The moment you enter West Papua you realize you are somewhere different, from the landscape to the language and most importantly the people. In fact this feels about as far away from Indonesia as you can get, and there is a good reason for this – West Papua was and is occupied territory.
To read why Papua New Guinea is such a mess click here.
West Papua The Prelude to occupation
West Papua like the rest of Indonesia was swallowed up by European colonialists during the scramble for South-East Asia that left only Siam spared. West Papua was to fall under the Dutch East-Indies, while East Papua and New Guinea would fall under German, British, and Australian rule before its eventual independence as Papua New Guinea.
And while colonialism rightly gets a bad name, few people in West Papua have issue with the Dutch, with many now at least viewing it favourably as a bygone era.
Known during this time as Dutch New Guinea and administered from Moluccas (who would have their own independence fight) it was for all intents a very different place from the rest of the Dutch East-Indies. Christianity thrived, a large Dutch community formed and for many tribes life stayed as it always had.
Things would slowly start to change after World War 2 when Indonesia led by Sukarno fought and gained its independence initially as the United States of Indonesia, and later the Republic of Indonesia.
Indonesia of course wanted this territory, but the Dutch were able to argue to the United Nations, rightly so that the people were different to the majority Muslim Indonesians. Originally Sukarno wanted to unite the country under the pretext of an anti-imperialist foreign policy, yet by the time of the rise of Suharto, it was little more than Indonesian imperialism.
Over the 13 years of Dutch rule Indonesia continued in a campaign to take control of the area hitting the Dutch both militarily and economically. In 1957 Sukarno nationalized hundreds of Dutch businesses and by 1962 military incursions meant that up to 3000 Indonesian troops were already in the area.
In the end though it would be the United States who dealt the final death blow to the hopes of West Papua by forcing the Dutch into a withdrawal due to fears of an increasingly leftist Indonesia moving further into the Soviet sphere of influence.
Ironically for Sukarno, he would by overthrown by a CIA led coup for that very reason.
The Rigged Vote in West Papua
Whilst leaving begrudgingly the Dutch also sold out the West Papuans. In 1962 the New York agreement stated that jurisdiction for West Papua would temporarily go to Indonesia, with a referendum to be held by 1969 on the future of the “country”.
The disgustingly called “Act of Free Choice” involved slightly over 1000 members of the Papuan elite publicly voting on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people. Unsurprisingly the vote was passed and West Papua became part of Indonesia.
Tow monuments, which still stand were even built to “celebrate” the Act of Free Choice, but by now the West Papuan conflict had begun.
The West Papuan Conflict
The Free Papua Movement, initially led by the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, (OPM) since initially tried peaceful negotiations, to non avail, which led to a low-level insurgency that exists tooth’s day.
And Indonesian reaction to this was and to this day remains harsh, with estimates ranging from 200,000-500,000 people being killed during the conflict. Not only this, but up to 1 in 5 women here have been subjected to some form of sexual abuse from the state – as recently as a 2017 study.
Yet despite all of this few people know, or care about the plight of West Papuans, compared to say those of East Timor, who eventually gained independence.
East Timor and West Papua similarities and differences
Whilst obvious parallels can and should be drawn between these two states, there are also core differences. One senior figure from East Timor, who asked to remain nameless told me “West Papuans are from different tribes, which meant they were less cohesive, whilst in Timor, we were all Catholic Timorese. They were also not as effective when presenting their case internationally”.
Many though particularly in West Papua, but also including actors as diverse as Bishop Desmond Tutu and the state of Vanuatu have called for the “East Timor model”, whereby another referendum is held. Indonesia have outright refused this whilst even the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste have remained silent with the same official telling me “Morally we are with them, but realpolitik means we need to have good relations with Indonesia. We chose us above them”.
To read about Timor getting into ASEAN click here
Contemporary West Papua
Modern day West Papua is better than in the days of the dictatorship, but the resistance remains as does the Indonesian oppression. People are still arrested for showing the Morning Star Flag (although you will see it), and citizens are afraid to talk openly about their struggles.
As our local fixer put it “Just look at us, we are different people from them. All West Papuans want independence”. She was though careful to make sure no one was around when she said it adding “I only trust one, or two people to talk to about this. There are secret police everywhere and I know of women who have been raped”.
But, to an extent life does indeed go on, tourists come here and it would be easy to be blinkered by the “normality” of the place, although one needs to scratch very little beneath the surface to notice the heavy police presence, the many areas that are forbidden to enter and the overall tenseness of the region.
To read if journalist can go to West Papua click here.
Free West Papua Movement
Yet while fractured the movement very much exists still, with people still regularly taken hostage by the rebels, as well as altercations between them and the Indonesian army and police.
In fact only recently a Kiwi pilot was kidnapped, although again few know about this as the residence do not go around murdering innocent people.
You can read about the pilot here
In this respects they perhaps suffer from being too humans, Sadly the independence movements that work tend to involve a lot of spilt blood, most of it being that of innocent people.
They also suffer from the western hypocrisy of being called terrorists if they do fight for their freedom. In total 8 nations, mostly from the Pacific have called for the independence of West Papua, but sadly Nauru do not carry the same weight as the United States.
To read about Nauru soccer click here.
Sadly the reality is that we are unlikely to see a Republic of West Papua any time soon, particularly as Indonesia grows in importance and strength. A fact even more abstract when you consider Timor was given independence, whilst even Banda Aceh now enjoys a huge amount of autonomy.
So, remember that when the west beat their chests about giving independence to Kosovo, or fighting for Ukraine, it is never about morality, but simply geopolitics or the scramble for resources.