Douglas Gerrard –- A recent military escalation in West Papua is the latest episode in a long history of repression and dispossession since the island came under Indonesian control. But the authorities in Jakarta still haven't been able to stabilize their rule over West Papua.
On September 15, an Indonesian military unit killed five teenage West Papuans in the highlands regency of Yahukimo. The provincial police chief quickly described the victims, aged between fifteen and eighteen, as members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), West Papua's predominant armed resistance movement – an allegation that local church leaders and the TPNPB itself immediately denied.
This rhetorical back-and-forth is common in the aftermath of Indonesian military violence. When the authorities do not smear victims directly as "Kelompok Kriminal Bersenjata" – "armed criminal group," Indonesia's euphemism for Papuan resistance – they routinely spin civilian deaths as the unfortunate side-effect of clashes between the Indonesian military and the TPNPB.
Only days before the Yahukimo incident, another five Papuans were killed during a military sweep in the coastal regency of Fakfak. Atrocities are rarer in coastal areas, reflecting both the relative isolation of the mountainous interior and the intensity of the resistance therein. News of the Fakfak massacre was accompanied by a photo of two Papuan elders, stripped naked, with their heads bowed, surrounded by jeering soldiers.
Such images are a familiar feature of Indonesian rule. Most Papuans are acquainted with the famous "trophy" photo of the corpse of fighter Yustinus Murib, while in April, a picture emerged of two Papuans, bearing signs of torture, kneeling in the dirt while soldiers mockingly raised the Morning Star – West Papua's banned national flag – behind them.
Now entering its sixth decade under Indonesian occupation, West Papua has found itself in the grip of a significant military escalation. After the TPNPB kidnapped a New Zealand pilot named Phillip Mehrtens in February, the military declared a "combat alert," triggering a fresh deployment of troops and an intensification of the checkpoint regime across the highlands.
Mehrtens had been collecting a group of construction workers building a nearby health center when a TPNPB outfit led by Egianus Kogoya stormed his plane. West Papua has since seen a rare period of extended international coverage, with lurid, racialized stories casting Kogoya as a psychopath or terrorist.
Few mentioned that his father, also a guerilla fighter, had been killed during a similar hostage siege in 1996. Even fewer noticed that the highlands regency of Nduga, where the kidnapping occurred, has been the epicenter of the Papuan refugee crisis since 2018. Indonesian military operations have displaced over forty-five thousand people in that time – close to half of Nduga's entire population.
The rationale for attacking medical services in an isolated area may appear unclear. But for West Papuans, the health center, like the military post, is colonial infrastructure, serving soldiers and settlers, and supporting the ever-expanding archipelago of plantations and mines that scar the forest.
Nor had the kidnapping been wholly unexpected: the local TPNPB had previously warned against flying small aircraft into Nduga. Indonesia's refusal of international assistance to peacefully secure the release of Mehrtens through negotiations has set in motion a familiar dynamic, whereby violent resistance serves as a pretext for intensified militarization.
A slew of mass killings has resulted, including those in Yahukimo and Fakfak. Predictably, hardly any have attracted the attention of international media.
Understanding the distinctive role of the military in West Papua is key to grasping the unusual level of brutality with which it often operates. Though it works as the enforcement arm of the Ministry of Industry in West Papua, the military also retains a large degree of independence from Jakarta – a holdover from decades of military dictatorship. Only a third of its funding comes from the state; the rest arrives via the black market and through protection deals with foreign corporations like Freeport and BP.
Compounding this situation is Indonesia's consistent unwillingness to prosecute Indonesian soldiers, even for particularly heinous crimes. When human rights abuses do make it to court, the resulting proceedings often resemble show trials, with Indonesian judges presiding over Indonesian military law. It took eight years for "Bloody Paniai" – a 2014 massacre that killed four children and wounded seventeen others – to make it into court, with last year's trial ending in the sole defendant being acquitted on all charges.
A further condition for the current escalation lies in the outcome of the August summit of the subregional forum the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), which ended with MSG leaders declining to grant full membership to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), an umbrella organization of three of the most significant proindependence groupings. Decried by Papuans as the result of "chequebook diplomacy," this rejection – or at least postponement – of West Papuan representation has emboldened the sense of Indonesian impunity.
Full membership of the MSG has long been a goal of the liberation movement, with the ULMWP having sat as an observer member of the group since 2015. Diplomatically, it would represent a significant advance for a movement consistently hamstrung by the international legal sanction that Indonesia's occupation enjoys.
The new prime minister of Fiji, an important power in Pacific politics, had raised hopes by announcing that he would support the ULMWP bid, reversing a decade of diplomatic precedent in the process. However, the MSG works by consensus, meaning that all five of its members had to agree to admit the ULMWP as a full member – no easy task in a region of mostly small island nations dominated by Indonesia, who can rapidly distribute sweetheart trade deals and much-needed economic aid.
Reduced to a strategy, MSG full membership represents West Papua's route into the international community. But the symbolic dimension of the MSG drama is perhaps more important, reflecting how decades of occupation have accentuated the distinctive indigenous identity of West Papuans.
Assertions of Melanesian-ness have become a key discursive weapon in the liberation movement's anti-colonial armory: "Melanesian, not Indonesian!" is a popular chant at West Papuan protests, while activists often depict full MSG membership as a "homecoming," with Papuans seeking a return to their "Melanesian family." For its part, Indonesia has sought to shore up its rule by orienting itself toward Oceania, increasingly occupying the liminal psychogeography of the "Asia-Pacific."
Dutch colonization set the basic coordinates for this conflict in place by aligning West Papua with Muslim, rice-growing Indonesia, rather than their black Christian neighbors in Melanesia, where sago, taro, and sweet potato are the staple crops. However, Dutch rule was only nominal in large swathes of what was then termed Western New Guinea, with the primary interaction of many Papuans with outsiders coming instead through Christian missionaries.
As the Netherlands began slowly exiting the Indonesian archipelago in the 1940s and '50s, West Papuans made extensive preparations for their own independence, establishing an anthem, provisional government structures, and a national flag. But Indonesia laid claim to West Papua after gaining political independence from the Netherlands in 1949, aiming to unify all former Dutch territory. Ironically, Indonesian nationalism doomed the new republic to recapitulate old colonial dynamics, with resources flowing from the provinces to the Javanese metropole.
Framing invasion as liberation, Indonesia moved to seize West Papua while its founding father Sukarno was playing a leading role in the anti-imperial Non-Aligned Movement. By contrast, the Dutch cautiously favored West Papuan independence, partly as a means of retaining a measure of influence in Southeast Asia. This peculiar colonial history has affected the independence movement since its founding: colonized by the colonized, West Papuans have often ploughed a lonely furrow toward liberation, lacking the spontaneous recognition and alliances enjoyed by other revolutionary movements.
West Papua's formal incorporation into Indonesia was a product of Cold War power politics. The United States, worried that Dutch intransigence risked pushing Indonesia toward the Soviet Union, orchestrated the 1962 New York Agreement that transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. In typical colonial fashion, the agreement was signed by the United States, Indonesia, and the Netherlands, without a single Papuan present. Yet it contained a provision for West Papuan freedom, in the form of a requirement that Indonesia hold a free and fair vote on independence.
Indonesia knew that the sympathies of West Papuans lay overwhelmingly with the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement, or OPM), which had by that time flourished into an "all-pervasive revolutionary movement," in the words of a US State Department communique. It thus could not take any chances on self-determination. Accordingly, officials gathered 1,025 Papuan elders, thrust guns in their faces, and forced them to vote on behalf of a population of over eight hundred thousand. The resulting "referendum," which the UN dutifully ratified, remains Indonesia's sole international legal claim against West Papuan sovereignty.
Successive colonial orders have alternately imagined West Papua as an Edenic paradise or a site of untold savagery – "a few thousand miles of cannibal land," as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy put it in 1961. Colonizers unfavorably compared Melanesia to Polynesia, whose hereditary chiefdoms more closely resembled European polities. By contrast, the relatively egalitarian tribal structures of the Black Pacific continue to be seen as vestiges of an imaginary "stone age."
Repurposed colonial racism, rather than the emancipatory spirit of the Bandung Conference, characterized Indonesia's initial approach to the national aspirations of West Papuans. Indonesian rhetoric portrayed Papuans as primitive dupes of Dutch imperialism, with Jakarta's policy aiming to "get them down from the trees," as Sukarno's first foreign minister put it.
The policy of "Indonesianization" was taken up in increasingly brutal fashion after a CIA-backed coup installed General Suharto as leader in 1965-67. In the early 1970s, Indonesia launched Operation Koteka, named after the traditional Papuan penis gourd it aimed to forcibly eliminate. Other military operations launched at the time include Operation Wear Clothes and Operation Annihilation. Later in the 1970s, the military killed thousands of highlands Papuans in a brutal effort to eradicate indigenous culture.
Indonesian racism has given West Papuans an impressive vocabulary of resistance: the 2019 Papuan uprising, the most substantial proindependence mobilization in two decades, was triggered by the racist abuse of a group of Papuan students studying in Indonesia. Reclaiming the epithet hurled at the students, Papuans wore monkey masks as they demonstrated, staged sit-ins, and raised the Morning Star over burnt-out government buildings.
Anti-Papuan racism continues to license acts of rare savagery, including the killings at Yahukimo and Fakfak, as well as the massacre of ten Papuans in the highlands capital of Wamena this February. Following the Wamena massacre, Indonesian vice president Ma'ruf Amin urged the world to remember that "we are dealing with a population who are easily provoked."
Amin's predecessor, Jusuf Kalla, previously attributed West Papua's underdevelopment to the indigenous population's "high consumptive culture and low productivity." The influence of Western racial hierarchies in the presentation of Papuans as lazy and quick tempered is unmistakable. But far from being a mere vestige of European colonialism, we should understand anti-Papuan racism as an essential pillar of Indonesian rule – a kind of common sense-making that lends colloquial justification to Indonesia's claim on the land and treatment of its people.
Development as destruction
Today, the civilizing mission of formal colonialism has given way to a paternalistic focus on "development," presented by Jakarta as a way of elevating Papuans out of poverty. Current Indonesian president Joko Widodo, elected on a reforming platform in 2015, has prioritized control and connectivity in West Papua, overseeing new agribusiness projects and mines in the interior, while accelerating construction on the vast Trans-Papua Highway, which stretches across the entire territory.
However, as the common slippage between economic uplift and military control illustrates, "development" is a highly euphemistic concept. The real aim is to expand Indonesian and corporate access to the resource-rich land, while pacifying Papuan resistance and diluting the indigenous population through successive state settlement programs.
Like early Virginia plantations operated by English peasants, or the penal settlement of Aboriginal Australia, these World Bank – funded "transmigration" schemes use the internal victims of Indonesian capitalism – often poor and landless Javanese – to both cultivate and subdue the Papuan frontier. Transmigration has set a potential demographic time bomb for West Papuan national ambitions: having fallen to around half, the indigenous population is already a minority in many urban areas.
Completing the analogy with early English colonialism is the minimal role indigenous labor plays in West Papua's political economy. In urban areas and on industrial developments, transmigrants fill the large majority of jobs, whether at a menial or management level. Indigenous Papuans, the majority of whom practice subsistence farming, are effectively a surplus population.
As ULMWP leader Benny Wenda has put it, "Indonesia doesn't want the West Papuan people – they only want our resources." The essential logic is one of elimination, not exploitation. Understanding this helps explain various recurring themes of Indonesian occupation, including its vicious racism, the frequency of mass killings, and the prevalence of internal displacement.
When Papuans are evicted from their ancestral lands by a new plantation or mining concession, they are reduced to toiling in the grey economy, often panning for gold in the tailings of large mines or living off remittances offered by the corporations who have displaced them. Tens of thousands live peripatetic lives in the rainforest, prevented from returning to their villages by military patrols. Thousands more are in semipermanent refugee camps in neighboring Papua New Guinea.
As the connection between people and land is severed through perpetual scattering, transmigration, and the violent intrusion of the market into traditional life, so too is the particularity of West Papuan culture gradually lost. In her recent book about the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a huge megaplantation in southeastern West Papua, Sophie Chao describes how the destruction of the native sago forest has warped the customs and cosmology of the Marind tribe.
One striking segment of the book concerns the Marind notion of time, which is deeply bound up with the organic rhythms of forest life. For the Marind, the replacement of sago with oil palm, and the consequent "atemporality of the monocrop landscape," has meant that their notion of the future has been obliterated – time itself has "come to a stop."
Continuity of coercion
This process, which one scholar has described as an "ecologically induced genocide," is also devastating the West Papuan rainforest, 13 percent of which is predicted to disappear within fifteen years. While the Amazon takes center stage in campaigns around deforestation, the
Papuan rainforest already hosts more ambitious industrial projects: the world's largest gold mine; its largest single palm oil plantation; and an agribusiness scheme that would cover Bali twice over.
Central government plans envision West Papua as a "breadbasket" or "rice bowl." MIFEE launched with the promise to "feed Indonesia, then the world." Trading on familiar progressive arguments that pit Western environmentalism against Global South developmental ambitions, Widodo has railed against "discriminatory" EU deforestation regulations that would deprive Indonesia of a key market for West Papuan goods.
The current frenzy of development reflects West Papua's ongoing centrality to Indonesian growth – and the structural continuities between Suharto's New Order and the postdictatorship Reform Era. Indonesia's stuttering experiment with civilian rule has left intact many of the fundaments of its former government, including the independent power of its military, and its dependence on the continued plunder of its Papuan periphery. With Widodo ineligible to run in next year's election, Indonesia's first civilian president may yet be succeeded by General Prabowo Subianto, a veteran of the genocidal campaign in East Timor.
Foreign observers would likely read a Subianto triumph in 2024 as evidence of Indonesia backsliding on its hard-won democratic inheritance. But the failure of Indonesia – even democratic Indonesia – to obtain any level of subaltern consent for its rule in West Papua has already ensured its continued reliance on predemocratic methods: harassment, torture, military violence, and a brutal carceral regime. From Suharto to Sukarno to Widodo, little has changed on the ground.
Similarly, various efforts to cultivate a Papuan elite loyal to Jakarta have failed – as recently demonstrated by the destruction of Lukas Enembe, the indigenous governor of Papua Province. Despite a lifetime's work within Indonesian institutions, Enembe's modest reformism on behalf of his Papuan constituents saw him fall afoul of local state officials, and eventually the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which in September 2022 snared him in a bribery case that resulted in an eight-year prison sentence.
An all-pervasive movement
Enembe had been outspoken against a plan to carve five provinces from West Papua's existing two, recognizing that the plan would open up West Papua to further predation by international corporations. Perversely, Enembe's experience may offer some hope to West Papuans. Indonesia's utter inability to stabilize its rule in West Papua has ensured a state of permanent resistance, at all levels of life.
The TPNPB attracts more recruits than it has weapons, while the ULMWP – despite its recent setback at the MSG – has succeeded in forcing West Papua up the agenda of multiple international bodies, and into a position of unprecedented prominence. Profits from bags and vegetables sold on roadside stalls are used to fund the revolution.
It is precisely the ubiquity of Papuan struggle that requires Indonesia to operate such a totalizing form of control. But Indonesian rule has also inculcated a fearlessness in West Papuans, as the recent release of independence activist Victor Yeimo from prison indicated.
Though Yeimo had been imprisoned on treason charges for his part in a 2019 anti-racism protest, upon his release he was greeted by hundreds of Papuans flying the Morning Star – also a treasonous offense. The "all-pervasive revolutionary movement" acknowledged by the US State Department six decades years ago has not abated.
[Douglas Gerrard is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in Tribune and Current Affairs, among others.]