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Death in Freeport

21st Century colonialism flourishes in West Papua writes Edmund McWilliam

The past century saw the flowering and ultimately the near-complete demise of colonialism, one of the most pernicious systems for control invented by humanity. Even democratic nations, justifying their policies on ‘national interest’, blatantly racist philosophies and religious intolerance, enslaved millions. Brutal militaries, sometimes backed by local militias, pursued ‘mother country’ and corporate economic interests without regard for the impact of these activities on local people, who suffered early death due to overwork, destruction of traditional agricultural systems and colonialist violence. Millions of colonialism’s victims were displaced by colonists, sometimes from the ‘mother country’ and sometimes by other peoples transported to the colonies to act as the colonialists’ surrogates.

But is it correct to say that colonialism, which for centuries brutalised native populations of North and South America, Africa, Asia and even parts of Europe, is completely dead and buried?

In 1969, violating terms established under its UN mandate for administering West Papua, Indonesia conducted an ‘act of free choice’, widely regarded to have been a fraudulent exercise in lieu of a plebiscite. From Indonesia’s 1963 assumption of administrative authority in West Papua, Papuans have suffered rampant brutality at the hands of security forces; they have seen their vast natural resources expropriated, often with devastating environmental consequences, and have suffered displacement and marginalisation as the Indonesian government shipped over a million ‘transmigrants’ to West Papua from the archipelago’s many over-crowded islands.

For three decades this brutal occupation proceeded under the direction of Suharto, one of the 20th century’s most brutal dictators. His 1965–67 ‘transition’ to power, following the ousting of the elected nationalist Sukarno, entailed the murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. In 1975 Suharto’s military invaded East Timor. The twenty-four-year occupation of that tiny half island led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Timorese. In addition to this well recognised history, Suharto’s brutality also extended to West Papua, where scores of thousands of Papuans are believe to have fallen victim to his marauding military. Suharto’s tragic legacy in West Papua is not widely appreciated in the international community.

Throughout his long, bloody rule, Suharto was abetted and enabled by the United States and its allies, who saw in Suharto a bastion against the communist ties in Asia. But there was, for the United States, another reason to turn a blind eye to Suharto’s crimes. US firms, notably in the extraction industries, enjoyed easy access to the natural riches of the Indonesian archipelago. Among the largest of these, and one of the earliest to gain access to Suharto’s Indonesia, was PT Freeport McMoran, which in 1967 established what was to become the largest copper and gold mine in the world. It became Indonesia’s largest foreign taxpayer. In addition, it proved to be an easy touch for cash that flowed to the Indonesian military, nominally in payment for security services. Freeport and other US firms which prospered under Suharto’s rule acted in the early 1990s to blunt growing press, public and Congressional concern about the Suharto regime’s excesses. It created the United States Indonesia Society (USINDO), which became a de facto, very well-financed lobby for the regime and its brutal military in Washington.

But notwithstanding its close ties to the Suharto regime and subsequent Indonesian administrations, Freeport has had a rocky relationship with the military and, more recently, with the police. The key irritant in Freeport–security force relations has been money. In 1996 the military secretly organised a violent demonstration at Freeport’s headquarters in Tembagapura and in the support town of Timika. A senior Freeport executive at the time told a US Embassy officer (the author) that the dispute was over whether Freeport would fund the establishment of a battalion base for Kopassus, Indonesia’s infamous ‘special forces’. Following the incidents the funding flowed.

In 2002 a Freeport reduction in funds, paid to the Indonesian military for security services, preceded an attack on Freeport employees travelling on the Tembagapura–Timika road, which then as now was tightly guarded by the military. The one person indicted by a US court for the attack, which took the lives of two Americans and one Indonesian, had long ties to the military. Nevertheless, in what many international observers believe to have been a travesty of justice, the Indonesian court convicted only Papuans whom it alleged had ties to the small and very lightly armed Papuan resistance (OPM). Neither the Indonesian court nor the US Federal Bureau of Investigation were willing to pursue the many leads that pointed to an Indonesian military role. Even the Indonesian police investigation, which indicated both a role and the existence of a motive in the form of Freeport’s reduction of funding for the military, was ignored and the investigation was taken over by the military.

In mid July another spate of violence erupted in the Freeport domain as unidentified gunmen shot and killed an Australian on the tightly guarded Tembagapura–Timika road. Subsequent attacks at or near the same site took the lives of three more in the following days. While senior military personnel, as in 2002, immediately blamed the shootings on the Papuan resistance, the senior police official in West Papua said he saw no evidence of their involvement. As in 2002, information developed by the Indonesian police, including ballistics evidence, pointed to the role of Indonesian security forces. As in 2002, however, the military is now entering the investigation and its role in the investigation may preclude development of evidentiary leads suggesting a military role. Statements by senior Indonesian military officers assigning blame for the shootings to the small Papuan armed resistance, despite a lack of evidence, suggest that, as in the past, a military investigation will be prejudiced.

Again, as in 2002, disputes over money and rivalry among the various security actors at Freeport form the backdrop for understanding the violence. Under current arrangements, Freeport funding for security flows to the military through the police. Various sources indicate the military is not happy with this relationship. Also, over the years, local civilians have worked tailings from the Freeport mining operation to extract remnant gold and copper. Sources in Timika report that the militarised police, ‘BRIMOB’, control this lucrative, illegal trade. Freeport has enlisted the help of both police and military security forces to curb this trade. Finally, Kopassus continue to play a strong role in West Papua. Their brutal treatment of Papuan civilians and impunity were detailed in a June 21 Human Rights Watch report. Sources in West Papua note that there is tension within Kopassus between those who support the former Kopassus commander General Prabowo and those who do not.

A defining characteristic of colonialism is the exploitation and brutalisation of a people by non-native forces in collusion with similarly non-native monied interests. Invariably, this collusion persists with impunity and notwithstanding tortured appeals by the colonised people for redress. In recent years Papuans have directed such appeals to Jakarta and to the international community, pleading for an internationally facilitated dialogue between the Indonesian government and Papuans to address decades of abusive policies and marginalisation targeting Papuans. Only through such a dialogue can the fundamentally colonial relationship between Jakarta and West Papua be addressed.