The Guardian • Issue #2002

West Papuans escalate their fight for justice

Free West Papua Protest in the Melbourne CBD on August 2012 asking for the release of Filep Karma, the freedom fighter serving 15 years in jail for raising the Morning Star at a rally in 2004. The campaign is also calling on the release of all West Papuan political prisoners. Photo: Nichollas Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1962 the “New York Agreement” signed at the United Nations led to the notorious Act of Free Choice that took place in West Papua in 1969. With no clear alternative proposed and surrounded by soldiers, a unanimous vote placed West Papua under what became brutal Indonesian control. As a result, this event is frequently dubbed an “act of no choice” because, in addition to the above, only 1025 voters took part, all were handpicked by the Indonesian military.

Not until 2003 was West Papua granted any degree of autonomy with the creation of the two provinces of Papua and West Papua. Now Jakarta is proposing to transform the two provinces into four. The consequences of this proposition will involve a much greater military presence and exploitation of West Papuan resources, particularly more logging. Additionally, Indonesia wants to guarantee its control over West Papua, which possesses one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines.

These incursions represent a further advance in the colonisation process and an attempt to foster further division in the population, especially between West Papuans (fifty-one per cent) and Javanese (fifteen per cent), with the latter group holding most of the power and influence.

More migrants, especially Javanese, are destined to follow to bolster the bureaucracy. This will result in Papuans eventually becoming a numerical minority in their homeland due to increased transmigration. The proposal for additional provinces may provide the appearance of legitimate moves towards increased democracy, but when the actual population size of just over one million is taken into account, no change at all to the current governmental structures seems warranted.


At a meeting just held recently in Adelaide organised by the Australia West Papuan Association, guest speakers explained how the opposition to Indonesian control of Papuan land has escalated markedly and has involved more and more young people. Indonesian criminalisation of even the most peaceful of demonstrations has lead to the radicalisation of West Papua’s younger generation. Recruitment for Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) – a Papuan independence movement formed in 1965 – has risen steadily as West Papuans see nothing beneficial coming from Jakarta.

In declaring war against Indonesia, the OPM has maintained their guerrilla tactics with devastating effects as construction workers, for example, are targeted because West Papuans see them as causing the destruction of West Papuan culture rather than bringing constructive development. The Trans-Papua Highway, currently under construction, is seen by West Papuans more as a threat to their cultural survival than a benefit to their livelihood. Motorcyclists have also become OPM targets as they are widely believed to be spies for the Indonesians. The chasm of distrust between Jakarta and West Papuans is ever-widening. The current proposals around the introduction of two more provinces are viewed as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy.

To oppose repression, West Papuan resistance is hardening in the face of extra-judicial killings, torture, random arrests, and abuses of human rights. On the diplomatic front, Indonesia has attempted to conceal its inhumane behaviour by restrictions on the media, a lesson learnt from what happened in Timor Leste. However, social media accompanying the greater use of mobile phones, allows at least some of the atrocities to be revealed, often visually. To avoid such brutality, the West Papuans ensure that their demonstrations are so large that it becomes almost impossible for the Indonesian authorities to overreact without provoking international condemnation.

There is a new level of research into this “forgotten” conflict whereby researchers look back decades to document violent incidents in a “mapping” project, producing telling evidence supporting the West Papuan cause. Consequently, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHR), Indonesia now faces a real challenge to remove the media ban in West Papua and support an independent United Nations investigation into its practices in West Papua and hold accountable those in government, in particular, for documented violent acts. For instance, examination of whether the practice of designating the OPM “freedom fighters” as “terrorists” affords the Indonesian government a legitimate pretext for increasing its military presence or is, in reality, provoked expediency.


Incidentally, many of the soldiers and police involved in West Papua have received Australian training – a potential source of embarrassment for the Australian government if human rights abuses are revealed. With the increase in the number of troops out of control, tensions are bound to increase. This fraught situation demands even closer scrutiny of the provisions of the Lombok Treaty resulting from the possibility of Australian troops becoming involved in ethnic cleansing practices without any form of immediate media scrutiny.

According to the Make West Papua Safe support group, the “Lombok Treaty, Indonesia’s ‘gag’ order, is inconsistent with Australian democratic norms and restrains Australian politicians from acting to address the root causes of conflict in West Papua. By speaking out publicly and standing with West Papuans you help render the Lombok Treaty useless.”


After the displacement of at least 5000 West Papuans in 2021, United Nations officials declared that “urgent action is needed to end ongoing human rights violations against indigenous Papuans.” The situation in West Papua has been described as “slow motion genocide.” Genocide Watch has issued a genocide warning for Indonesia. New discriminatory legislation facilitates ethnic Papuans and practitioners of minority religions in Indonesia being faced with targeted attacks, arrests and displacements. One consequence has been for West Papuans is they are being forced to seek refuge in the harsh living conditions of the mountains, where there is an absence of health and other essential services. The West Papuans regard the Indonesian actions against them as part of an ethnic cleansing exercise faced by many Indigenous peoples around the world.

The UNHR has continued to express concerns about West Paua’s deteriorating human rights situation, citing “shocking abuses against indigenous Papuans, including child killings, disappearances, torture, and mass displacements of people.” Indonesian or Papuan activists who are forced to flee their homeland, may well be pursued by the Indonesian government, for example as a result of issuing of “red notices” from Interpol, obtained deceptively on bogus charges concocted by the Indonesian authorities.

In reflecting on actions being taken by the United Nations, the following should be noted, as per the office of the high commissioner of the UNHR: “The experts called for urgent humanitarian access to the region, and urged the Indonesian government to conduct full and independent investigations into abuse against Indigenous people.”

Australians should share the United Nations’ concerns about West Papua, located so close to our shores, and communicate these to our federal politicians, possibly looking to renegotiate the Lombok Treaty, limiting Indonesia and Australia to become involved in each other’s internal affairs. Ironically, at least one Aboriginal community is currently approaching the United Nations over their rights to medical treatment. Encouragingly, however, it may be worthwhile adding that Indonesia, like Australia, desires to be seen as a good world citizen, which could offer some hope for future improvements for the Indigenous peoples of both nations. However, concerned citizens need to act wherever and whenever human rights are being transgressed.

Support for the Australia West Papua Association in its efforts to reach out to the Australian community, should be a priority for concerned people everywhere.

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