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Revival of the Papuan liberation struggle

CQFD - April 29, 2020

Nicolas Marvey & Babon Hitam – On December 16, 2009, the Indonesian armed forces murdered the independence leader Kelly Kwalik, accused of sabotage, treason, kidnapping and assassination. Kelly Kwalik, charismatic leader of the Free Papua Movement, was a major figure in the struggle of the Papuan people.

As early as 1963, Indonesia, with the complicity of the United States1, took control of the western part of the island of New Guinea, hitherto a Dutch colony, and destroyed any hope for the establishment of a free Papuan nation. Ever since having had their independence denied, the indigenous peoples of this vast and very wealthy territory have suffered, almost continuously, from persecution, displacements, destruction of their homes, torture, rape and assassinations...

Several hundred thousand people have been killed over the past sixty years in what has been denounced as a "slow genocide". Despite the violence of this oppression, and the culpable silence that accompanies it, the Papuans have never given up the fight, as proven by a tumultuous 2019, marked in particular by mass demonstrations in August and September. Ten years after Kelly Kwalik's disappearance, the Papuan people are still alive and kicking.

In 2015, the election of a new president in Indonesia raised hopes that the archipelago had not known since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship seventeen years earlier. The new head of state, the charismatic Joko Widodo, did not come from the army or the oligarchy a first in one of the most inegalitarian countries in the world. On the Papuan side, hope was certainly more measured – the independence organizations called for a boycott of the ballot, but real. Relatively young and progressive, Jokowi, as his supporters call him, had indeed repeatedly promised to promote greater respect for human rights in West Papua.

In the end, the announced political overture was nothing more than hot air. "The general situation never improves in West Papua; it has even frankly deteriorated since Jokowi gained power", confided Novenus Omabak, a Papuan exiled in Australia for almost twenty years, and whose brother Timotius was shot by the Indonesian army in April 2018. "There have been more deaths and environmental destruction in the name of economic development." In fact, Widodo's systematic posture has been to promote major infrastructure works – the most colossal and contentious of them undoubtedly being the future Trans-Papua road. This policy is completely out of step with the aspirations of the indigenous peoples, who denounce projects which, above all, serve the interests of the occupying power.

On the military front, 2019 was a particularly dramatic year. Confronted by the armed wing of the Papua Liberation Organization (OPM) – which though still active has been reduced to carrying out sporadic guerrilla warfare, the army's response, time and again, has been terror. While the use of chemical weapons remains debatable2, there is no doubt about the use of weapons of war against villages. In the central highlands, more than 250 civilians died last year and nearly 52,000 had to flee in the face of brutal repression, according to a report published by the ULMWP, the United Liberation Movement for Papua3. Even today, many people remain in hiding in the forest.

The anger of the Papuans has spilled over into the cities

What made this past year remarkable was not the resurgence of abuses committed by the colonial forces which, unfortunately, have been all too common, but the revival of Papuan resistance, as unexpected as it was impressive. Surprisingly, it was a more harmless event occurring thousands of miles from Papua that served as a detonator.

On August 16, in Surabaya, Indonesia's second city, located on the island of Java, the police, supported by an Islamist militia, raided the dormitory of Papuan students on the pretext that they had infringed the flag national. They were taken to task, treated as a monyet ("monkey" in Indonesian), and assaulted, and 43 of them arrested. These scenes, filmed and relayed via social networks, triggered a cycle of demonstrations that for two months swarmed all around West Papua, bringing together tens of thousands of people, all the way to Timika, where Kelly Kwalik was murdered ten years earlier – quite a symbol.

These demonstrations sometimes turned into riots. On August 19 in Manokwari, the local parliament was destroyed by flames. On the same day, Sorong Prison suffered the same fate, allowing some 250 detainees to escape. On September 23, unrest reached Jayapura, the provincial capital, and Wamena, where authorities announced the deaths of around 30 non-Papuans from other parts of Indonesia. The OPM may well repeat that the real enemies are the police, yet it is the presence of numerous migrants, mainly from the islands of Java and Sulawesi, which most significantly attests to the settlement colonization taking place in West Papua4. They or their property have been targeted5, tens of thousands have fled or have been evacuated.

One of the most under-reported armed conflicts in the world

Like everyone else, the Indonesian state was taken by surprise by this surge of anger. Joko Widodo has tried appeasement, but his word seems discredited and his room for maneuver is, in reality, very limited vis-a-vis the army. Once again, repression has become part of the daily life of the Papuans: frequent Internet disconnects, the massive reinforcement of military and police forces, hundreds of arrests, including almost all the independence leaders not yet in exile... And once again, too, the death count has risen, 37 on the native people's side, among them 17 high- school pupils and college students shot dead during the troubled September 23 events in Wamena. This is proof of the strong implication of Papuan youths in this revolt, determined as they are to no longer bow down. Some have sported monkey masks, turning the most common racist insult they face into a sign of pride and unity.

As always when we talk about West Papua, what most strikes us is the contrast between the gravity of the situation and how little it is spoken of abroad, which makes it all the easier for Indonesia to continue with impunity. These latest episodes, however, part of the long struggle of the Papuan people, are perhaps, finally, cracking the wall of silence that surrounds one of the least publicized armed conflicts in the world. The ULMWP refers to "very strong support in Indonesia and internationally" and "demonstrations of solidarity in at least ten major cities abroad in August and September". It's not much, but then again, they started quite a way back.

From Melbourne, where he organized rallies as president of the local Papuan community, Novenus Omabak makes this call: "Help us recover our independence which was robbed and more importantly, compel the Indonesian government to end the continuing human rights violations of which the Papuan people are victims."


1. The United States had a lot to gain: a major Cold War ally; moreover, access to the region's incredible riches, starting with the emblematic site of Grasberg, the largest gold mine in the world, and the third largest copper mine.

2. A year ago, the Australian Saturday Paper accused Indonesia of having used phosphorus bombs against Papuan villages.

3. The ULMWP is the only pro-independence organization tolerated to any extent by the Indonesian authorities. It provided most of the figures for this article.

4. "Today there are 35% of the inhabitants who are not of Papuan origin and come from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. A hundred years ago, it was only 2.5%. In large urban areas, 60% of us are non-Papuan, and it is in these large urban areas that Indonesian settlers dominate the economy. " (Richard Chauvel, professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne, on RFI on 09/15/2019). With both the development of infrastructures and economic development, colonization has been accelerating and penetrating into the very heart of Papuan territories, so that in years to come, the native peoples will become a minority in their own homeland, which will be a great threat to their future as a very people.

5. Several testimonies, however, claim that Papuans also helped threatened migrants, in particular by providing shelter in their homes.

Kelly Kwalik: The life and death of a Papuan independence fighter

Kelly Kwalik was born into the Amungme tribe in 1954 in Tsinga in the mountains at the centre of Dutch New Guinea,. At the age of 6, when he was already an orphan, he took part in the great migration

of his tribe to the plain, on the initiative of the colonial authorities and Dutch missionaries seeking to facilitate evangelization. A gifted student, he obtained a scholarship from the Catholic mission and while studying to become a teacher, he witnessed the suffering of his people in the face of the violence of colonization and the frantic policy of "modernization" of the Papuan people led by Jakarta.One year after graduation, his hopes for a job were dashed, and he joined the guerrillas. In 1977, after becoming general of the Papua Liberation Organization (OPM), he and a hundred men undertook a march of several months through the jungle to convince the mountain tribes to rise up against the occupier. In July of the same year, he ran a small commando unit that successfully sabotaged the Freeport Company's mining facilities near Timika, inflicting $11 million in losses to the American firm. The reprisals were terrible as witnessed by the machine-gunning of villages from planes and helicopters, the use of napalm and cluster bombs, the murders, rapes and multiple abuses1.

The OPM then waged a low intensity war from camps scattered throughout the jungle, which the Indonesian army would never succeed in eradicating. If the independence organization has never been a real danger to the state, it is nonetheless an ideological threat. " By living in the forest, OPM fighters reject everything that Indonesia represents and practice a form of independence. For many Papuans, the OPM is a source of pride: they are not completely defeated, they resist. "2

Thirty years of guerrilla warfare in the jungle

In 1996, the OPM struck another great blow by kidnapping a group of fourteen young English, Dutch and Indonesian scientists who had come to inventory the flora and fauna of Lorentz Park. For 130 days, Kelly Kwalik and his group held the hostages in the mountains, in the hope that this would publicize their struggle and gain the support of the international community. The Red Cross played the role of official mediator but then, discouraged by the numerous about-turns of the OPM general, ended up by collaborating with the Indonesian army, which released the hostages after a bloody crackdown3. Kelly Kwalik went into hiding. The OPM had then to limit itself to small-scale actions against symbols of oppression: the army, police and foreign companies.

In 2002, a shootout on the road from Timika to the Freeport mine killed two Americans and one Indonesian. Kelly Kwalik was charged, without any evidence, while numerous accounts suggested that this was a set-up by the Indonesian military. In a post-September 11 context, the OPM was declared a terrorist organization and the arrest of General Kelly Kwalik became a top priority. He was a master in the art of disguises and in 2009, days before his assassination, the police still did not have a positively identifiable picture of him. However, thanks to the numerous spies paid for by the secret services, the Indonesian Special Forces eventually located the house he was hiding in Timika while recovering from a malaria attack.

The assault took place on the night of December 16, 2009. Seriously wounded by a bullet, Kelly was transferred to a police station far from the city where, left untreated, he died a few hours later. To avoid a popular uprising, a religious ceremony was authorized in the Cathedral of Timika, which was attended by several thousand people from all over Papua. However, the authorities insisted that he be buried in Timika and not in his home village.

Thus, General Kelly Kwalik lies in this mining town, symbol of Indonesia's stranglehold on Papua, in the middle of a vacant lot, under a brick and sheet metal construction that looks like a chicken coop. This December 16, for the tenth anniversary of his assassination, nobody was allowed to visit his grave, which was considered to be too risky given the massive military and police presence in Timika. Crush resistance, control history, organize oblivion: the old colonial recipe.

An elusive character

Indonesian propaganda has made of him a bloodthirsty terrorist, a marked man. Among Westerners, the hostage-taking of 1996 left him with the image of a versatile and capricious autocrat, taking pleasure in making negotiations collapse. "A dirty little bastard, a liar, vicious and selfish" retorted Henri Fournier, the head of the Red Cross, to Daniel Start, an English hostage4. The Australian journalist Ben Bohane also felt disappointed and betrayed, having thought he was with Kelly Kwalik for several months in the jungle in 1996, when in fact he was in the presence of one of the independence leader's lieutenants.

However, the women and men who lived with him in the OPM camps remember him as a sweet man, a wise man one could visit to seek advice, a non-violent man deeply attached to traditions, a model of integrity. Today, Kelly Kwalik remains a revered figure, even among the new generations, too young to have known him.

How can this misunderstanding be explained to Westerners? Let Kelly speak for himself: " You Whites are always going forward, and the straight-haired Indonesians do likewise. We, from time to time, like to walk backwards: it is our way of remembering. If we only walk forward, then we will experience oblivion. We are aware of our differences, we are proud of them and hold them up as we would our flag. "5


1. "The Neglected Genocide. Human rights Abuses against Papuans in the Central Highlands, 1977-78", Asian Human Rights Commission (2013).

2. "Irian Jaya under the Gun: Indonesian Economic Development Versus West Papuan Nationalism", Jim Elmsie, University of Hawai Press (2003).

3. See Mark Davis' documentary, Blood on the Cross, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1999).

4. "The open cage. The ordeal of the Irian Jaya hostages", Daniel Start, Harper Collins Publishers (1997).

5. "Timika Western Papou", Nicolas Rouille, Anacharsis (2018).

This novel combing fact with fiction provides a good introduction to the complexity of West Papua.

[This article was originally published in the French monthly newspaper CQFD in February 2020.]

[Translated by David Connaughton.]

Source: http://cqfd-journal.org/Le-nouveau-reveil-papou