This month, New Naratif will be running longform articles from West Papua—a region currently occupied by Indonesia that has been largely overlooked and under-covered. But the history and political context of West Papua isn’t widely understood, so here’s an explainer to get you up to speed.
West Papua, Dutch New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, West Irian—I’ve heard a confusing array of names. What do they all refer to?
The entire island is called New Guinea, and is largely populated by Papuans, a diverse indigenous people with hundreds of languages and a history of settlement stretching back tens of thousands of years.
Papua New Guinea is the eastern half of New Guinea, and has been an independent state since 1975.
The western half of New Guinea is a territory under Indonesian occupation. Independence advocates and most Papuans refer to this territory as “West Papua” (a convention that New Naratif has followed in our articles), but a series of colonial names were imposed upon it throughout the 20th century, first under Dutch rule (Dutch New Guinea) and then under Indonesian occupation (West Irian, Irian Jaya and Irian Barat). You will also hear the region commonly referred to as Papua, or the “Land of Papua”.
Confusingly, in 2002 Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputi divided the region into two provinces: Papua and West Papua (Papua Barat). When Indonesian government officials say “West Papua”, they are referring to this specific province rather than the entire region.
Why should I be interested in what is happening in West Papua?
West Papua is the site of one of the world’s longest-running military occupations. Human rights abuses are rampant: torture is described in a 2015 study as a “mode of governance” by Indonesian security forces, and according to a 2004 report from Yale Law School, a “strong argument can be made” that the Indonesia state has carried “the requisite intent” to “constitute genocide”.
So dire is the situation that Geneva for Human Rights initiated an Early Warning Appeal in 2016 due to a “threat to the Papuan peoples’ existence and survival as a culture and ethnic entity”. Probably well over 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian state since the 1960s.
The Indonesian state’s abuses are not purely wanton or random. They exhibit a clear political logic: to quell the decades-long resistance of the Papuan population to Indonesian rule. Papuans consider themselves ethnically, linguistically and culturally distinct from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and overwhelmingly reject Indonesian rule. As a leaked 2007 U.S. Congressional Research Paper put it, “Many Papuans have a sense of identity that is different from the main […] identity of the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and many favour autonomy or independence from Indonesia”.
In such a situation, the contradiction between the indigenous Papuan population and the Indonesian state inevitably explodes into violence and struggle. From mass strikes at the Grasberg gold and copper mine to indigenous blockades against palm oil plantations (pemalangan actions); from Papuan women’s demonstrations in Jayapura to the small rural armed insurgency: Papuans have continually asserted their right to self-determination against overwhelming odds. Human rights abuses are a form of state repression, intended to beat the West Papuan population into acquiescence.
How did Indonesia take over the territory?
The regions now known as Indonesia and West Papua were once, on paper, a single administrative block under Dutch colonial rule: the Dutch East Indies. In 1949, the Netherlands conceded the foundation of a new Indonesian state following a four-year war of independence. Crucially, the Dutch refused to hand West Papua over to the newly-formed Indonesian state. This has been a bone of contention for many Indonesians ever since.
Increasing pressure by Indonesian security forces and an eventual US diplomatic intervention resulted in the Netherlands ceding control of West Papua to Indonesia in 1962-3, following a brief seven-month period of UN stewardship. The deal between the Netherlands and Indonesia, the New York Agreement––in which not a single Papuan participated––stipulated that, by 1969, Indonesia had to hold a self-determination referendum including “[t]he eligibility of all adults, male and female […] to be carried out in accordance with international practice”.
The 1969 vote—called “The Act of Free Choice” by Indonesia but dubbed “The Act of No Choice” by Papuans—was roundly criticised by onlookers at the time as a “foregone conclusion”. Reviewing the evidence, legal scholars uniformly consider it “a pseudo-choice, a charade and a substantive betrayal of the principle of self-determination”.
Just over 1,000 Papuans were hand-picked from a population of 800,000 and “either bribed, threatened or otherwise intimidated by the Indonesian military or other Indonesian officials”. Those who resisted, according to an internal British Foreign Office briefing at the time, were “often gaoled or sometimes shot as ‘subversive suspects’”. Indonesia has ruled West Papua ever since, in the face of fierce indigenous resistance.
What is the position of Western powers and the UN?
Western powers have backed the Indonesian occupation to the hilt. In the run-up to the 1969 Act of Free Choice, the West knew the “savage” reality of Indonesian rule and that Papuans were “overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Indonesia” but it was—to quote internal British documents from the time—“in the general interest to turn a blind eye”. “The freedom of a mere 800,000 people”, as one British official stated, ‘is […] scarcely the point.”
Since then, Western governments have given Indonesia moral, diplomatic and military support for its rule in Papua. A coalition of states, led by Australia and Britain, fund and train Densus 88, the Indonesian counter-terrorism police unit deployed in West Papua, at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation.
The key factor in such strident Western support for Indonesian rule can be found in the 1965-67 period. Overthrowing President Sukarno, a pro-Western faction of the Indonesian military wiped out the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), butchering hundreds of thousands with the full support of the West. Gleefully described as “the West’s best news for years in Asia” by Time magazine, British officials suggested that, “[t]he Generals are going to need all the help they can get”.
Once General Suharto was in power, he rapidly opened up the vast archipelago—including occupied West Papua—to huge levels of Western investment. Protecting international capital’s right to exploit, it seems, was of far more importance to Western policy-makers than massacres or “a mere 800,000” subjugated Papuans.
What can I do? Is the situation hopeless?
The Papuan independence movement has been unified since 2014 for the first time since the Indonesian occupation commenced. Under the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the self-determination movement is reaching heights unimagined only five years ago.
In 1999, a life-and-death struggle on the ground combined with substantial international solidarity worked to end the 25-year Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste. The same could happen to West Papua—but it will require work and dedication.