West Papua, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Article contributed by Herman Wainggai


New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, sits on the Pacific Rim, a few degrees south of the equator and approximately 150km north of Australia. Originally connected to the mainland of Australia, for tens of thousands years this island was home to hundreds of groups of Melanesian and Austronesian peoples.

In 1885, the island and its people were divided by a partition agreement between the Dutch, English, and German colonial governments. This arbitrary and unilateral partition, dividing the island along the 1410 E degree of longitude into Papua New Guinea (in the east) and Indonesian-occupied West Papua (in the west), remains today.

Despite the Indonesian occupation, enforced by the military for over fifty years in what has been a no-go zone to the international community, the people of this forgotten land have been struggling for freedom from oppression. There has been a huge cost, however, and the indigenous people of West Papua, and particularly the freedom activists, have experienced countless and ongoing human rights violations such as imprisonment, torture, murder and rape.

To add insult to injury, their exceptional surroundings and abundant natural resources have been extracted rapaciously and irresponsibly by Indonesian and multinational corporations, with almost no benefit ensuing for Papuans in their standard of living, still the lowest in Indonesia. Many of the leaders who have been involved in peaceful campaigns for freedom for West Papua have either died in prison or now live in exile, where they continue to be involved in education and activism, encouraging the international community to participate in their people’s liberation. They have confidence that the moral and legal injustice of their country’s theft will be eventually overturned.

The New York Agreement

In 1962, the Kennedy administration devised the New York Agreement, signed between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United Nations, whereby a relatively benign Dutch-colonial administration was replaced by Indonesian governance. The Papuans themselves had no say in this decision, which satiated President Sukarno’s appetite for more land (416,000 square kilometers), pacified President Kennedy’s fear of communism and allowed American business interests to initiate the Freeport-McMoran gold and copper mine.

During this transition period from Dutch colonial administration to Indonesian administration there were approximately 700,000 indigenous West Papuans and around 300 tribes, speaking at least 250 languages. Under Indonesia since, the Papuan population has threatened to be overwhelmed by non-Papuans, mostly government sponsored internal transmigrants and free settlers. A demographic study in 2010 Slow motion genocide or not? showed the indigenous population at 48%, down from 96.09% in 1971, with an annual growth rate of only 1.84%, compared to a non-Papuan rate of 10.82%. A statistic that increases the motivation of the independence activists is the projection that by 2020, West Papuans will be “a small and rapidly dwindling minority”, the Melanesian proportion constituting, at most, 28% of the total population.

West Papua Under Indonesian Rule

From the beginning of the Indonesian soldiers marching in, the West Papuans endured a harsh and authoritarian rule under President Suharto. Large scale atrocities were carried out, particularly in the highlands where low level military resistance was being carried out. In the 1980’s arrests and incarceration of nonviolent political prisoners continued, where some leaders were sent to lengthy prison sentences of ten and twelve years. More recently, on October 19, 2011 over three hundred civilians were arrested at the conclusion of the Third West Papuan National Congress, including Edison Waromi and Forkorus Yaboisembut, appointed Prime Minister and President, respectively. Waromi and Yaboisembut are two of over fifty political prisoners in West Papuan gaols. Despite this re-run of suppression of their aspirations this will not deter Melanesians from nonviolent struggle until self-determination within a democratic framework is achieved, and recognition, respect and support from the international community is gained.

Although West Papua was granted the “Special Autonomy for the Province of Papua in the form of a Separate Government” in 2001, little has changed. Special Autonomy was touted to the international community as a “decentralization” program, but after a more than a decade since, levels of sickness, maternal deaths, poverty and education in Papua are still the worst in Indonesia. This is largely the result of embezzlement and corruption by Indonesian government officials. The Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency claims $US9m allocated for the development of public facilities —schools, health centres, bridges, hospitals, irrigation networks — has been embezzled. The elected representative body of Papuans rejected Special Autonomy in 2010. Various schemes have been put up since to try and ‘solve the Papuan problem’ and the current proposal for a Special Autonomy Plus has been met with scepticism and indifference by the Papuan people.

Foreign Exploitation

Indonesia’s colonization and military occupation of West Papua was achieved by, and still continues, thanks to the governments of the UK, Australia and the US, and it is facilitated by the the world’s largest copper and gold mine owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc., a US corporation.

In addition, for more than 50 years, some of the world’s largest transnational mining corporations have been exploiting West Papua’s oil and minerals, including: Union Oil; Amoco; Agip; Conoco; Phillips, Esso; Texaco; Mobil; Shell; Petromer Trend Exploration; Atlantic Richfield; Sun Oil and Freeport; Oppenheimer; Total SA ; Ingold; Marathon Oil; Bird’s Head Peninsula; Dominion Mining; Aneka Tambang; BHP; Cudgen RZ; and Rio Tinto (formerly RTZ-CRA).

The exploitation of natural resources by extractive industries has a history of resulting in catastrophic damage to human and environmental health and local ways of life. Mystifyingly, the mainstream global media has, with occasional exceptions, virtually ignored the military and corporate injustices are perpetrated upon the indigenous population of West Papua.

2011: A Surge of Self-Determination

West Papuans have resisted the Indonesian occupation since the 1960’s, but resistance and self-determination were taken to a new level when 5,000 academics, church leaders, and senior tribal leaders established the Federal Republic of West Papua (FRWP) on 19 October 2011. During a four-day congress, registered representatives and thousands who had not registered flocked to participate in the debates and processes. The organisation of an independent West Papuan political force was an integral and courageous step in a long and costly liberation struggle.

The Indonesian government responded predictably: Military and police, many in armoured vehicles, as well as snipers, hidden up in trees around the field, opened fire. Four students and two PETAPA (Guardians of the Land of Papua, a civil guard organisation) were assassinated. Participants, including the executives of the new state, were kicked and beaten with batons, bamboo sticks, and rifle butts; then tortured into leaping, like frogs, across the oval. 800 were arrested, 300 detained. Indonesian intelligence’s notorious interrogation techniques resulted in at least twelve fractured skulls. President Yaboisembut, Prime Minister Waromi, and three organizers of the congress, had committed treason under under Article 106 Article of the Indonesian Criminal Code , and incarcerated for three years (2012—2015).

Since then, more activists and journalists have been tortured, assassinated, or tortured and thrown into jails, where they are denied access to medical and legal services and rarely allowed to exercise or shower more than once-a-week. After the Sydney Morning Herald published its investigation They’re taking our children; West Papua’s youth removed to Islamic religious schools in Java for “re-education” (4 May 2013), President Yudhoyono offered to release all fifty Papuan political prisoners (rather than launch an enquiry into the stolen children). The offer of release has been rejected by the prisoners, including the now famous long-term detainee Filip Karma, yet the hopes for independence of the thirty political prisoners in Abepura Prison are not dashed. They have demanded instead that “the whole of Papua be released”.

Is there any significant reduction in the repression in West Papua?

I have been active in the independence movement since 1988, ten years before Indonesia’s so-called reformasi period, and haven’t seen any significant improvement in the Indonesia government’s approach to the political or the social problems in West Papua.

As a former political prisoner, from my observation, the systematic oppression, terror, intimidation, rape, kidnapping, incarceration, poisoning and murder of indigenous Melanesians in West Papua is no different to the situation I left in 2005.

There is a disconnect in Indonesian public disourse. Indonesia is looking for credibility and wants to be known as a responsible and democratic modern nation. Yet it is seemingly not embarrassed by its own shameful treatment of ethnic and religious minorities and the fact so many of its people have sought political asylum or are living as refugees around the world. Its leaders claim that there are no political prisoners in Indonesia but has so many people imprisoned in its own jails on political charges. These things reveal the truth about Indonesia, that in many respects, and particularly in West Papua, it is still a repressive military regime.

At the same time, the world is more transparent today than ever before. The systematic oppression of the indigenous peoples of West Papua can no longer be hidden from the world. International acceptance of basic human rights is at odds with the suppression of these rights by military and police on the Indonesian Government payroll.

The obvious question which must be asked : Why does Indonesia continue to send so many troops to West Papua on permanent mobilisation and occupation? The obvious answer is that it is to intimidate us and attack our freedom of speech, prevent us from assembling peacefully in what is the land of our ancestors, to express our identity and debate the domination of our peoples and the plunder of our natural resources.

Where, in the political landscape of West Papua, can we express our longing for justice and freedom from this bully-boy regime rooted in greed and power? In remembering the land of West Papua I am remembering my people are still suffering. West Papuan political life today is poisoned by grievances about human rights, about social and economic development, cultural survival and dignity. The police and the courts are dominated by the military under a permanent state of emergency and the “military operations area” designation of the whole of West Papua. University students engaging in – or even suspected of – political activity are still threatened by the unspeakable cruelty that can follow arrest.

I hope Indonesian reformers can succeed in bringing Indonesia into the modern age. Part of that reform will be the opening of West Papua to the outside world, especially to journalists and investigators of social and ecological injustice. The scales of justice need to be adjusted in Indonesia so the people of West Papua can be treated fairly after so many years of abuse at the hands of external rulers. The time is ripe for change in the long and tragic story of our beautiful island. We hope and plan for a cultural identity and fulfilment, a mosaic of egalitarian Melanesian peoples, striving in unity and peace for our children’s and grand children’s place in the West Papuan sun.


Report on Netherlands New Guinea for the year 1961, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dutch Government (http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/nngg/1961-report).

Jim Elmslie Demographic transition in West Papua and claims of genocide Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sydney University, 2008.

Jim Elmslie West Papuan Demographic transition and the 2010 Indonesian Census: ‘Slow motion genocide’ or not? CPACS Working Paper No. 11/1, University of Sydney 2010.

The other Melanesian states are Fiji, The Solomons, and Vanuatu. The Kanaky of Noumea are also Melanesian, and holding a referendum on independence from France this year. The peoples of Bougainville, Torres Strait, Timor, Maluku, and Flores are also Melanesian.

Corruption Hurts Nation’s Poorest The Jakarta Globe 24 June 2013 (http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/news/corruption-hurts-nations-poorest/)

Indonesia, Papua and the prisoners of history The Sunday Age, 23 October 2011; also Aljazeera (http://english.aljazeera.net/video/Indonesian forces raid Papuan independence gathering(; also West Papua Media (westpapuamedia.info/2011/11/11 more-brutal-footage-emerges-from-congress-crackdown/).

Radio New Zealand International, 28 May 2013 Papuan political prisoners reject Indonesian clemency offer

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