The Long Road to Freedom



West Papua is one of the world's least known conflicts – and a humanitarian crisis. The western part of New Guinea has ever been of interest to exterior powers, and Indonesia's claim of the mineral-rich region, home to hundreds of indigenous peoples, is backed up by Western powers. 

West Papua is muted. For months, widespread internet blackouts have hampered communication and independent reporters and human rights organizations have been denied access.

The western half of the island of New Guinea is home to one of the world’s least documented humanitarian crises. Ever since Indonesia annexed West Papua, an ex-Dutch colony, it has been met with armed separatist movements and social uprisings. Civilian demand for self-determination has been met by governments in Jakarta (both totalitarian and democratically elected) with brutality, repression, and even chemical warfare. 

In late April this year, the Indonesian government, led by President Joko Widodo, branded the West Papuan liberation army Organisasi Papua Merdeka (‘The Free Papua Movement’, OPM) a ‘terrorist organization’. This was swiftly used as a pretext to launch full-scale military operations in ‘hotspots’ in the central highlands, where lesser-equipped guerrilla units confront a Western-backed Indonesian army in a modern version of David versus Goliath.

The army’s sweeping raids over rural areas in Intan Jaya, Nduga and Puncak Jaya regencies have displaced thousands of people who now reside in poorly equipped refugee camps, beyond the reach of international humanitarian aid. Approximately 400 refugees have died during the latest chapter of violence, which erupted in late 2018.

Economic interests behind the conflict

‘Villages are emptied, and people have relocated to neighbouring regions for shelter from either churches or relatives,’ said Rode Wanimbo, co-ordinator of the women’s department for the Evangelical Church in Tanah Papua.

In West Papuan cities, student dormitories have been emptied and rampaged, local politicians and prominent civil independence activists have been arrested or been victims of harassment and intimidation. Klemens Tinal, Deputy Governor of Papua, died on 21 May and there are suspicions regarding Indonesian involvement.

‘Why have all these events happened? We feel that this is a strategy by the Indonesian government to enforce a renewal of the Special Autonomy law,’ says Markus Haluk, executive director of United Liberation Movement for West Papua, ULMWP.

The Special Autonomy law expired earlier this year. It was first implemented in the wake of long-time Indonesian ruler Suharto’s resignation in 1998, and Indonesia’s subsequent democratization. However, promises of a more autonomous, equal and prosperous West Papua remain unfulfilled. 

Freedom to colonize

West Papuan provisional President Benny Wenda recently raised Indonesia’s non-investigated human rights abuses at an event in the British parliament. The ULMWP has gained support for West Papuan independence from several members of the European Parliament and a host of political leaders in Melanesia. However, improvements regarding the human rights situation remain unlikely unless the international community becomes more involved.

‘US President Biden has stated human rights will determine his foreign policy, so I’m hopeful there is opportunity to get Washington interested in the plight of West Papuans,’ explains Matthew Wale, member of Solomon Island’s national parliament and leader of the opposition.

Australia, he adds, is ‘too intimidated by Indonesia, or at least doesn’t want to upset Indonesia, given its own security interests are tied to Indonesia’.

Therefore, according to Haluk, the Indonesian government has been allowed carte blanche to diminish ULMWP’s lobbying efforts in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific as it tries to seek global support for a referendum on self-determination.

‘It has a huge psychological effect on the West Papuan people,’ he says. ‘We’re all stigmatized as a terrorist people, and it’s reducing our will and courage to speak out.’ 

The situation, Haluk points out, isn’t merely an outstretched power struggle where Indonesia colonizes the western part of New Guinea against the will of its people – it’s also a quest for dominance over natural resources.

‘There are strong economic interests behind the conflict. In Intan Jaya, mining concessions have already been mapped out,’ says Haluk.

Golden opportunity

In 1804, Haiti’s historic independence was granted along with a staggering debt. Just as plantation owners and slave drivers in the West Indies saw their treasures taken away from them, so too might Western interests react to an independent West Papua, Wanimbo reminds. US mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which co-runs the Freeport Mine, one of the world’s leading source of gold and copper, remains one of Indonesia’s most important taxpayers.

In Intan Jaya, one of the conflict ‘hotspots’, the Wabu gold deposit is now considered a great ‘opportunity’ for the state-owned mining company PT Aneka Tambang to replenish its declining revenues – and a possible seed to eternal displacement by civilians, who now fear that their absence will open the door for PT Aneka Tambang to initiate its mining operations in the villagers’ former gardens and backyards, according to Wanimbo.

‘What’s happening in Intan Jaya and Ilaga today is the same as what the Indonesian state did to the Amungme people in the 1970s, when Freeport-McMoRan started its mining exploration,’ she says.

Then, as now, the global community was focused on events far away from the New Guinean heartland. Indonesia’s ongoing military operation in West Papua was launched in the media shade of the May 2021 bombardment of Gaza, and violence in Israel. President Widodo condemned Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians, while giving the nod to ‘wipe out’ rebels in West Papua, following a blood-soaked low-intensity period where Indonesian military and police cracked down against civilian manifestations and killed various religious leaders and youths. 

Shallow rhetoric

Jakarta’s hope that force, harassment and intimidation will quell the social uprising isn’t realistic, according to a study published in The Pacific Review. Indonesia’s foreign policy leans on shallow commitments to human rights principles rather than a genuine approach, write researchers Hipolitus Ringgi Wangge and Stephanie Lawson.

‘Its anti-colonial rhetoric, along with its claims to a Melanesian identity, also rings hollow, especially to those in the Pacific familiar with the plight of their fellow Melanesians in West Papua, and for whom Indonesia’s posture is an obvious sham,’ the authors conclude.

Violence has, on the other hand, been a daily experience for West Papuans ever since the 1960s. Then, Indonesia invited foreign investment to reap western New Guinea’s vast natural resources. According to Jakarta, Indonesia brings civilization and progress to its easternmost corner. The reality, however, is a local population devastated by poverty. 

‘To this day, indigenous Papuans continue to be described in Indonesian government and corporate rhetoric as primitive savages in need of development and capitalism,’ says Sophie Chao, an anthropologist researching the impacts of agribusiness on the peoples and environments of the Asia-Pacific and Melanesia.  

An oil palm bonanza ‘eats the land’ of indigenous peoples, ‘drying and greying their skins’. There’s hunger that swallows children due to malnutrition, and a form of hunger that kills independent cultures and unique ways of living. 

‘This hunger never goes away. It’s a new form of hunger, the hunger for money, for craving of Western food. A new form of cannibalism based on a planted need to sell land that belongs to nature and whole tribes,’ says Chao.

West Papuans also find themselves displaced in the tracks of transmigration and landgrabbing. Chao says that many have ‘surrendered other clans’ lands on their behalf without their consent’.

Chao’s work comes at a price. Her prolific writing documents a dying way of life in the very valleys where the Indonesian army currently poaches terrorist-labelled independence fighters. The situation is deteriorating, she says, having now herself been put on Indonesia’s ‘blacklist’ and denied a surat jalan, or official admittance to West Papua. 

She’s not alone. Independent reporters and human rights workers find themselves denied entry en masse. Until the global community, among them the UN Commissioner of human rights, is granted access to West Papua, its population remains victims of colonial perceptions, laments Sophie Chao.

No going back

Despite the bleak human rights situation – the eruption of systematic harassments of regional politicians, the crackdowns on free speech and the decline of foreign aid to an increasing number of internally displaced people from evacuated villages in the central highlands – Haluk remains optimistic, and can see an independent West Papua on the political horizon. 

‘Despite all that’s going on now, my hope is that we’ll be free in five years,’ he says.

Indonesia’s authority and claim to West Papua leans on the farcical ‘Act of Free Choice’ referendum in 1969, in which merely 1,025 men and women selected by Indonesian military forces, and out of fear of military reprisals, unanimously voted in favour of integrating West New Guinea as a province within the Indonesian Republic. 

Ever since that day, when the UN allowed Indonesia to colonize one of the most resource-rich corners of the planet, numerous West Papuan citizens have wished for nothing else other than a proper chance to cast their votes in favour of or against self-determination in a free and fair referendum. 

But that day, pledges Markus Haluk, will come. ‘We’ve already entered the path. The road to freedom lies ahead’, he says. ‘There’s no going back now.’

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The article first appeared in Southeast Asia Globe.