The Historical and Political Context of West Papua

West Papua does not sit comfortably within Indonesia. Ever since 1962, when the Indonesian state started to exercise its claim over the Western half of New Guinea, many Papuans have resented, and also resisted, what they see as the new colonial power. So an attempt to impose a duty on Papuans for their land to become Indonesia’s breadbasket, needs to be understood in its political context.

Indonesia gained its independence as the people defeated the Dutch empire in its moment of weakness after the second world war. The Dutch were forced to retreat to the eastern islands. Here they were often viewed more sympathetically than in Java and Sumatra, where their cruel regime had been hated by all those forced to toil on their plantations or give over a portion of their harvest. By the end of 1949 however, the Dutch surrendered, acknowledging the new Indonesian state’s sovereignty over the whole of the former Dutch East Indies, the only exception being Dutch New Guinea, which is the present day West Papua.

In 1961 the Dutch were ready to relinquish control over this colony too, and were minded to grant West Papua its independence, claiming the Papuan people were culturally distinct from Indonesia. Indonesia disagreed, and sent troops to establish control over the area, with the tacit support of the US, at a time when South East Asia was one of the major theatres of the Cold War. West Papua’s status internationally was eventually decided by a UN-sponsored ‘Act of Free Choice’ in 1969, where 1025 Papuan men were selected as representing the entire population and asked to decide between independence or joining Indonesia. They agreed to be part of Indonesia, although there is plenty of evidence that this decision was taken under coercion.(8)

Throughout the Suharto dictatorship, groups of Papuans continued to rebel, often under the banner of the Free Papua Organisation, the OPM, which fought a guerilla campaign, mostly armed only with traditional weapons such as bows and arrows.(9) Indonesia’s military responded with violence. Just how many thousands of people died in isolated jungle villages in the military operations of the Suharto years will always remain a mystery.

After 1998, when Indonesia rose up and Suharto fell there were some hopes that things would get better in West Papua. East Timor gained its independence, Papuans were allowed to organise more openly and eventually a special autonomy package was negotiated. However, the military were not ready to relinquish their profitable hold over Papua, where they benefited from funds being channelled to a conflict zone and many lucrative businesses run as sidelines. So while changes started to occur in the rest of Indonesia, Papua has remained a bastion of Suharto-era-style military dominance: military and police involvement in private businesses and protection rackets to take a cut of the resource industry, mysterious killings, ongoing sweeping operations and village burnings, and long prison sentences for political dissenters.

Nevertheless, above-ground social movements grew(10), especially in the cities, with aspirations for merdeka, a word which means independence but also goes beyond a mere political breakaway, with heavy undertones of liberation or even salvation. The need for a new solution seemed urgent. In 2010 the special autonomy package was ‘returned’ to Jakarta – most of its positive elements had come up against barriers anyway and and had not been implemented. Huge demonstrations were held demanding a referendum on Papua’s future to replace the ‘Act of Free Choice’ and determine the true will of the people. Other movements campaigned for a process of dialogue, which has widespread support within Papua, although opinions differ about the conditions for such a dialogue to take place. Then in 2011 some Papuan groups took the initiative to launch a general congress, with representatives from all over West Papua. The first two congresses had taken place at other key moments in Papua’s history, in 1961 as the Dutch relinquished their claim to Papua and in 2000, after the fall of Suharto. Delegates to that event took a decision to proclaim West Papuan independence. The military broke up the event, killing a number of people. Six people, including the congress organiser and the newly proclaimed President and Prime Minister, were arrested and tried for treason.(11)

As a response to all this, the Indonesian government has proposed its own solution: the Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua (UP4B). It is still not clear what is the exact purpose of this new body, but it seems that the idea is to promote economic development in Papua, and see if this can alleviate both Papua’s chronic poverty and the political tensions. Many Papuans remain sceptical.(12)

next: Outside Investment Projects in Papua

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