Robbie Sutton – West Papua has been in an ongoing violent separatist struggle for more than 50 years. The Red Line's Robbie Sutton explores the history of this often overlooked conflict and why the international community has remained unwilling to get involved over the decades.
The conflict in West Papua is perhaps one of the world's least noticed. Ongoing since the 1960s, it has been shielded from geopolitical attention thanks to its low intensity and remote location. Even next door in Australia, few are aware of what has been happening on the continent's closest neighbouring island. Under the surface however, the last few years have seen growing civil unrest and militant activity, while Indonesia has responded with an escalating military and police crackdown across the region. While the recent abduction of a New Zealand pilot by rebels has brought this obscure and self-contained conflict into the news cycle, it is doubtful it will remain there long.
The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society noted in its research that as of 2016, an estimated 100,000 people have been directly killed since the beginning of the takeover of the region in 1963. Deaths in this conflict have been overwhelmingly civilians, and at the hands of the Indonesian military in pursuit of Indonesian security and economic goals. Exact details are hard to come by, as journalistic access to the region remains extremely limited, despite formal restrictions having been theoretically lifted.
Killings have been carried out not only through group massacres but through the use of more casual violence by security forces towards individual activists. According to research by Amnesty International, security forces have been empowered by the state to act with virtual impunity, enabling the use of excessive and lethal violence in pursuit of enforcing 'social order.' This frequently manifests in indiscriminate reprisals to militant actions and even in response to non-violent acts such as flag raising. Despite promises and on-paper regulations made by the Indonesian government to improve the behaviour of security forces, little real action has been taken, and abuses continue to increase.
A 2013 article published by Jim Elmslie and Camelia Webb-Gannon in the Griffith Journal of Law and Human Dignity concurs with the argument put forth by West Papuans that the actions of the Indonesian armed forces constitute a "slow motion genocide", one which the major regional powers are duty-bound to investigate seriously, but which neglect in favour of maintaining beneficial economic and security ties with Indonesia. They argue that this allegation is upheld by the persistent impunity for human rights abuses committed by state forces and vigilantes in the name of national stability and territorial integrity (the suppression or elimination of the Papuan nation in the political sense), along with the policies of displacement/resettlement and the systemic destruction of traditional life. All this is taking place within a country which just last year hosted the G20 Summit, during which, Indonesian police were dispersing human rights protestors.
The Act of No Choice
Although formally speaking "West Papua" is the title of just one of six provinces of Indonesia established on the island, this article will, for ease of understanding, refer to the entire western half (the Indonesian half and associated islands) of Papua as "West Papua", given the conflict's geographic spread.
The post-colonial government which emerged in Jakarta following the Second World War claimed West Papua as part of a broader policy of extending control over all of the Dutch East Indies (even seeking to absorb British-controlled territories in Northern Borneo). The Dutch attempted to retain the West Papua region under their control, justifying this through the ethnic and linguistic distinctions between the Melanesian Papuans and the core Indonesian populations of the Greater and Lesser Sunda Islands.
By 1957, the dispute had escalated into an undeclared military conflict, persisting until 1962, until an agreement was reached between the USA, Indonesia and the Netherlands. The New York Agreement moved the region first to UN administration before a scheduled referendum on West Papua's ultimate status. American interest in the region had been sparked by the pro-Soviet turn of Indonesian President Sukarno, and the growing domestic influence of the Communist Party of Indonesia. In May 1963, control of West Papua was passed to Indonesia, who began to actively suppress local political parties and activity. Papuan resistance began almost immediately. The "Free Papua Movement" ('Organisasi Papua Merdeka' [OPM] or 'Fre Wes Papua Grup'), which has been the main armed separatist force since that time, emerged from this initial wave of Papuan resistance to Indonesia during the late 1960s and early 70s].
It was in this environment that the referendum was supposed to take place. Although the New York Agreement stipulated a full suffrage vote, nothing of the sort took place. Instead, within an environment of military occupation Indonesian authorities handpicked a group of just over a thousand men as voters. With the result of the "vote" being unanimous, the whole affair has been continuously condemned by West Papuans as the "act of no choice", involving such a tiny proportion of the Papuan people, and undertaken in defiance of both the original terms of the 1962 Agreement and established international legal convention. Allegations that the voters were directly coerced are corroborated by contemporary diplomatic cables, in which US officials acknowledged the Indonesians would be unable to win a free vote, while abandoning the issue as a 'forgone conclusion'.
Following this 'legitimisation' of its takeover, Indonesia has pursued an outright colonialist project in West Papua. Combining the deployment of significant military forces to occupy and police the territory (which has been accompanied by reports of large-scale civilian deaths, as noted by Human Rights Watch) alongside the displacement of indigenous Papuans from resource-rich areas and their replacement by so-called "transmigrants", mostly poor families from other Indonesia regions seeking opportunity.
Geopolitically, the West Papuans had no chance. When considering the power-bloc politics of the Cold War, no established power saw any benefit in West Papuan independence. Indonesia had received Soviet support in its struggle against the Dutch in the 50s, and also successfully courted the USA (being 'flipped' outright via the 1965 coup) the following decade. Despite the winds of 'decolonisation' blowing strongly at the United Nations during this period, Indonesia's position as founder and de facto head of the "Non-Aligned Movement" meant that otherwise sympathetic post-colonial nations in Africa and Asia were unwilling to interfere in an "internal" matter. As such, the UN General Assembly did little more than rubber stamp the Indonesian takeover.
Though the matter may be settled, as far as world politics is concerned, West Papua's struggle continues into the present day, and has been slowly escalating over the past decade. As of 2022, Human Rights Monitor estimated that at least 60,000 people continue to live as Internally Displaced Persons in the region, without effective aid from the government. Indonesia has justified its rule through a developmentalist framework, arguing that West Papua's 'backwardness' makes it necessarily dependent, and that only continued Indonesian control can bring the region out of its historically endemic poverty. To this end, it has also been reforming its administration, steadily subdividing the region into further provinces (with three created in 2022 alone). This has been heavily criticised by Papuans, as there was effectively no local input into these decisions.
The OPM continues to oversee a loose coalition of rebels (principally the "West Papuan National Liberation Army (TPNPB)", although other formations seemingly exist) engaged in a low-level insurgency against the Indonesian government. According to researcher Deka Anwar, writing for the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, TPNBP operations have, over the last five years, undergone a "qualitative shift in tactics", escalating from their previously sporadic and opportunistic stance. This new, more confrontational posture has been facilitated through a growing access to modern small arms and the emergence of a new generation of leaders amongst the organisation's ranks. This escalation includes increasingly bold raids on military and police forces, but also attacks on 'transmigrant' workers and Papuan civilians they suspect of spying for the government. High-profile examples of OPM action include the assassination of the Indonesian regional intelligence chief in April 2021, and the kidnapping of New Zealand pilot Phil Mehrtens in December 2022. Mehrtens was taken hostage by a TPNBP element led by Egianus Kogoya, who has emerged as one of the most active separatist militants of the past five years.
Another organisation, the Vanuatu based "United Liberation Movement for West Papua", led by Benny Wenda, acts on the political and diplomatic fronts, seeking to represent West Papua within the 'Melanesian Spearhead group' (a regional economic forum comprising PNG, the Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji). They have also been seeking international support for a true referendum on independence, presenting to the UN Committee on Decolonisation a petition calling for a free vote, signed by 1.8 million West Papuans (some 70 per cent of their population, despite the petition being declared illegal by Indonesia) in 2017. In 2020 they formed a united "government-in-exile," although this has been disputed by other figures and groups within the overall movement.
Combined and uneven development
Why would Indonesia go to all the trouble of annexing and then maintaining its control over these provinces in the face of such persistent opposition? Simply put, for its immense economic wealth and potential. The region is the site of several important mineral deposits, as well as abundant forestry and agricultural lands. It is to this end that the Indonesian state has been engaged in its policy of outright imperialism and colonisation, one that is closely bound up in global dynamics of geopolitics and capitalist development.
The focus point of this is the Grasberg gold and copper mine, considered the largest in the world. Discovered by Dutch explorers during the 1930s, it has historically been operated by 'PT Freeport Indonesia', a joint-venture predominantly controlled by the American Freeport-McMoRan company in conjunction with the Indonesian government. Freeport, a firm well-connected to the US government (and whose board membership has included such luminaries as Henry Kissinger) has been involved with the site as far back as 1962, prior to Indonesia's formal takeover of the region, and was negotiating with General Suharto even before the coup d'etat and associated anti-communist massacres which brought him to power.
As part of the deal made with the United States, Freeport was given considerable rights over the site, including the ability to "resettle" indigenous Papuans and claim to the lands and resources they relied upon. Today the 'Grasberg Minerals District' comprises a massive open pit mine, as well as a growing system of underground mines, and has produced some "33 billion pounds of copper and 53 million ounces of gold" over the last 30 years according to Freeport itself. The site is also increasingly producing silver. In pursuit of this veritable bounty Freeport has allowed the dumping of toxic waste (tailings) from the mines, which has devastated local communities by destroying water access and hunting grounds.
The role played by the Freeport company in the region goes beyond simply operating the mine itself. In 2011 The Atlantic reported that Freeport was providing "in kind services" to Indonesian military forces deployed in the area, specifically by funding and maintaining military infrastructure and facilities. This was to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, not only to help fund operations, but also as direct payments made to Police and Military officers. In return, state violence is not only exercised against the Papuan population, but also against organised labour.
While the Grasberg Mine is perhaps the most infamous single example of the economic colonisation of West Papua, it is by no means the full story. Indonesia has also been investing heavily in timber processing (for the production of products such as plywood), and growing investment by this sector into West Papua is being driven by both government encouragement and the need to move away from the increasingly denuded forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan. This growing activity is coming at no small cost to the West Papuan environment, and by extension the indigenous populace. The principal actors are mostly Indonesian firms, but there are also Australian and Japanese companies active there.
A report produced by Indonesian environmentalist NGO JATAM, entitled "Political Economy of Military Deployment in Papua", argues that the Indonesian government and armed forces, acting in conjunction with mining interests, have excluded traditional landowners from any effective participation in the affairs of the region. Major businesses are linked to the state not only through official channels but through the employment and shareholding of former security and military personnel. The securitisation and enforcement of corporate resource extraction concessions has in many districts served to isolate and displace local communities from their traditional hunting and agricultural lands, in order to ease investment, exploration and exploitation of the conceded territory. The growing military presence is also contributing to the surge in insurgent activity, the consequences of which are falling principally on civilians.
As Indonesia has grown and developed over the decades its political and economic classes have naturally become more self-assured and active in pursuit of their own systemic interests, particularly after the fall of the dictatorship. This has led to an evolution in the relationship between Indonesian and foreign business interests, especially through the framework of Indonesia's state-owned enterprises. Indonesia has used SOEs as a cornerstone of its development strategies for decades, and they play an important role in sectors such as infrastructure, defence and resource extraction. One example of this is Indonesia's policy since 2012 of mandating at least majority ownership over all natural resource extraction ventures, consolidating these shares under the state-owned MIND ID holding company.
As part of this, legislation was passed in 2018 to acquire a 51 per cent majority in PT Freeport Indonesia, largely buying out junior partners in the Grasberg site like Rio Tinto, who netted a cool $4.7 Billion in exchange.
For West Papua though, this has meant little. The efforts by Indonesian business and the state to consolidate assets and capital for itself (or 'the nation') at the expense of foreign owners has been in service of shifting into a semi-peripheral (or one day even core) position in the global economy. Such nationalist reforms are popular electorally with Indonesia's emerging middle classes, but for those who themselves exist as an internal periphery to exploited, they aren't much more than window dressing upon a material dynamic of displacement and neglect. Regardless of who exactly derives profit from the mines, as long as dynamic remains in place, West Papuans will continue to suffer as long as they lack meaningful democratic control in their own lands.
Don't mention the war
Internationally however, the West Papua situation has meant little for Indonesia's overall standing and relationships. As things stand, the biggest international supporters of West Papuan self-determination have been Vanuatu and Fiji, who have either publicly condemned Indonesia's actions or backed their admission to regional organisations. Even if the ULMWP is successful in its bid to become a full albeit non-state member of the MSG however, Indonesia is also affiliated with the Group, as well as being a major trading partner and so the MSG will by necessity have to balance this relationship.
Papua New Guinea, more than any other, are required to walk this diplomatic tightrope, holding both major land border with Indonesia and a closely related populace to West Papua's. While Port Moresby has sought to maintain a good relationship with Jakarta, local officials and some citizens (especially those from near the border) have frequently expressed public disapproval of Indonesia's oppressive conduct, or even a willingness to join the fight. PNG also has its own issues with separatism, namely Bougainville, and likely has no wish to exacerbate that dispute any further.The major power in the region, Australia, has shown little sign of outward concern over West Papua. Despite an ofttimes stormy relationship between Australia and Indonesia, swinging between periods of cooperation and suspicion, Indonesia has become one its most important trading partners. From the Australian Government's perspective, the West Papua issue has been effectively settled by the 2006 Lombok Treaty, in which both nations pledged not to support any measure which would impair the "stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity" of the other. Not only passively acquiescing to a situation beyond their control, Australia has provided training to Indonesian counter-terrorist units such as the notorious Detachment 88, who have been deployed in the West Papuan region since at least 2010.
Much as in regards to the 1975-1999 occupation of Timor Leste (itself a situation marked by near-genocidal violence), Australia has prioritised a productive economic and military relationship with Indonesia over the self-determination of small nations on their periphery, regardless of its knowledge of atrocities. This has even been the subject of comedy television (see, The Hollowmen, 2008). Anglo-Australian mining firm Rio Tinto was a major shareholder in the Grasberg operation from 1995 to 2018, further incentivising support for the status quo. Transnational terrorist and jihadist networks such as Islamic State and Jemaah Islamiyah have been and remain of far greater interest to Australia than the situation in West Papua, hence the ongoing cooperation. Indeed, negotiations are currently ongoing to strengthen security ties, courting Indonesian cooperation in the context of deepening tensions with China, as well as to allay concerns over the AUKUS pact and associated arms programs, so any support for West Papuan independence is unlikely to be forthcoming.
As yet, the West Papua question has not been dragged into the emerging great power competition in the Indo-Pacific. Most likely, neither the US nor China will seek to use the matter to its own advantage. The USA's own role in establishing the current status quo suggests that they would not consider any revisionist policy to be in their interest, certainly not at the cost of the inevitable collapse in relations with Indonesia that would result.
Although not actively confronting them, Indonesia's own maritime disputes with China make it a potential ally to be courted, further reducing the likelihood of the US taking any interest in West Papua's fate. China is itself unlikely to actively lend support to a nationalist/separatist movement, given its own troubles with such elements, though if their relations with Indonesia were to collapse it might become a diplomatic pressure point. For now, the West Papuan's will be reliant on the other Melanesian states in the region, but their limited influence will naturally only be able to take them so far. Indonesia itself seems determined to avoid any alteration to the current distribution of territory, preferring to deal with resistance principally through state force.
In conclusion, the situation in West Papua is unlikely to change significantly in the near future. While rebel forces have been able to expand their access to modern small arms and in-turn escalate their operations, it has not been to the point where they can seriously threaten Indonesia's control, merely to increase the death toll. The civic arm of the movement, although likewise seeking to expand its protest activity and diplomatic contact with regional state actors, also remains incapable of overcoming state repression or the ongoing settler-colonisation process. As long as regional actors remain unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo, then the "slow-motion genocide" will roll on.