The date 15 August 1962 is significant in the history of the people of the western half of the island of New Guinea, the place commonly called West Papua. On that date the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which had occupied the territory since the nineteenth century, and the Republic of Indonesia signed what was called the New York Agreement. For some years, Indonesian president Sukarno had been pushing hard for the territory to be handed over by the Dutch, but the Netherlands was not keen to agree. Under pressure from John F. Kennedy’s administration, which wanted to keep Indonesia as a friend of the West, the Netherlands, which had been preparing the people of Western New Guinea for independence, agreed to hand over the territory, first to a UN Temporary Executive Authority and then to the Republic of Indonesia.
The agreement was supposed to give all adults a free choice between staying with Indonesia or becoming independent, but in 1969 Indonesian authorities organised what many observers consider to have been a sham vote of just over 1000 Papuans. It resulted in West Papua’s integration into the Republic of Indonesia.
Overwhelmingly, Papuans have never accepted their land’s being integrated into the Republic of Indonesia. They have resisted the occupation tenaciously throughout the subsequent decades to the present. Most Papuans have resented Indonesian rule and many have expressed this resentment publicly in various forms of protest. This protest has attracted swift and sometimes very dismissive and brutal responses from both Indonesian authorities and Indonesian migrants who have moved to West Papua over the years to seek economic opportunity.
Fast forward fifty-seven years to 16 August 2019 and we see an incident that suggests that nothing much has changed in all that time in the conflict between the Indonesian authorities and the people of West Papua. The incident did not occur in West Papua but in the Javanese city of Surabaya: a number of Papuan students living in a local dormitory apparently burnt an Indonesian flag outside their accommodation. This act of Papuan defiance on Indonesian soil provoked a hostile response from a group of Indonesian nationalist militia, who surrounded the dormitory, threatened the students, called them ‘monkeys’ and used other racist slurs, and demanded that they go home to Papua.
Indonesian police arrived on the scene, but instead of dispersing the militia they threw tear gas into the dormitory and eventually arrested forty-three of the students. There are reports that the students were beaten by police while in detention. Although the students were eventually released, the damage was done. The incident sparked a wave of protests across West Papua. The last five years had seen demonstrations in support of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), a coalition of major Papuan political groups formed at the end of 2014. The ULMWP is engaged in an ambitious mission to convince the world to support the right of Papuans to be free and independent. The protests inside West Papua have often been organised by a group of young nonviolent activists, the West Papua National Committee, and the ULMWP’s representatives inside West Papua. However, the current wave of demonstrations has been, for the most part, organised by university students incensed at the pervasive racism, marginalisation and violence that have marked the treatment of Papuans by Indonesian security forces and migrants since Indonesian occupation in the 1960s.
Since the beginning of the current wave of demonstrations, over 6000 extra police and soldiers have been flown into West Papua to ensure that Papuan dissent is crushed decisively. The internet has been shut down in many parts of the region to make it more difficult for Papuans to inform the world about the actions of security forces.
Sadly, dozens of Papuans, including schoolchildren and even toddlers, have been killed during the demonstrations throughout August and September. Some of these conflicts have descended into turmoil, with public buildings being set alight. Alongside Indonesian police and soldiers, growing bands of militia threaten and abuse Papuans during the demonstrations. In major cities such as Jayapura, security forces are stationed on the streets every 50 metres. Indonesian migrants freely roam the streets, brandishing machetes and other weapons. They confront Papuans, telling them that they should migrate to other countries in the Pacific if they do not want to be part of the unitary Republic of Indonesia.
Dozens of Papuans have been rounded up by police and detained. Reports suggest that they have been beaten with wooden and metal rods, burnt with cigarettes and stomped on while in custody. Many have been charged with vandalism offences allegedly committed during the violent demonstrations. Authorities have claimed without any evidence or justification that Papuan activist leaders inside and outside the country have ‘masterminded’ the protests, the violence and the property damage. Key leaders of the freedom movement are in hiding, but some have been captured and face charges of treason. On 4 October seven of them, including Buchtar Tabuni from the ULMWP and Agus Kosai and Stephen Itlay from the West Papua National Committee, were flown out of West Papua to East Kalimantan, where they will be tried.
In the Central Highlands city of Wamena at least thirty people were killed in violence that erupted during one of the demonstrations. This resulted in many Indonesian migrants evacuating the city, and security forces and militia blockading all roads into and out of the city and controlling departures at the local airport. Many Papuans in that city are fearful of what will happen. Rumours have spread that Indonesian extremists are using new laws to form militia groups to defend the integrity of the Indonesian republic and to threaten and attack Papuans who seek independence.
Papuan church leaders have issued several statements condemning the violence of the security forces and calling for the extra troops to be removed from West Papua. They also suggest that there is evidence that the security forces have worked with the militia to light the fires, damage property, and cause more violence and mayhem. The church leaders have called on the president of Indonesia to sit down and engage in dialogue with the political leaders of the Papuan people, the ULMWP and other major groups in West Papua. In a surprising development, President Widodo is reported to have said that he is now willing to meet with Papuan leaders, including representatives of the ULMWP. However, experience suggests that such presidential peace offers do not result in any concrete action.
The situation is tense. Papuans are gripped by fear and are pleading for help from Australia and other countries. Yet, in the face of this prolonged and significant violence, the response by the Australian government and others across the world has been very limited. The Republic of Vanuatu is leading efforts to instigate a strong response from the UN and the international community. Vanuatuan and Papuan leaders have reminded the Indonesian government that it promised the former high commissioner for human rights that his representatives could visit West Papua to investigate the human rights situation freely. President Widodo made that commitment in February 2018, but the UN is still waiting to be allowed into the troubled territory. Human rights defenders and journalists have found it very difficult to enter West Papua and to investigate the situation there freely. Indeed, when the current conflict erupted, military authorities announced that foreigners would not be permitted to go to West Papua.
Those of us who have travelled to West Papua and spoken to many Papuans in all walks of life are not surprised by the current developments. The basic elements of the conflict in West Papua have remained constant. Papuans do not want to be part of Indonesia. The Indonesian government persists in using a repressive and brutal military and police strategy to try to quell Papuan resistance, but Papuans are amazingly resilient in the face of sometimes immense brutality—as occurred in the Central Highlands in the late 1970s, in Biak in July 1998 and in Paniai on 8 December 2014. The arming and training of militia to back up the repressive presence of security forces has heightened Papuans’ feeling that they are under siege. Papuan resentment is fuelled by a deep-seated racism evident in the attitudes, behaviour and actions of many of Indonesia’s security forces and those of Indonesian migrants. As more and more Indonesians migrate to West Papua, Papuans are losing their traditional lands and control of their economic resources. They see their traditional cultures and languages being marginalised. They see the unrelenting march of Indonesian nationalism in their land rapidly wiping out their identity as Papuans.
A young Papuan filmmaker recently sent me a photo he had taken during one of the recent demonstrations. It is of a Papuan with a placard in Indonesian that translates as: ‘We Are Not Monkeys!’ After decades of being told by many Indonesians that they are inferior and uncivilised, after years of being called monkeys and having Indonesians hold their noses in their presence, after being repeatedly humiliated by many forms of discrimination by Indonesians, Papuans are saying loudly and clearly that they have had enough, not only of this treatment but of Indonesian occupation of their land.
The current period of conflict is seen by many Papuans as a critical moment in the history of their struggle. The growing aggression and arrogance of Indonesian security forces and militia means that they face the prospect of annihilation as individuals and, more importantly, as the First Peoples of the land of Papua. The stakes are now high and many are prepared to risk all to take on the armed might of Indonesia, not with weapons but with a commitment to an idea—an idea that has stubbornly resisted Indonesian efforts over the past fifty-seven years to stamp it out. The idea is that Papuans have an inalienable right to live in freedom in their land of West Papua. Their courage and commitment is remarkable. May this idea continue to shine brightly in their hearts like the morning star that is the symbol of their struggle for freedom. As Papuans defiantly proclaim, I say Papua Merdeka! Free Papua!