West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, bordering the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. It lies just 200km north of Australia. The land comprises a large mountainous interior, forest lowlands, large areas of coastal mangrove swamps and is surrounded by numerous small islands and coral reefs.West Papua is home to over 250 diverse tribes, all speaking their own unique languages with unique cultures. West Papua was originally populated by Melanesian people some tens of thousands of years ago. The majority of the indigenous population still live traditional subsistence lifestyles.
The region has been under Indonesian military occupation since 1962 and is administered as two provinces: Papua and West Papua.In an attempt to control the Papuans, and to claim the land to make way for resource extraction, the Indonesian army has systematically murdered, raped and tortured people. Human rights groups estimate that over 500,000 civilians have been killed.
A bit of history
After little contact with the Western world, West Papua was formally colonised by the Netherlands in 1898. The islands that now make up Indonesia were also colonised by the Dutch but when the Republic of Indonesia became an independent nation state in 1949, West Papua did not join the country. The Dutch government recognised that West Papua was geographically, ethnically and culturally very different to Indonesia and so the Dutch government began preparing West Papua for its own independence throughout the 1950s. At the end of 1961, West Papua held a Congress at which its people declared independence, and raised their new flag – the Morning Star,
Within months the Indonesian military invaded West Papua. Conflict broke out between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the indigenous population regarding control of the country. The US intervened and engineered an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, which in 1962 gave control of West Papua to the United Nations and one year later transferred control to Indonesia. The Papuans were never consulted. However, the agreement did promise them their right to self determination – a right which is guaranteed by the UN to everyone on Earth.
Act of No Choice
It was agreed that the UN should oversee a plebiscite of the people of West Papua, in which they would be given two choices: to remain part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation once again. Held in 1969, this vote was to be called the ‘Act of Free Choice.’
In the seven years since it had occupied the country, the Indonesian military had killed and imprisoned thousands of Papuans – yet it was under these conditions that the people were supposed to exercise their right to self determination. Declaring that the Papuans were too ‘primitive’ to cope with democracy, the Indonesian military handpicked 1,026 ‘representative’ Papuans – out of a population of one million – threatened to kill them and their families if they voted the wrong way, and then told them to choose. The result was ‘unanimous’: West Papua would remain part of Indonesia. Despite protests from the Papuans, a critical report by a UN official and condemnation of the vote in the international media, the UN sanctioned the result and West Papua has remained under control of the Indonesian state ever since.
The people and land under attack
Since the first days of Indonesian occupation, the people and land of West Papua have been under relentless attack. In order to maintain control over the Papuans, and to claim the land to make way for resource extraction, the Indonesian army has systematically murdered, raped and tortured people in numbers that could constitute a genocide. One of the worst examples of this is the displacement and killing of thousands of people to make way for the giant American- and British-owned Freeport mine, the largest gold mine in the world, which has reduced a sacred mountain to a crater and poisoned the local river system. Also, in a further attempt to dominate Papuan culture, around one million people from overcrowded shanty towns across Indonesia have been moved into ‘transmigration’ camps cut into the forests.
Resistance to Indonesian colonialism
Resistance to the Indonesian occupation started from the first days of occupation. An armed guerrila group called the OPM (‘Free Papua Movement’) was formed in 1970 to resist the colonisation of West Papua.
The OPM carried out a number of guerrilla attacks on the Indonesian military and on the holdings of multinational companies who had taken Papuan land and resources – including a successful attempt to close down the down the Freeport gold and copper mine. Armed mostly with bows and arrows, the small, ragged but determined OPM fought an almost unknown war against the well-armed, Western-backed Indonesian military for decades.
Following the fall of the Indonesian’s military dictator, General Suharto, in 1998, a political space briefly opened up in West Papua. The Morning Star flag was flown again and a huge public congress was held in 2000 with hundreds of delegates from tribes all across Papua. The Congress rejected the result of the 1969 Act of Free Choice and reaffirmed West Papua as an independent nation. It also gave power to the newly formed Papuan Presidium Council (PDP) to gain world recognition for West Papua’s independence. The OPM declared a ceasefire,and it was hoped that Indonesia would agree to peaceful talks with Papuan leaders about independence.
But these hopes were, yet again, in vain. Fearing ‘secession’, the army moved in, and hundreds of people were shot and arrested for public flag-raisings and independence rallies. Then, in November 2001, the charismatic president of the PDP Theys Eluay, was assassinated by Indonesian soldiers.
Life now in West Papua
Today, West Papua’s tragedy continues. The majority of Papuan people are united in calling peacefully for independence, and the Indonesian military and authorities continue their reign of terror.
Despite parts of West Papua being unknown to the outside world before the 1960s, the modern world is now arriving. Many Papuans now have access to mobile phones and the internet and are using this technology to coordinate their struggle for freedom and communicate with the rest of the world.