Damien Kingsbury – Tensions have erupted as the Indonesian government attempts to further divide West Papuan territory. But with few international allies, the Papuan resistance may be destined to fail.
On 30 June this year, Indonesia's legislature approved the division of the troubled West Papua territory into five provinces from the current two. The move has caused unrest throughout West Papua, with large scale protests and arrests. Many West Papuans see this division as strengthening Jakarta's disputed control of the territory.
The Indonesian parliament announced these plans in April, but Papuans claim that they were excluded from the process. The two provinces of West Papua Province and Papua Province have now been divided to create South Papua Province, Central Papua Province, and the Papua Central Highlands Province.
The government says the decision will help spur development, improve public service delivery, and create more job opportunities for Papuans. Indonesia's Home Affairs Minister, Tito Karnavian, said the primary goal of the legislation was "to accelerate development in Papua to increase the welfare of the people in Papua, especially indigenous Papuans."
Lawmakers in Jakarta hoped this development would reduce tensions in the territory. The further division has, however, had the opposite effect: enflaming tensions anew. The creation of new provinces will include the creation of more government posts throughout the territory, which will likely be filled by non-Papuan Indonesians. New provinces will also lead to the creation of new military posts and the development of new infrastructure such as roads, which many West Papuans see as facilitating troop movement.
In particular, the creation of new provinces will lead to the parallel creation of a further eight military district commands (Kodim) in the region, increasing from 22 to 30. Each Kodim consists of around 800 personnel, meaning approximately 6,400 additional troops will be stationed in what is already the most heavily militarised area in Indonesia.
The creation of the new Kodim will also likely require the creation of new overarching Regional Military Commands (Kodam) beyond the existing two. With relations between Papuans and the military arguably beyond the point of repair, the further extension of a military presence into the lives of Papuans is deeply unwelcome.
In response to the proposal, there have been a series of mass demonstrations, many of which have been met with official violence. Protest by Papuans rejecting the proposed new divisions and demanding a referendum on independence is viewed by authorities as seditious and therefore illegal.
Historical dissidence in Papua
Trouble in the territory dates back to the mid-1960s, after Indonesia began administering the territory but before its incorporation was formalised in 1969 in a forced show of hands by 1026 village leaders. While the United Nations recognised that "vote" as formally incorporating West Papua into Indonesia, Papuans have consistently rejected the process as a sham.
Indonesia's administration sparked armed resistance and resulted in a large number of subsequent deaths, in particular during the 1970s and '80s. Estimate vary, but at least tens of thousands died during this time, with sporadic clashes, generalised repression, human rights violations, and occasional killings becoming routinised thereafter.
On the back of Indonesia's period of reform, in 2001 West Papua was granted "Special Autonomy" status as a single province to devolve administration towards reducing the simmering conflict. "Special Autonomy" was intended to boost living conditions in the territory, at the time the lowest in Indonesia. Since then, there have been improvements in per capita income, education, and health care, although Papuans claim that these changes have largely benefited the non-Papuan "trans-migrant" population. Non-Papuan residents now make up around half of the total population of the territory.
While the granting of Special Autonomy was intended to assuage local grievances, in 2003 the Indonesian government attempted to divide the province into three. The Indonesian Supreme Court ruled that the division contradicted the Special Autonomy provisions but allowed the division into two parts that had already been undertaken.
The Indonesian government has for several years said that more development will address the concerns of Papuans. Papuans, however, see greater "development" as increased inroads by non-Papuans into their territory, with further alienation of their lands to "development" projects and more loss of their nominal autonomy.
One of the unintended consequences of "Special Autonomy" was an increase in access to local spending, some of which has leaked through to Papuan separatists and been used to buy weapons. While the Papuan armed resistance is still relatively small, perhaps a thousand fighters, if that, there has been an increase in armed violence over the past three years in part as a result of the supply of weapons.
The West Papuan resistance is, however, fragmented between different political groups and their quasi-independent armed wings. While each of the groups claim exclusive representative status, they each share a common call for a referendum on independence. This was supported in 2019 by 1.8 million Papuans, or 70 percent of the Papuan population, signing a petition calling for a referendum. The Indonesian government has, however, ignored the petition. A petition this year rejecting the further division of the territory received over 700,000 signatures.
The shared view of Papuan independence groups is that Timor-Leste legitimised the referendum process in 1999. They are calling for a similar process to determine their future. The difference is, however, that Timor-Leste was not recognised by the UN as a part of Indonesia, whereas the Papuan territory is, hence its ability to intervene in one case and not the other.
Moreover, advocacy for a referendum within the UN requires a sponsor and no country, including the former colonial power, the Netherlands, have indicated an interest in supporting such a move. Further, given shifts in wider power rivalries, Indonesia is seen as a key regional partner and each of the UN Security Council Permanent Five, for their own reasons, oppose a Timor-Leste-type intervention.From an Indonesian perspective, West Papua is fundamental to Indonesia's territorial integrity, as well as making a significant contribution to Indonesia's economy through resource extraction, principally of oil, natural gas, copper, gold, silver, and timber. Indonesia's legislature has also been hostile to granting meaningful political concessions to Papua. The further division of the territory can be seen less as promoting development and more as Jakarta increasing its control.
Indonesia's security sector, too, has for decades financially benefited from Papua, through running local business "protection' services" and black-market operations. The army in particular has been most strongly opposed to a negotiated resolution to Papuans' outstanding claims.
As a result of the division, protests are expected to continue and, as Indonesia extends administrative control into the territory, it is likely there will be more armed clashes. However, Indonesia is determined to further bring the territory into the national fold and the international community, to whom resistance leaders make regular appeals for intervention, continue to turn a deaf ear.
[Damien Kingsbury is Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University. He has written on developing country issues for the past four decades and has coordinated election observation missions to Timor-Leste and Myanmar. He was also advisor to the 2005 Aceh peace process.]