Spirit of independence
A journey through West Papua
As I stand next to a lively fruit market on my first day in West Papua’s biggest city, Jayapura, a local rushes across the road to greet me. He’s smartly dressed, as is his son whose hand he holds. “Hello, where are you from?” he says, wiping sweat from his forehead. Before I can answer he moves closer and whispers in perfect English. “I have no job and no future. The Indonesians have taken everything from us. I hope you can tell the world.” Without any further conversation, he thanks me for my time and disappears into the crowd. It’s a sentiment echoed throughout resource-rich West Papua, the last frontier of Indonesia – from the highland rainforests to the vast white coast and shabby streets of Jayapura.
To show their discontent with the status quo nearly 2000 students and activists have gathered down the road to protest outside the local parliament building. The mostly young protestors chant freedom songs and give speeches detailing human rights abuses and injustices committed by Indonesian security forces.
It’s too dangerous to meet them now. On all sides of the protest, riot police stand guard, flanked by water-cannon tanks. Foreign journalists are not allowed in West Papua – neither are diplomats unless they have special permission – so talking to any protestor would mean trouble for both parties. I watch for a few minutes, before my worried local contact hurries me on. The next day the student group that organised the protest agrees to meet me on the outskirts of dense jungle to avoid detection by Indonesian intelligence. The students all come from different parts of West Papua and have formed a coalition. They are part of a new generation of activists savvy with mobile phones and online social media.
An older, bearded spokesman, Sylebus Bobby, takes the lead. “We are protesting against Indonesian rule over our land,” he says, twiddling a wooden cross dangling from his neck. “Under Indonesian rule there has been no development of the education or health sectors, and they have committed countless human rights abuses against our people.” They have all been watching the protests across the Middle East. “We are inspired by their bravery, and hope we can topple the neo-colonials who control our land like they have,” says a younger student while tapping away on his phone. “It’s difficult for us though,” another student jumps in. “Every time we try to protest they put pressure on us to stop, using any force they can.” Sylebus Bobby nods his head, exaggerating his neck motion. When he was a young theology student he led a protest, just outside his university. Standing in front of thousands of students, and a heavily armed anti-riot police unit, he raised the Morning Star flag, which has come to symbolise West Papua’s independence movement. He was quickly bundled in the back of a truck and taken off to detention. Charged under a draconian treason act left over from colonial times, it was five years before he was released from prison. “We will never stop fighting until we get independence for our land, even if we have to die for it,” he declares.
Although Indonesia gained independence in 1949, the Dutch government kept control over West Papua until 1961. Keen to get his hands on the western half of New Guinea, Indonesia’s first president, Kusno Sosrodihardjo (more commonly known as President Sukarno), made repeated attempts through the United Nations to gain ownership. As these failed, Indonesia followed with military campaigns, aiming to take the island by force using tens of thousands of heavily armed troops.
At the time of the Kennedy administration, Australia and other nations were keen to avoid confrontation with Indonesia, fearing it would lose another Asian nation to communism. The United States coordinated talks between the Dutch and Jakarta to broker the New York Agreement in 1962. The agreement transferred control of the colony to Indonesia on the condition it committed to a referendum – the Act of Free Choice – no later than 1969, intended to allow indigenous Papuans to vote for independence.
While the Papuan people waited for the Act of Free Choice, the Indonesian government had already begun to extend rule into West Papua. The Papuan government was dismantled and, at one point, Indonesia’s new president, General Suharto, indicated there would be no Act of Free Choice. He later U-turned and allowed for 1025 handpicked Papuans – out of a population of over 1 million – to vote in 1969. These ‘representatives’ unanimously voted for West Papua to remain within Indonesian sovereignty amid allegations Indonesian authorities had threatened voters, leaving them with little choice.
In a 1968 cable from the US, an American diplomat had warned that Washington “should not become directly involved in this issue” and put forward that the UN and other countries should accept Indonesia’s plans to control West Papua. Just over a decade before, Australia had supported the reunification of the two halves of New Guinea, the east of which was under its control. However, by the time the New York Agreement had come around, Australia was also keen to stay on side with Indonesia.
In an incident well known by the students in West Papua today, Australian police went out of their way to stop two West Papuan activists meeting the UN in New York in 1969. The activists were obstructed as they were boarding a plane in New Guinea, en route to the US, and were threatened with arrest if they did not leave voluntarily. “If they had made it to the UN and argued our case for independence, things could be a lot of different now,” says one of the students. “It might have stopped the killing of thousands of our people.”
It is now beyond doubt that Australia and the international community were aware of what the Indonesians were doing. An Australian diplomatic cable at the time said that “West Papua had to carry out [the referendum] in months what experts said should have taken five years.” Another stated that “Papuans had inadequate information about the act [of Free Choice]” and “rights of free speech and freedom of movement were not fully implemented amid tight political control”.
A British Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefing that year found “the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made”, while the US Ambassador to Indonesia said “95% of indigenous Papuans wanted to have freedom.” West Papuans across the country saw the Act of Free Choice as a complete sham, fuelling protests and inspiring men to take up arms. The Indonesian military launched brutal campaigns across the island to quell dissent. Thousands of refugees fled to Papua New Guinea and members of the resistance built up armed groups deep in the jungle – where they remain today still fighting for independence.
To meet the rebels we leave just before sunset and to avoid the Indonesian army we take a lengthy boat trip along Papua’s pristine coastline. Late that night we see three lanterns flickering in the sea. “It’s the rebel port,” a soldier in the boat tells me. We’re greeted by a group of young men dressed in camouflage shorts and vests. They sit down and chew betel, adding colour to their already red-stained mouths, and laugh among themselves. The oldest of the group, wearing just a loincloth, walks down past a couple of bamboo huts to a river. Under a sky full of stars, the fisherman uses a burning lantern and spear to catch dinner. A short while later, the satisfied soldiers sit around on the floor of their hut telling traditional stories. Through the rest of the night, the sounds of intermittent bursts of laughter and song can be heard.
The next day we wake up at dawn. Following a gruelling trek through jungle swamp and over steep mountains we arrive at one of the rebels’ strongholds. All the soldiers have come together to greet me. A few wear military uniform, the rest are dressed traditionally, which consists of feathered headpieces and white clay smeared on their faces. Around their necks many have monkey-paw necklaces; foliage is tucked into bamboo armbands to symbolise protection. They all salute, and a gunshot is fired.
These soldiers are members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN), the military wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Since Indonesia took control of West Papua, the ragtag tribal army has been engaged in a low-intensity conflict with the ‘foreign’ military forces. Poorly armed, the TPN is severely disadvantaged in the face of its well-funded enemy. A few have old machine guns, the rest carry traditional spears or bows and arrows. The geographical vastness and lack of communication infrastructure, mixed with Melanesian tribal spirit, has also created divisions in the rebel ranks. In the past a number of self-titled ‘supreme commanders’ have run their own somewhat autonomous armed groups.
Seeing these divisions as a major hindrance to efforts at gaining international support, exiled leadership in Vanuatu has attempted, in recent years to unite the groups. After a series of unification meetings, one commander, Richard Yoweni, was voted in to head up the rebel army. “We have been trying to unite all independence forces under one umbrella,” says General Yoweni, surrounded by his commanders in the camp’s bamboo meeting room. “Only when we are united can we seek international support and mediation for dialogue with Jakarta.” The general, now aged 69, maintains an intense glare, fitting for the longest-running commander in the movement. He was a young engineering student when the Act of Free Choice took place. Hearing about the oppression by Indonesia of West Papuan people at the time, he came back to join the rebels’ ranks, where he has since remained.
General Yoweni says the TPN has repeatedly asked for negotiations with the Indonesian government without any progress. “We have demanded talks with Jakarta with an international mediator but they said they won’t allow it,” he says, suggesting the Indonesian government is worried they will lose West Papua if the issue is internationalised. “Many times Papuans have gone to Jakarta but the Indonesians bribe them with money and they return with nothing. We’re not prepared to let that happen anymore.”
Despite the TPN’s hopes, Indonesia has repeatedly stated the formation of an independent West Papua is completely out of the question. In 2001, however, following widespread protests and public pressure, Jakarta formed the Special Autonomy scheme, which stated it would transfer power to the Papuan people to self-govern. The move was approved by the Howard government, which publicly supported self-determination for West Papua but ruled out independence. Commenting on Special Autonomy, General says, “I will not even consider it. Under the New York Agreement we were promised ‘one man, one vote’ and the power to vote for independence.” For the students and urban activists I spoke with, Special Autonomy is seen to have completely failed. During the recent student protest the group handed a letter to the governor’s secretary declaring that it deemed the law to be “a complete failure and we’re giving it back”.
An Indonesian government spokesperson, Herry Sudradjat, told me that “separatists have long played up the failure of autonomy to gain political points”. The government sees the autonomy scheme to be “a win–win solution, enabling our brothers and sisters in Papua to govern their own house and to manage their own affairs”. Sudradjat believes the alternative – “separatism” – is a “dangerous idea” that would lead to “unnecessary conflict benefiting no one”. While supporting the autonomy scheme, the government “accepts that the current implementation of the autonomy is by no means perfect or without flaws”. Admitting there are “weaknesses that have to be addressed and improvements to be sought”, Sudradjat says Indonesia is willing to work for “constructive dialogue … as long as it is still within the corridor of the Unitary State of Indonesia”.
One group has been trying to achieve just that. Spearheaded by Neles Tebay, a Papuan academic, and Dr Muridan Widjojo, an Indonesian civil servant, the Papuan Peace Network has been pushing for Papua–Jakarta dialogue to end the deadlock. “The calls for dialogue have made some progress but a lack of solid interest by the Indonesian government has prevented us from making any substantial ground,” Dr Widjojo tells me.
Student activists are getting increasingly frustrated with the stalemate. “While no progress is being made we continue to suffer under their occupation of our land,” says one young geography student. “Special Autonomy is not a win–win situation, it is a complete failure. Still we are discriminated against by the Indonesian authorities, and all the jobs go to non-Papuans.”
It is reported that, in the 1960s, the Indonesian government provided benefits to non-Papuan migrants wishing to settle in West Papua. Statistics suggest that in 1940 99% of the region’s population were native Papuans; now more than half of the region’s residents are non-Papuan. In the future this imbalance is expected to worsen as more foreign investors arrive.
According to Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, if the fast rate of resource extraction continues, Papua will “lose millions of hectares of forests [and] be stripped of valuable resources without the benefits of value-adding industries to create wealth and jobs locally”. Instead, only foreign companies, Jakarta and a small group of Papuan elites will benefit. Wadley adds that the rising interest in Papua’s resources “will see an influx of millions of migrants from other parts of Indonesia, likely limiting indigenous Papuans to a tiny minority in their own land”. Some commentators, he notes, see the rapid development as “politically ideological in its aims” and an “effective foil to calls for independence”.
Commenting on this, David Arkins, secretary of the Australia West Papua Association, says what is happening in West Papua could be called a “slow genocide” and that there is a real danger of the native people becoming a minority in their own country. “The Australian government has a moral obligation, after our own record with the Aboriginal people, to intervene and stop the situation from deteriorating,” he says. “The Australian government has to put trade interests aside and lead an international campaign to liberate the Papuan people from Indonesia before it’s too late.”
Not all Papuans support independence. Nicholas Messet, a Papuan native and vice-chairman of the Independent Group Supporting the Autonomous Region of Papua, advocates for Special Autonomy. “Papuan people need to stop dreaming of independence; it will never happen. We have been given Special Autonomy so we need to make the most of it,” Messet tells me from his office in Indonesia. “Look at all the other Melanesian countries: they can’t deal with democracy, it just creates more problems and turmoil.”
Messet, a former freedom-fighter leader, gave up his gun and now advocates for Special Autonomy. His support for Indonesian rule is echoed by a group of Papuan elites who have benefited from Indonesian investment. Around town they can be seen in flashy cars going to and from business deals, and their villas overlook the Pacific Ocean. “They are traitors, paid by the Indonesian government – it’s part of their policy of ‘divide and rule’,” says one of the students, holding a woven bag imprinted with the Morning Star. “The rest of the country is suffering in poverty.”
The United Nations Development Programme says about 35% of West Papua’s population lives below the poverty line, contrasting with a Indonesian national average of about 13%. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, secondary school enrolment in Papua is only 60% compared with a national average of 91%. While most of the native West Papuan population lives in abject poverty, the Indonesian government and foreign companies make vast profits from Papuan resources.
A major grievance and source of conflict over the years has been the Grasberg Mine – the largest copper–gold mine in the world. Owned by American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, the mine generates US$4 billion of the company’s $6.5 billion annual revenue. British–Australian mining company Rio Tinto has a joint venture, entitling it to a 40% stake, and in the past it has injected cash into the operation to expand production. The company relies on Australia for supplies, coming by ship from storage facilities in Cairns.
The Grasberg Mine has been criticised by environmental groups worldwide – and by Indonesia’s own environment ministers – for the severe damage caused by its waste deposits. The Norwegian government went as far as divesting around $1 billion of shares in Rio Tinto, citing concern over environmental damages from the mine. Other concerns lie in Freeport-McMoRan–Rio Tinto paying the Indonesian military millions of dollars every year to protect the mine.
According to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian consultant for Human Rights Watch, these companies’ use of Indonesian military for security has increased human rights abuses in the highlands: “There has been land grabbing and direct abuses on civilians suspected of supporting the OPM.”
Last year a leaked video, shown on news channels across the world, showed Indonesian soldiers pinning down a West Papuan civilian and burning his genitals while demanding to know where the TPN keeps their weapons and accusing him of being a rebel.
On my last day in West Papua I met with pastor Panus Jikwa who has lived in the highlands near the Grasberg Mine all his life. The pastor breaks down in tears as he recalls the horrors that have occurred in his community. “The [Indonesian] military just comes in to our villages and oppresses our people, accusing everyone of being a rebel,” he says. “I have stood up time and time again to the soldiers, I have had guns waved in my face, but I will always stand up for my people.”
West Papuans are not the military’s only victims. Various shootings of Freeport-McMoRan staff, including the murder of Australian project manager Drew Grant in 2009, are suspected to have been the work of military forces seeking to demonstrate to foreigners the necessity of their presence in the region. The need to show this increased after Freeport-McMoRan cut official ties with the military in 2007 and control was handed over to local police by Jakarta.
Despite the Indonesian military’s recorded human rights abuses in West Papua, the Australian government continues to maintain military ties, and trains and funds its forces – including the Kopassus Special Forces, involved in the invasion of East Timor in 1975. TPN spokesman Jonah Wenda calls on the Australian government to stop all military aid to Indonesia.
Sitting in a gloomy safe house on the outskirts of Jayapura, he begs Australia to lead the international community in intervening and setting up a dialogue, as occurred in East Timor, which would lead to their independence. Otherwise, he warns, West Papua could become a “regional humanitarian crisis”.
Sylebus Bobby shares Wenda’s concerns. He says his group will not stop organising protests until they have gained independence. Despite the dangers faced, the group already has several major demonstrations planned. Sylebus Bobby isn’t scared to go back to jail but begs the world for assistance. “Every Papuan person wants independence, this is not a problem that is going to go away, it’s only going to get worse,” he says. “If the international community doesn’t help us, West Papuan people will slowly perish while fighting for the independence we deserve.”