Indonesia unmoved by West Papua independence struggle

Indonesia has exercised sovereignty over West Papua since a disputed 1969 UN-backed referendum. President Joko Widodo’s position is supported by neighbouring Australia (Image Source: DFAT, Timothy Tobing)

In the Indonesian province of West Papua, a movement for independence has existed since the early 1960s. Located at the country’s easternmost point, West Papua came under Indonesian control in a disputed UN-backed referendum in 1969, sparking an independence struggle which has taken place far from the gaze of the outside world.

Over the past five decades this seemingly intractable conflict – and its competing narratives – have been largely forgotten by those outside the region. In recent years however, the dispute has gained greater international attention as a result of more organized efforts on the part of independence activists, alongside a growing network of concerned politicians around the globe.

Yet despite this upturn in media coverage, civil society action and political manoeuvring, the call for a new referendum on West Papua’s future remains unlikely to be granted.

The origins of the dispute date back to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial control. Indonesia became an independent state in 1949, yet West Papua remained under Dutch control throughout the 1950s. As calls for West Papua’s own independence grew throughout the decade, leaders in the area held a Congress in 1961 and for the first time raised their own flag – known as the ‘Morning Star’.

Conflict over the territory soon broke-out between Indonesia, West Papua and the Dutch colonisers, until a UN-sponsored treaty – known as the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement initially gave control of West Papua to the United Nations, before transferring control to Indonesia with the promise that a referendum would be held on the future of the territory.

When the ballot – known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’ – was finally held in 1969, it did not resemble a referendum as had been promised by the UN. The Indonesian military selected just over one-thousand West Papuan leaders to vote on behalf of the entire population. All of those eligible to take part voted in favour of the territory being incorporated into Indonesia – yet reportedly did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence.

In a much-criticized move, the decision was later authorized by the UN, and West Papua was officially incorporated into Indonesia. Local resentment against the decision was strong, with many labelling the referendum as an ‘Act of No Choice’. The perceived injustice following the referendum result gave rise to the independence movement which has spawned in the decades since, and this injustice remains a key motivating factor amongst those still seeking independence today.

West Papua is located in eastern Indonesia. It borders Papua New Guinea to the west, and is separated from northern Australia by the Arafura Sea (Image Source: US Library of Congress)

Resistance has taken several forms. An armed guerrilla group – called the OPM (Free Papua Movement) – was formed in 1970, and has carried out a number of attacks on Indonesian security forces and against multinational corporations operating in the area, particularly in the mining and resource sector. In recent decades, the independence movement has become more peaceful and political in nature, particularly since the fall of Indonesia’s former military dictator, General Suharto, in the late 1990s. In 2000, a public congress was held, and the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP) was formed in an attempt to gain recognition for the independence struggle; yet this project eventually failed after crackdowns by the Indonesian security forces and internal divisions within the group. More recently, several campaign groups have formed and have become better organized, holding demonstrations in the region and in other countries, to raise awareness of the situation.

Over the last five decades, information on the situation in West Papua has been difficult to obtain and verify, as foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations have largely been banned from the province. However, numerous human rights violations have reportedly been carried-out by the Indonesian security forces, including accusations of torture, murder, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. In addition, many people from other parts of Indonesia have been moved into the province, in what could be viewed as an attempt to lessen the influence of West Papuan culture.

The conflict long-ago reached a point of stalemate, with the dispute refusing to recede despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since the original referendum took place. There are multiple reasons why the dispute has become so intractable, not to mention the firmly-ingrained competing interpretations of the situation, which prevail on each side of the debate.

From the perspective of the West Papuan independence movement, the grievances felt in the 1960s have not subsided over time, and continue to drive the struggle today. First and foremost, the perceived historical injustice at the way the referendum was conducted remains strong. Other secondary factors have added to this feeling of injustice in the years since, including reports of human rights violations, cultural marginalization and economic disadvantages.

From the perspective of the Indonesian government, the territory was always rightfully obtained under a legal referendum, with the result sanctioned by the UN, thus resulting in legitimacy to govern and support from the international community. Many of Indonesia’s allies and closest neighbours – notably Australia – have long supported Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua. The province has come to occupy a central location in Indonesia’s national imagination, and is of huge economic importance due to its rich mineral resources. As a result, Indonesia has gone great lengths to secure control over the area, through maintaining a strong military presence and effectively closing the region off to international observers.

The campaign for West Papua’s independence has gathered pace in recent years, with an increasing number of demonstrations being held. (Image Source: Nichollas Harrison)

In recent years, Indonesia has been accused of carrying-out large-scale arrests of demonstrators and members of the independence movement, whilst the government has repeatedly urged other nations to respect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In this sense, the status-quo has undergone little change.

Yet last year, the independence campaign appeared to pick up pace, with a global conference on West Papua held in London in May 2016. Members of the ‘Free West Papua’ movement were in attendance, along with members of the ‘International Parliamentarians for West Papua’ (IPWP) group, including the current UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the meeting, prominent pro-independence leader Benny Wenda urged the UN to initiate and supervise a new vote for independence in West Papua, to make up for the perceived failings of the 1969 UN-backed vote.

The reinvigorated pro-independence campaign serves as evidence that despite Indonesia’s tight control of the province, and despite doubts over whether West Papua would be able to survive as an independent nation, calls for a new referendum are unlikely to subside. In fact, the independence movement appears to be more resilient and better-organized than at any time in recent history.

The involved parties are aware that persuading Indonesia to hold a new referendum is an unlikely prospect. Yet irrespective of the campaign’s long-term success or failure in terms of achieving an independence vote, it serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the human rights situation faced by civilians in West Papua.

Since being elected in 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has visited the region and shown greater interest in its development than his predecessors, raising hopes of an improved economic and human rights situation for the local population. If President Widodo is serious about his pledge to improve livelihoods and repair Indonesia’s damaged reputation in West Papua, then opening-up the region to foreign journalists and human rights organizations would be a positive first step.

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