West Papua is still recovering from the last wave of violence that hit the region between August and early September, leaving several dead, buildings burned, dozens of activists arrested and again showing the discontent of the local population with the Indonesian central government.
The largely Melanesian Christian population of West Papua (comprising the Indonesian administrative divisions of Papua and West Papua) differs greatly from the Muslim-majority Indonesians, yet they have been under the control of Indonesia since the 1960’s when, in 1962, the country signed a deal with The Netherlands – the New York Agreement – placing then West New Guinea, a Dutch colony, under UN Temporary Executive Authority until a referendum calling for West Papuans to vote for their independence (or to join Indonesia) could be organised.
The Act of Free Choice stated that all adult West Papuans had the right to vote and decide the destiny of their country, yet in 1967 Indonesia and the US signed a deal giving gold and copper mining company Freeport-McMoran a 30-year lease in the region. That deal sealed the fate of West Papuans who had been suffering from human rights violations since at least 1963, when it was annexed by Indonesia. Not that things could have been different, the New York Agreement was part of a US plan to steer Indonesia from the Soviet area of influence, so in a sense, the result was expected, even planned.
Australia, who had backed the West Papuan bid for independence soon changed its mind inside the Cold War logic of an external enemy to be defeated.
Two years later, in 1969, instead of all West Papuans, whose population at the time was estimated in around 800,000 people, a small number of men, just over a thousand tribal leaders, were handpicked to vote by the Indonesian military – voting unanimously in favour of a union with Indonesia.
The Act of No Choice, as it became known, is still contested by separatist leaders in the now Indonesian territory – even though the UN General Assembly through resolution 2504 (XXIV) recognised the result of the fraudulent referendum.
The recent wave of protests is yet another attempt from West Papuans to show their dissatisfaction with their situation. As well as the result of decades of human rights abuses that range from illegal arrests, extrajudicial killings and even lack of basic health care for children punctuated by internet blackouts and crackdown on freedom of speech.
West Papuan activists even consider the Indonesian repression of the region as genocide.
Protests for independence are commonplace in the region, yet this last wave of protests was different from previous ones as it drew the largest crowds ever seen to the streets, with public buildings being torched by angry protestors and, even more unusual, it also found support among Indonesians.
Not to mention that unlike previous protests often called by the many separatist groups in exile (that have also exerted control over local guerrilla groups), this particular wave seems to have erupted from within local West Papua civil society.
Journalist and activist Juke Carolina Rumuat explained at Global Voices Online that “[o]n 16 August 2019, around 15 soldiers reportedly barged into a student dormitory in Surabaya and accused Papuan students of disrespecting the Indonesian flag. The soldiers’ actions were reportedly triggered by a photo shared on WhatsApp by a youth civil organisation, of an Indonesian flag lying in a gutter ahead of the country’s independence celebrations on August 17. The soldiers allegedly hurled racist comments at the students, calling them ‘monkeys’. Around 42 students were taken to police headquarters the following day for questioning, but were released later in the afternoon.”
Papuans are frequently the targets of racism in Indonesia and the case has sparked outrage all over Indonesia, leading to a riot in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua province, spreading fast throughout the region – reaching even Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and other cities outside West Papua.
Along with racism, the action of Indonesian Islamist and nationalist groups against West Papuans with threats and intimidation has intensified, particularly following the unification of several separatist groups under one umbrella, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), in 2014 – that has recently urged the United Nations to act and prevent a greater bloodshed. Leaders of several Pacific Islands also urged the UN to step in.
Also, the number of settlers in the region grew exponentially since the 1969 referendum, with local Melanesians making up roughly half of the region’s population, increasing tensions.
At the beginning of September, with the sending of thousands of police and military officers to the region who, among other measures, opened fire on demonstrators killing between 6 and 8 people, the situation began to calm down – or at least the dissenting voices began to be hunted down and silenced with also the help of an internet blackout.
The tense peace achieved by force in West Papua will hardly last long in a region already accustomed to suffering human rights abuses and who remain firm in its goal for independence.