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West Papua: Indonesia's brutal colonialism

Green Left Weekly - November 26, 1997

Sean Moysey – Life in "Irian Jaya" – the name the Indonesian government gives to West Papua – is akin to the colonies of Spain in Latin America, or Europe in Africa. The land and its fruits are plundered by Indonesia. Against the immense military power of Indonesian authority stands an army of indigenous people, the Free Papua Movement (OPM).

West Papua is relatively unknown to most Australians, mainly due to Indonesia's tight control of information. West Papua is closer to Darwin than Sydney is to Perth by almost 900 kilometres.

More than 19,000 kilometres away, in Surrey, England, lives one of the world's most knowledgable people on West Papua, Carmel Budiardjo.

A British citizen, Budiardjo is the founder of the human rights organisation, Tapol, and winner of the 1995 Right Livelihood Award for her work documenting Indonesia's human rights abuses.

Budiardjo was a political prisoner of the Suharto regime from 1968 to 1971. Now 72, she has campaigned over the last 26 years for human rights in the Indonesian archipelago. She is a joint author of West Papua: The Obliteration of a People.

"West Papua is grossly and gravely neglected", Budiardjo told Green Left Weekly. "It is a colony of the Indonesian republic. It is in the unfortunate position, compared with East Timor, of having its annexation actually endorsed by the UN, in a quite scandalous decision taken in 1962."

West Papua was a Dutch colony, but not part of the territory known as the Dutch East Indies. When Indonesia asserted itself as a nation, between 1945 and 1949, it laid claim to West Papua. At the time, the Indonesian nationalists called the land West Irian.

"West Papua was excluded from the territory that was transferred to Indonesia in 1949 by the Dutch, and was put aside by the United Nations for a special arrangement because it had not been part of the Dutch East Indies. In the process of Indonesia's demand for the 'return' of West Papua, the people of West Papua were never consulted, which was a gross violation of their right to self-determination", said Budiardjo.

In 1962, a UN committee on West Papua, chaired by United States diplomat Elsworth Bunker, involved only Indonesia, Holland and the UN in negotiating the future of the land. The negotiations resulted in the New York Agreement, which resolved that Indonesia should administer West Papua.

"The New York Agreement had absolutely nothing to do with the wishes of the West Papuan people", Budiardjo said. The "agreement did make provision though for what the was called an Act of Free Choice that was to take place within six years.

"The UN handed over the territory to Indonesia lock, stock and barrel. The Indonesian army took charge of the territory [on May 1, 1963] and instituted a reign of terror, not recognising the right of anybody to speak against the annexation."

The Act of Free Choice, which was intended as a forum for West Papuans to voice their opinions, took place on August 2, 1969.

"This so-called Act of Free Choice", said Budiardjo, "was in fact an act of no choice. It was not universal suffrage, which is the only way an act of self-determination can be conducted.

"It consisted only of just over 1000 so-called tribal chieftains who were selected by the Indonesians, with guns held to their , and forced to state their unanimous agreement that West Papua should become part of Indonesia. The UN scandalously accepted the result, and from then on West Papua was swept under the carpet."


In September, a young West Papuan, Yapenes Imingkawak-Magai, was beaten and tortured by Indonesian soldiers and security guards from the Freeport mining company town, Tembagapura. Yapenes' murder joins the long list of human rights abuses documented over the last three decades by independent observers.

Throughout the 1970s, Catholic and Protestant missionaries reported Indonesian army patrols destroying villages, raping women and killing livestock.

According to OPM spokesperson Rex Rumakiek, there are at least 140 political prisoners held by the Indonesian administration in West Papua.

In April 1984, Arnold Ap, a respected anthropologist and curator of the Cendrawasih University Museum, died in custody from severe bullet wounds. Ap had spent five months imprisoned without trial.

The Tribunal on Human Rights in West Papua held in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in May 1981 documented severe human rights abuses carried out by the Indonesian military against West Papuans. Eliezer Bonay, Indonesia's first governor of West Papua, testified to the tribunal that approximately 30,000 West Papuans were murdered between 1963 and August 1969.

Together with military suppression of the population, Indonesia also relocates thousands of poor Indonesians, through "transmigration", to West Papua. This population shift increases the weight of Indonesian might against West Papuans and relieves a little of the mounting dissent in Indonesian society.

Small farmers in Indonesia are being forced from their land by industry at a breakneck pace. Many of the recent forest fires, for example, were lit by property developers to clear forest for new land development.

Indonesia's cities are inundated with people leaving rural life in the hope of finding a job. Transmigration is aimed at solving a political problem at home for the Suharto administration and in the countries Indonesia is forcibly integrating.


West Papua is a tropical paradise, rich with rainforest, gold, copper, oil and the culture of its people. Due to the wealth of raw materials, the territory is overrun with mining and forestry companies from around the world, including Australia. These companies support Indonesia's dictatorial regime in exchange for favourable access to the bounty of West Papua.

Budiardjo said that once Indonesia took control in 1963, it treated West Papua as its own property. "In 1967 the Indonesian regime signed a contract of work with US-based company Freeport, to allow it to exploit the mineral resources of the Ertsburg and subsequently the Grafsburg mountains.

"The mines started operations in the 1970s without the consent and understanding of the local people. The local people also suffer from the enormous pollution caused by tailings spewed out by this horrific mine, which has turned a once beautiful mountain into a huge crater."

Budiardjo said that the mining company and the Indonesian forces work together to keep West Papuans from reclaiming their land. The greatest concentration of Indonesian forces throughout the archipelago is stationed around the Freeport mine in the area called Timika.


Rex Rumakiek is currently based in Sydney, from where he travels throughout Australia, Asia and the Pacific to raise awareness of West Papua's situation and the goals of the OPM.

Rumakiek spoke at conference on Asia-Pacific politics held in Sydney in August about the OPM's prospects.

The OPM was formed in 1965 during the height of Indonesian military operations against West Papuan resistance to occupation. Both Rumakiek and Budiardjo agree that West Papuans, in the main, identify as members of the OPM or support its aims. Despite the isolation of populations and no right to free association, Rumakiek said that West Papuans firmly adhere to their desire for independence.

Budiardjo said that while the OPM was active in seven different geographical regions, operating independently, it has "a ground swell of support. The OPM forces are based in the jungle and have rather infrequent contact with the Indonesian armed forces, but their presence is a serious drain on Indonesian forces in their occupation of West Papua."

A strong culture of civil disobedience also exists amongst West Papuans working within the Indonesian administration, said Budiardjo. These West Papuan administrators and officials reveal evidence of violence against their people and become obstacles to Indonesia's rule by force.

Budiardjo and Rumakiek emphasise that raising international awareness of the colonisation of West Papua is essential.

"The problem with West Papua", said Budiardjo, "is that so few people know about it, so it is left to anthropologists and photograph journalists who have done interesting studies of West Papua.

"But apart from these academic studies, it is only the activist organisations who bother to go there, who bother to write anything down and try to produce pamphlets or books. Part of the international neglect about West Papua is the fact that there is so little written about it."

Rumakiek said that the plight of West Papua is "not a simple issue of human rights; West Papuan people want their independence. It is a colonial situation, but the difference is that the colonisation is happening in this century", not the last.