Michael Kabuni – The United Liberation Movement for West Papua has announced that it is forming the West Papuan Provisional Government. This comes as Indonesia has refused to extend the Special Autonomy provision granted to West Papua 20 years ago, which is set to expire next year. Across the border, support for West Papuan independence in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been growing. Even though PNG's prime minister has not expressed support for West Papuan independence as Vanuatu has, the grassroots support in PNG is arguably stronger than in Vanuatu.
On 24 August and 10 September 2019, residents of Port Moresby participated in two protests, each drawing about 2,000 thousand people. PNG citizens walked with banners supporting West Papuan independence. Speeches from politicians and activists alike noted the ongoing failure of the United States, Australia and United Nations (UN) to call out Indonesia over its actions. There were also concurrent protest marches in Vanimo and Lae.
The rise in support for West Papua in PNG is attributed to two factors: the rise in the use of social media, and growing awareness of the historical injustices committed by Indonesia with the implicit support of the United States.
Papua New Guineans are increasingly aware of the United States' role in Indonesia's annexation of West Papua in 1969 because of the declassification of American cables. In response, National District Governor Powes Parkop and Northern Province Governor Gary Juffa expressed their outrage during their speeches at the September 2019 march.
These cables revealed a number of damning facts, beginning from when the Netherlands granted independence to Indonesia in 1949. The Dutch kept West Papua until 1961, fully intending for it to become independent. Subsequently, then Indonesian President Sukarno appealed to the UN to 'recover' West Papua, despite it being entirely Melanesian.
When Indonesia threatened annexation, the Kennedy administration orchestrated the 1962 New York Agreement, giving West Papua to Indonesia with the proviso that an election for self-determination be organised by 1969. Indonesian forces quickly silenced political dissidents demanding independence. However, the United States desired good relations with Indonesia to combat the spread of communism and knew that 'Indonesia would never allow West Irian to become independent'.
In 1965, Sukarno announced an anti-imperialist alliance with China that sparked a failed coup. General Suharto led the systematic killing of up to a million leftist Indonesians, which was unopposed by the Unites States, who feared communism. Suharto assumed power and, by 2004, he topped the world corruption ranking.
Now that Indonesia had become anti-communist, the Kennedy administration, followed by the Johnson and Nixon administrations, continued to ignore human rights violations in West Papua for commercial reasons. In 1967, Suharto passed a law that enabled Freeport Sulphur, a transnational American company, to create the world's largest gold mine. As the largest tax payer, Freeport became a powerful political lobby group in Jakarta.
In return for political and physical protection, Freeport became the de facto administrator of West Papua and maintained mutually beneficial relationships with Suharto, his military, and the political elite, while engaging in unethical deals and allegedly corrupt practices.
Some Papua New Guineans think American reluctance to call out Indonesia's human rights violations in West Papua, like it has for China's treatment of Uyghurs, is because they are protecting Freeport.
This great power behaviour is no better than that shown by Russia. At the 1960 Bali Summit, Khrushchev made a failed deal with Sukarno to help Indonesia annex West Papua in exchange for access to minerals and control of a strategic Indo-Pacific gateway.
China and Russia remain potential independence allies for West Papua since China provides support against pressure from Indonesia.
During the September protest in 2019, the speeches had several common threads, specifically aimed at the American and Indonesian governments. The first was a call to improve transparency and accountability by supporting calls for Indonesia to allow foreign journalists into West Papua.
There was also widespread support for an independent human rights commission to investigate allegations of gross human rights abuses in West Papua.
There is a perception among educated Melanesians that the United States always put its interests ahead of any partner, even if there is a human cost. Supporting this recommendation would go some way to mending this perception.
Speakers at the protest also demanded a halt to the movement of Indonesian settlers into West Papua that displace the rightful Melanesian owners and make them a minority in their own land. This was supported by a request to the UN to reverse its corrupt decision to approve the 1969 Act of Free Choice and support calls for a real referendum for ethnic West Papuans only, so they can determine their own political future.
The grassroots support for West Papua in PNG does not seem like it will slow down. As someone put it during the speeches in 2019, PNG is not free if West Papua is not free. US-PNG relations will remain important at the political level, with interventions like the electricity project to light up 70 per cent of PNG by 2030. However, at the grassroots level, the United States will continue to be viewed with suspicion.
[Michael Kabuni Michael Kabuni is a Lecturer with the Political Science Department of the University of Papua New Guinea.]