in Constant Turmoil?

The Indonesian territory has struggled for independence for more than 50 years.

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Why is West Papua in Constant Turmoil?

Papuan activists confront police and soldiers during a brief scuffle at a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

Papua has been in constant turmoil for more than 50 years, especially following the territory’s incorporation into Indonesia in 1969. This include incidences of violence where either Papuans, or Indonesian military and civilian personnel, have been killed. For instance, in December 2018, Papuan fighters killed 19 Indonesian construction workers in Nduga, in Papua province. In January 2019, one Indonesian soldier was killed in Nduga and two months later, in March, three more were killed.

August 2019 was particularly violent in Papua. On August 12, a police officer was shot dead. On August 16, a soldier died following an ambush by Papuan fighters. From August 19, right to the end of the month, Papua was embroiled in massive demonstrations in the key cities of Jayapura, Manokwari, Sorong, Fak-Fak as well as in Jakarta, allegedly triggered by Indonesians insulting Papuan students studying in Surabaya and Malang, cities in east Java. Many government buildings were burned in West Papua, including the local parliament in Manokwari, capital city of West Papua. The government sent in additional troops and police personnel and internet services were cut to prevent rumors from inflaming the volatile situation. Jakarta blamed the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and its leader, Benny Wenda, for being behind the demonstrations and violence. In Papua, seven people were killed, including a soldier.

Indonesian Papua

The largely Melanesian Christian population of Indonesian Papua, formerly known as West New Guinea and Irian Jaya, reside in two territories: Papua and West Papua. Indonesia became the successor-state of the territory following the American-brokered 1962 New York Agreement and was made the transitional authority in May 1963. Since then, and particularly following its legal control of Papua — secured in the much-contested, very limited referendum of 1969 called the “Act of Free Choice” — the territory has continuously faced a low-level insurgency.

Key Papuan Grievances

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The Papuans have consistently listed a litany of grievances against Indonesia and which, to a large extent, remain unaddressed. The first pertains to history. Papuans have claimed that they were never consulted when the 1962 New York Agreement was signed providing for the Dutch’s exit from the territory. Papuans have also dismissed the 1969 referendum, which endorsed the territory’s integration into Indonesia, as a sham. Just over 1,000 tribal leaders were picked by the Indonesian military to represent the vote — the region’s population was an estimated 800,000 — and they voted unanimously in favor of Indonesia with a show of hands.

Indonesia has also been accused of gross human rights violations since 1963. This has included the mass death of villagers that were accused of supporting the separatists as well as the killing of key Papuan leaders such as Ferry Awom, Arnold Ap and Theys Eluay, just to name a few.

Economic injustice also looms large. Papua, as one of the most resource-rich areas in the world, is also home to the Papuans, one of the the poorest groups in Indonesia. Papua’s resources are plundered by foreign companies such as PT Freeport Mc-Moran, which owns the world’s largest gold mine in the territory. Massive environmental degradation is also a sore point among the Papuans, who view their forests as sacred communal lands.

Papuans have also opposed Indonesia’s policy of transmigration under which Papuans are becoming an effective minority in their own land. Non-Papuans, mainly Javanese who tend to also be non-Christians, are flooding the territory and controlling the key administrative and political offices. Papuans view Indonesia’s policy as little more than colonization in which the natives are subjected to racial and religious discrimination, marginalization and subjugation.

Papuans’ Response

Among the first major response on the part of the Papuans was to undertake armed struggle against what was perceived as an Indonesian military occupation.  This was in part due to President Sukarno’s policy of threatening to invade the then Dutch-occupied territory through the Suharto-led Mandala Command. In 1962, Suharto had been promoted to lead the command, a joint army-navy-air force specifically aimed at carrying out incursions into Dutch-occupied territory as it edged toward possible independence. Following the New York Agreement, the Papuans continued to argue that Indonesia had militarily colonized the territory. The Papuans, in the hope of achieving independence, established a military force that has, at best, been a nuisance to the superior Indonesian military in Papua. While there are many motley, largely tribal-based military units, the most important is the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) or Papua Independence Organisation that has continuously launched a low-level military campaign against Indonesia. The OPM is deeply divided, under-armed and without international support, making it largely ineffective. Another military outfit, the Tentera Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) (National Liberation Army of West Papua) also operates in parts of Papua.

The second strand of response has been political and diplomatic. Papuan leaders have tried to mobilize the local population to oppose Indonesia through demonstrations and strikes, often bringing major cities such as Jayapura, Manokwari, Fak-Fak and Sorong to a standstill, as happened in August 2019. Papuan leaders have also tried to negotiate with Indonesia leaders. Especially in the post-Suharto era, they have gained some concessions from Jakarta. Added to this, the Papuan diaspora is very active in a number of Western countries and in the South Pacific. They have also succeeded in gaining some support internationally from human rights organizations and some governments which have attempted to pressure Indonesia.

Indonesia’s Response

Indonesia, while maintaining tight political, economic and military rule of the territory, has loosened up some controls in response to rising demands for independence from the territory, especially since the late 1990s. In addition to providing greater economic assistance to the province, Indonesia also provided for a special kind of autonomy for the territory, called Otonomi Khusus (otsus) where locals were partially permitted to organize themselves and express their demands. Despite initial optimism, this experiment has largely failed to assuage the Papuans and the problems have continued.

For most Papuans, the lack of trust and faith in Jakarta was evident from the manner in which Papua was split into three provinces in 2003 without much consultation with the local population. Eventually, only two provinces were established, Papua and West Papua, due to the public and court rejection of the third province, Central Irian Jaya.

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Explaining the Continued Papuan Resistance and its Implications

Even though in post-Suharto Indonesia, Papuans have been given a greater sense of autonomy and the security apparatus has broadly been reigned in, instability and conflict have continued. While Papuan-based political and cultural structures have sprouted since the late 1990s — such as Dewan Presidium Papua (Papua Presidium Council), Dewan Adat Papua (Council of Customary Leaders), Majelis Rakyat Papua (Papuan People’s Council) and ELSHAM, (Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights) — these all failed to function as expected. This was due to internal divisions among the Papuans and the unwillingness of Jakarta to provide greater concessions that would enable these bodies to become champions of Papuan self-determination. The much-hyped otsus and the failure of various concessionary reforms, especially institutional ones, have been principally responsible for the rise of violent and non-violent resistance of Indonesian rule in Papua.

While there exists a relatively broad-based civilian movement, backed by a highly decentralized, somewhat disunited and poorly armed network of guerrilla groups organized under the network of OPM and TPNPB, the Papuans’ quest for independence has been the key point of conflict between the Papuans and the Indonesian authorities. The Papuan armed and civilian-based separatist groups have also pushed for external third parties to mediate the conflict, something which Indonesia has outrightly rejected.

For Indonesia, the 1969 Act of Free Choice was the final phase of decolonization. Papuans reject it and have demanded a new, more representative, referendum to be undertaken to ascertain the wishes of Papuans about their fate inside or outside Indonesia. However, after its experience in East Timor in 1999, in which the territory seceded, Indonesia has no stomach for such an exercise.

Even though Papuans have tried to signal a sense of rising unity, this has been more hopeful than real. In the past and present, a number of political coalitions have existed to champion Papua’s independence. This includes the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, Papua Consensus, the West Papua National Authority, the West Papua National Committee, the Federal Republic of West Papua and the National Parliament of West Papua, to name a few. In December 2014, the Federal Republic of West Papua, the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation and the National Parliament of West Papua formed a coalition called the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Three Papuan Congresses have also been held to unify various Papuan political groups and to plan for the territory’s future by Papuan leaders, often with the dismay of the Indonesian security apparatus. Despite the rhetoric of unity, these groups have been unable to cooperate due to differences based on personalities, tribe, and approaches to gain independence—hence, the failure to pressure Indonesia even to negotiate about independence, let alone achieve it.

The Papuans’ sense of dismay and the futility to date of seeking independence has been underscored by the failure of some international support to materialize into greater action. In September 2016, seven leaders of Pacific states championed Papua’s independence at the UN General Assembly, but nothing has actualized beyond rhetoric and platitudes. The issue of Papuan independence has also been regularly raised at the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) but to no avail.

Papuan Independence Remains a Pipe Dream

The only way forward for Indonesian Papua is through dialogue and the aim should be to expand as much local autonomy as possible. This is to serve the intrinsic interests of Papuans who are historically, ethnically, culturally and religiously different from the majority of Indonesia. The peace model should be Aceh, Mindanao, and Bougainville — not Timor-Leste.

The Papuans’ project of Merdeka or independence has failed due to the internal weaknesses of the movement. The Papuans’ quest for independence is doomed as they are in no position to pressure Indonesia and are unlikely to do so in the near future. The power asymmetry is simply too lop-sided in favor of Indonesia.

This has been exacerbated by the wide-spread corruption of Papuan leaders with most of the otsus funds squandered by local leaders. Papuans have also been deterred by past practices of repression and human rights violations, and a culture of impunity by the security forces. Indonesia has also been strategically adept in splitting Papua into two provinces, with additional splits likely, partly to foster divisions and competition among the Papuans.

Papuan independence also has little support, as the international community prefers to deal with Indonesia than an independent Papua. Jakarta has been adept in incentivizing international multinational corporations such as Freeport-McMoran and British Petroleum to exploit the resource-rich territory, and any loss of Indonesian authority over Papua would negatively affect the investments of these mega corporations from the West. In short, Papuan independence is largely a cry in the dark, all the more, following the UN’s recognition of the territory’s incorporation into Indonesia in 1969.

As long as the Papuans remains divided, with no clear leader or spokesperson, as existed in Aceh’s GAM and Timor-Leste’s FRETILIN, Indonesia will never concede an inch of the territory as it sees itself as the legitimate successor state of the Dutch East Indies. Unlike Timor-Leste, Papua also occupies a cornerstone in Indonesia’s imagination of its territorial integrity described as the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia, something held in sacred by the armed forces and the populace at large.

In view of these factors, the quest for independence will be highly futile. The best way forward would be a dialogue to achieve comprehensive autonomy. This would ensure that political, economic and social-cultural aspects in Papua can be managed by Papuans, for Papuans, including law and order, with the Indonesian military largely deployed for border security. This would be the best of all possible scenarios for the near-term for Indonesia’s Papua.

Bilveer Singh is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.