Jake Lynch

Indonesia is heading in some promising directions. Triumph for the Democrat Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – ‘SBY’ – in the country’s parliamentary elections, amounts to a handsome endorsement for a general-turned-politician who is, in many ways, a significant reformer. Among his achievements are the peace deal that finally brought a glimmer of hope to the long-suffering province of Aceh, and Indonesia’s ratification of two key human rights instruments, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights respectively.

That these steps are taking place in the world’s most populous Muslim country shows that democracy and human rights are not incompatible with Islam, contrary to suggestions emerging periodically from the more excitable brand of conservative cultural commentators in the West. It confirms a welcome change of course since the repressive New Order regime of President Suharto, and the massacres of Communist Party members that brought him to power on a tide of blood.

There is, however, one significant blemish in this generally benign picture. The people of West Papua have had to endure four decades of subjugation, extending through the New Order and beyond, with no real sign of any improvement. Peace in Aceh, and the secession of East Timor, amid the ruins of Suharto’s regime in 1999, deprived Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI, of two significant internal conflict zones in which to operate, since when the number of troops committed to West Papua has been remorselessly rising.   

West Papua has now been sliced into two provinces, with plans for a third. Suharto’s immediate successor, BJ Habibie, approved a significant degree of decentralisation in the country, and in 2002, West Papua was granted Special Autonomy status. One of the intended effects was for the province to keep more of the proceeds from the rich resources being exploited by corporations who reached deals with Jakarta. However, the proliferating levels of administration have ensured that much of the money is diverted to a burgeoning client class of bureaucrats, rather than being spent on genuine development.

One area in which development is sorely needed is in the provision of health services, especially by extending them to rural areas, where rates of infant and maternal mortality are shockingly high, and the spread of HIV/AIDS has decimated communities. Researchers from the West Papua Project (WPP), at Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, gathered evidence of army complicity in Papua’s HIV/AIDS crisis, with officers profiteering from legal and illegal brothels, where inadequate health testing regimes mean the disease can rapidly spread (1).

Under a law passed in 2004, as SBY took office, the TNI are supposed to divest themselves of all their business interests by this year. However, an interim report by the monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, concluded a couple of years ago that progress was glacial. Traditionally, half the military budget or less came from government coffers – it was up to officers themselves to raise the rest. “The military’s money-making creates an obvious conflict of interest with its proper role”, said Lisa Misol, a researcher with HRW’s Business and Human Rights Program, at the time. “Instead of protecting Indonesians, troops are using violence and intimidation to further their business interests”, she said. “And because the government doesn’t control the purse-strings, it can’t really control them”.

The most notorious case, the report pointed out, is the protection racket the army runs around the giant American-owned Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine, near Puncak Jaya in Papua’s central highlands. Protection from what, and whom? Peaceful protest against the Freeport mine, long the focus of discontent, has resulted in imprisonment, torture and extra-judicial killings. However, a second WPP report documented cases where the TNI was accused of provokasi, sending fake ‘independence fighters’ into areas where it had not previously deployed, to raise the spectre of violent resistance, as a pretext for spreading its own operations in Papua.

Humanitarian crises

In the process, local humanitarian crises regularly arise, with villagers, fleeing the advancing army units, taking to the forest in fear. Cut off from medical supplies and having left their homes and food gardens, many simply perish. The WPP report documented cases around the town of Mulia, which, it said, now “[stood] to be
replicated across West Papua”. TNI activities “block[ed] the entire Indonesian democratisation process”, it added, and entrenched “corruption, militarisation and the culture of impunity for the prosecution of crimes by military and police personnel”.

The period leading up to this month’s election was marked by a renewed upsurge in reports of violence coming out of West Papua. In spite of the provisions of the two human rights Covenants, the Indonesian authorities still clamp down, even on non-violent expressions of support for independence. At least eighteen political prisoners are currently serving long jail sentences in cases where there is no dispute that their actions were purely peaceful, including merely being present when the Morning Star flag of the Papuan independence movement was raised.

On Friday April 3 this year, large pro-independence rallies were held in the town of Nabire and Wamena District, defying police attempts to ban them. A third rally, held in Nabire the following Monday, then degenerated into violence, with nine demonstrators being shot and wounded. Paula Makabory, exiled in Melbourne, from where she runs the Institute for Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights, takes up the story:

“Reports received from Nabire indicate that the violent confrontation that occurred on Monday the 6 April between the security forces and pro-independence protesters was actually promoted by a pro-Indonesian militia member and other Papuans working with the Indonesian security forces. The fact that there are reports that the Indonesian security personnel were positioned in [neighbouring] buildings, and armed, clearly suggests that this confrontation and the subsequent shooting and wounding of civilians was planned and staged by the Indonesian security forces.”

This came shortly after rare pictures reached the outside world, showing genuine independence fighters, raising the Morning Star flag and vowing to die for their land, if necessary. The OPM, Organisasi Papua Merdeka or Free Papua Movement, arose in the 1960s to oppose Jakarta’s rule over West Papua, was quickly overwhelmed by the Indonesian military and receded to the sidelines, to become an occasional irritant, at the most. However, an eleven-minute film on the BBC’s Newsnight programme (3) showed them mustering significant numbers of men for the watching camera, filing through the bush and rallying at a rural highland stronghold, albeit the exact location remained, for obvious reasons, undisclosed.

The rebel commander, Goliat Tabuni, told the interviewer: “This is our land… how many of us have died? There are so few of us now”. The armed resistance was “fragmented and poorly armed”, according to the commentary by reporter Rachel Harvey, the BBC’s knowledgeable former Jakarta correspondent, but significant for its “symbolism” rather than “its ability to wage war”.

The Newsnight film briefly rehearses the history of the conflict. “Layers of grievance have built up over decades”, Harvey relates, since the so-called Act of Free Choice, which allowed Suharto to grab the territory in the first place. Forty years ago, about a thousand Papuans were corralled to vote publicly in favour of integration into Indonesia. This came several years after the United States had sponsored talks between Indonesia and the Dutch, who retained the territory as a colonial possession, in the early sixties. The New York Agreement of 1962 was supposed to provide for all Papuans to vote in an act of self-determination, but the actual procedure, coming after years of political repression, was a sham, and the Americans knew it.

Documents obtained by the US National Security Archive include a US Embassy telegram from July 1969:

“The Act of Free Choice (AFC) in West Irian [the Indonesian name for Papua] is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the Government of Indonesia, cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it”.

America’s Ambassador to Jakarta, Frank Galbraith, noted on July 9, 1969 that past abuses had stimulated intense anti-Indonesian and pro-independence sentiment at all levels of Irian society, suggesting that “possibly 85 to 90%” of the population “are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause”. Moreover, Galbraith observed, recent Indonesian military operations, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians, “had stimulated fears and rumours of intended genocide among the Irianese”.

At the time, the UN “noted” the Act of Free Choice, and with that, the outside world effectively accepted Indonesian sovereignty over Papua. One of Suharto’s first acts on seizing power had been to pass a foreign investment law, and the first beneficiary was the Freeport company, seeking to develop its copper and gold prospect. What was good for Freeport was, apparently, good for America: Washington’s chief diplomatic priority, at the time, was for Papua to be integrated into Indonesia. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger passed secret advice, the NSA documents show, to President Lyndon B Johnson, that he was on no account to raise the matter with the Indonesian government.

The Lombok Treaty

It’s been the basic policy stance of the US and allied countries, at a governmental level, ever since. The second of the WPP reports, referenced above, focuses on the so-called ‘Lombok Treaty’, the new security agreement between Indonesia and Australia, which goes so far as to suggest that any expression of support for Papuan independence – even from within Australia – should be regarded as “a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party”, and something which Australia is thereby committed to disallow.  

The treaty was drawn up, apparently to repair relations with Jakarta after the Indonesian ambassador was recalled from Canberra, in protest over Australia’s decision to grant refugee status to a group of 43 leaders of the Papuan struggle who reached Australia by boat and claimed asylum. That decision, in 2006, confirmed Australia’s recognition that – in the words of the 1951 Refugee Convention – they faced a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their own country. However, the treaty contains no mention of human rights, political freedom or free expression – all, apparently, now off limits in the relationship.

So far as mainstream Australian politics is concerned, indeed, the West Papua issue begins to resemble the old Schleswig-Holstein question in nineteenth century Europe, to which, it was famously said, only three men knew the answer: one was mad, one was dead and the other had forgotten. When the West Papua Project launched its report on the Lombok Treaty at the Canberra parliament, in 2007, of three MPs who bothered to attend, one’s resigned, one’s died and the other lost her seat.

Legislators in other countries have shown more of a sense of principle. The British parliament saw the launch, last year, of International Parliamentarians for West Papua, under the leadership of Andrew Smith (a former senior minister, who was my local MP in Oxford when I lived in the UK). In Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific wrote recently to SBY in the following terms:

“Dear Mr. President:

In 2005, at your request, we suspended our support for West Papua’s right to self-determination in order to give you time to implement the Special Autonomy legislation passed by the Indonesian Parliament in 2001. We welcomed the promise of this legislation and your personal assurances that your government would finally accord the Papuan people a fair share of the great wealth derived from Papuan resources.  However, after three years, we note that the people of Papua, through the voices of Papuan religious and civil society leaders as well in broad public demonstrations, have declared Special Autonomy a failure.

We are also disappointed that your government has not made substantial progress in implementing Special Autonomy.  While your administration has designated Special Autonomy funds for Papuan development, these funds have not reached the Papuan people who, after over four decades, still lack even rudimentary health and educational services”.

Unlike the Australian government, sub-committee members sought to link the rights of Papuans with continued US support for Indonesia’s “territorial integrity”, a buzz phrase for Indonesian nationalist opinion. “Doing right by Papua means: a) implementing a plan of success; b) opening your doors to allow Members of the US Congress, United Nations personnel, and non-government agencies access to Jayapura and the rest of the province; and c) demilitarizing your approach”, the letter continues. This came after the Sub-Committee’s chair, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, was denied access to West Papua by TNI troops.

“Indonesia’s reliance on force for the maintenance of control is counterproductive”, the Sub-Committee’s letter goes on, “and long-standing abuses by security forces have galvanized independence sentiments among majority Papuans”.

Discussion and dialogue

Questions, then: how can these sentiments be brought to bear on meaningful discussions about the future of West Papua? Could there be a successful process such as the one that did bring authentic and wide-ranging autonomy to Aceh, at the other end of the archipelago? This was the subject of a notably humane and perceptive report, released last year by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, a body backed by the Indonesian government, and titled, Papua Road Map. One of the biggest obstacles to a genuine “dialogue” about a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict was, it said, the lack of any substantive conversation among Papuan leaders themselves, notably between provincial leaders and those “outside the state sector”.

An international third-party mediator could be appointed, LIPI suggested, to empower those presently confined to street protests, of the kind witnessed in Nabire, to join in a broadly-based dialogue about “questions of violence and human rights abuses, the failure of development and the marginalisation of the indigenous Papuans”.

The West Papua Project at Sydney University is now making its own contribution to this with its Papua Desk Survey project, documenting Papuans’ own specific experiences of racism and human rights abuse, as well as their perceptions of the way political process is working under ‘Special Autonomy’, and their aspirations for the future of the province. Publications are planned, which will at least put these insights on the map, for those who care to keep themselves informed.

The traction the issue can attain in general public debate – and the pressure, therefore, on politicians to remain engaged with it – will depend partly on journalists, following the example of Rachel Harvey and insisting on filtering assessments of Indonesia through its record and conduct in West Papua. Many are the promising auguries coming out of the country right now, certainly in comparison with the dark days of the Suharto regime. President Yudhoyono has promised, in past speeches, to approach the Papua issue “peacefully, justly and with dignity”. The international community must join the Congressional Sub-committee members in holding him to that, and “community” must mean everyone, including journalists, trade unionists, aid agencies and universities – not just governments.


(1) Genocide in West Papua? Download from here:

(2) Blundering In. Download from here:

(3) View the film here:


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Apr 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: THE PLIGHT OF THE PAPUANS, is included. Thank you.

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