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Salvaging Democracy for West Papuans in the Face of Australia-Indonesia Obstruction



The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 45, No. 1, November 23, 2015

By Camellia Webb-Gannon


Map showing West Papua on the island of New Guinea in relation to Australia and Indonesia - Suplied

Map showing West Papua on the island of New Guinea in relation to Australia and Indonesia – Suplied

This article argues that the democratic ideals espoused by Australia and Indonesia fall short in application to West Papua and West Papuans, and notes that such shortcomings are legitimated by mainstream media’s exoticist portrayals of West Papuans, particularly in Australia. The antidemocratic policies and processes of each government with regard to West Papua actually enable the (by and large) “good” bilateral relations at the state level to remain intact. However, this article contends that democracy, as practiced by civil society actors at the grassroots and digital network level in Australia and West Papua, creates cracks in the official Australia-Indonesia state relationship. Australian concerns over Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua have traditionally been overlooked at the state level in favor of pursuing an amicable bilateral relationship.
However by forging digital activist networks locally and internationally—including building West Papuan-indigenous Australian partnerships, West Papuans are participating in a grassroots democratization process with global outreach, refusing to be sacrificed on the altar of regional realpolitik. The article concludes with a cautionary account of an apparent attempt by an opportunistic Australian political movement to hijack West Papuan democratization for its own ends, a threat West Papuan and Australian civil society activists are currently moving to contain.

West Papuans: cannibals or the sacrificed?
Who isn’t fascinated by a cannibal story – particularly one about a cannibal act purportedly planned in the past decade? In 2006, a weekly current affairs television show hosted by a popular Australian network aired a program introducing Wawa, a then six-year old boy its television crew met during a so-called first contact

encounter with West Papua’s Korowai people. Wawa, the program alleged, was facing imminent cannibalization by his tribe for suspicion of witchcraft. A media fiasco followed in which the television network and its main rival raced to produce a “rescue Wawa” story. The rival’s controversial presenter was deported from West Papua for using a tourist visa, and Wawa was eventually taken from his home by the original network’s Sumatran tour guide to live in Jayapura and, later, Sumatra.
Earlier this year, a staffer of the first-mentioned current affairs program informed me that a follow up story on Wawa and the Korowai was being considered. The plan was to take Wawa on a return visit to Korowai land, ask him to compare his new school and city life with that of his village of origin, and assess how Korowai ways of life, including the practice of cannibalism, had changed since 2006.
This program concept illustrates the entrenched ignorance that pervades the mainstream Australian imaginary of West Papua and other parts of Melanesia. Anthropologist Rupert Stasch, the world’s preeminent scholar on the social relations of the Korowai, visited Wawa’s people after the media maelstrom and, through conversation with those who knew Wawa, found out that “there was a predictably wide gulf between the representations that had circulated in the international media and the boy’s actual history as understood by his kin and co-villagers (who were unaware of the media coverage) (1)”. Further, “almost all persons [Stasch] spoke with said that the exclusive reason the first film crew’s guide had been approached by villagers about taking the orphan to town was so that he would go to school, become literate in Indonesian, and return as a teacher, nurse, or government official. These numerous persons matter-of-factly denied […] suggestions that the boy had been rumored to be a witch, or had been in danger of being killed” (2).
“First contact” tourism and journalism are sensationalist, essentialist and, with regard to the Korowai, misleading – European missionaries have lived with the Korowai since the 1970s and the Korowai are knowing, if far from equal, agents in the marketing of their “culture” to outsiders. The removal of children from their families of origin by Western journalists chasing television ratings is of course ethically highly dubious. Yet, despite the informed criticism directed towards the current affairs program after its 2006 West Papua foray, it has contemplated revisiting the Wawa story. West Papua has, for a long time, threatened the stability of the Australia-Indonesia relationship but Australian citizens have pressured their government not to let the Indonesian government escape criticism for the crimes its military forces commit in West Papua. In portraying West Papuans as less than civilized, mainstream Australian media fabrications such as the “Wawa story” serve to uphold Indonesia’s ongoing colonial occupation of West Papua.

Wawa in 2006 - Suplied

Wawa in 2006 – Suplied

They also support an Australian media-military complex—providing a veneer of justification for Australian training of Indonesian security forces (3),—which in turn “keeps in check” the “violent” peoples of “Stone Age” Papua. Such portrayals (4) feed into one of two broad narratives that surround military and government bilateral relations between Australia and Indonesia in which West Papua is treated by Australia as either a pawn or a liability. In the first narrative, that of “primitive and unpredictable Papuans”, the Australian public gaze is momentarily averted from the violence of the Indonesian military in West Papua, and the pressure on the Australian government to hold Indonesia accountable is relieved. The second narrative will be dealt with in the remainder of this article.


This second narrative presents Indonesia as a “normal”(5) country – that is, democratizing, not subject to military excesses, and accountable to the rule of law. The Indonesian government frequently asserts that these apparent attributes also extend to its rule in West Papua. Yet, upon examination, they appear to be observed more in the breach than otherwise. The Australian government’s willingness to pay lip service to Indonesian claims, for the sake of harmonious relations with Jakarta, silences West Papuans’ grievances at the official, bilateral level.
The Australia-Indonesia relationship itself is often portrayed as one incrementally strengthening due to Indonesia’s supposedly increasing democratization. What is rarely considered, however, is the extent to which Australian democratic principles are applied to, and what relationship the democratic credentials of either government has with, the political plight of West Papuans. Each of these concerns has important implications for the civil societies and governments of both countries, as well as their bilateral relationship. Indeed, it appears that it is mutual complicity in the antidemocratic processes being enacted in Indonesia and Australia with regard to West Papua that tends to strengthen the bilateral relationship at the state level. Simultaneously, that “good” relationship is threatened by the alternative processes of digital networking and grassroots democratization which ignore state borders and bring civil society in Australia and West Papua closer together.
For example, much has been made of Indonesia’s democratization since the fall of Suharto in May 1998, and the implementation of electoral reforms from 1999 onward. However, democratic reforms have had a limited reach in West Papua. For example, in 2003, the province of Papua was divided into two, “Papua” and “West Papua”, by the central government, contrary to local wishes and national law. Local Papuan political parties are banned (6). The Freeport mine, controlled by an American company that pays huge royalties and taxes to Jakarta, exploits West Papuan natural resources, wreaks havoc on the environment and local communities, yet yields negligible benefits to Papuan people (7).

Freeport mining area in Timika -

Freeport mining area in Timika –

And the Indonesia military operates with near impunity in West Papua. In December 2014, four unarmed West Papuan youth were killed and 17 more injured in Paniai when the Indonesian army and police opened fire on a group of protesters. Although an investigation into this massacre was opened, it has been compromised by police involvement. Military and police violence has also been a mainstay around Freeport’s mines in Timika since the company began operations in the 1970s as security forces vied with each other for lucrative “protection” contracts for the company. There is strong evidence suggesting that security forces also orchestrate violent conflict around the mine (for example, ambushes along the road leading to the mine) and then blame such violence on the guerilla-led Free West Papua movement, legitimating their own presence in the process (8).
High hopes were held for democratic improvements in West Papua when Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president in 2014. In his most recent visit to the region, Widodo released five political prisoners and announced that the ban on foreign journalists visiting West Papua would be lifted. However West Papuan activists claim that the release of the five prisoners, who were required to ask for clemency, was tokenistic since some 500 more protesters were subsequently arrested in May and June this year (9). Papua observers in Indonesia, such as Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch, also doubt the President’s power to carry out a dramatic reversal to the longstanding international media blackout on West Papua kept in place by 18 central government agencies whose permission is required to visit the territory and who profit from their visa vetting role (10). Scholar of Papua, Budi Hernawan, observes that Widodo is rapidly losing credibility within his own government.

Indonesia President, Joko Widodo - Jubi

Indonesia President, Joko Widodo – Jubi

The military is agitating for a presidential decree to mandate control of public order by the army and for an amendment to the law that requires such a decree in the first place (11). In other words, according to Hernawan, the army is working towards bypassing Presidential checks and balances in order to once more practice, unfettered, the fomentation of conflict that justifies its existence in the far reaches of Indonesia—particularly West Papua (12).

Australian democracy and West Papua
In recent years, as democratic processes have been rolled out in other parts of Indonesia, the Australian government has legitimated the charade that those same processes are reaching West Papua. In fact, Australia has maintained a “pragmatic complicity”(13) in Indonesia’s treatment of West Papua since Indonesia invaded the territory in 1962 (shortly after West Papua’s previous colonizers, the Dutch East Indies, had made preparations with West Papuans for an independent West Papua), and has done little to protest the litany of human rights crimes committed by the regime. These include widespread instances of torture and rape of West Papuans, forced removal from traditional lands, environmental devastation, curtailment of civil and political rights, starvation, assassinations and disappearances (14). Such concerted violence has stemmed from Indonesian expansionist and resource exploitation endeavors in West Papua, attempts to eradicate West Papua’s independence movement (formed in protest to Indonesian occupation and fuelled by ongoing Indonesian violence), and longstanding racism against West Papuan people.
In 1962, when West Papua’s future political status was under negotiation, Australia’s external affairs minister Garfield Barwick asserted that it was not in Australia’s strategic interest to counter Indonesia’s expansionary designs on West Papua; Australia would be better served forging diplomatic ties with a non-communist Indonesia (15). The Australian government therefore supported the US-brokered 1962 New York Agreement that bequeathed the territory to Jakarta, and the subsequent rigged 1969 Act of Free Choice that formalized West Papua’s ongoing annexation by Indonesia.
Despite the fact that West Papua’s status as part of Indonesia has been contested ever since, Canberra’s position has been unwavering. As recently as 2006 Australia and Indonesia negotiated the Lombok Treaty which contained a “Papua Clause” committing the Australian government to “not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party, including by those who seek to use its territory for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other Party” (16). Signing this agreement signalled the Australian government’s willingness to curtail the democratic freedom of its own citizens to support persons involved in West Papua’s independence struggle; this, in order to assure Indonesia of its unconditional recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.

Mako Tabuni

Mako Tabuni

When Mako Tabuni, a West Papuan independence activist, was murdered in the street in Jayapura in 2012, eyewitnesses and, later, Australian investigative journalists, asserted that the murder was committed by the partly Australian funded and trained Indonesian anti-terror police squad, Detachment 88 (17). The following year three West Papuan men climbed the walls of the Australian consulate in Bali immediately prior to an anticipated visit by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seeking refuge and calling for the release of political prisoners in West Papua. Australian academic Clinton Fernandes, who was on the telephone to the consulate at the time of the incident, overheard an Australian voice threatening to bring in the Indonesian military and police to remove the Papuan men. The latter were forced to flee the consulate, fearful for their lives (18).
In the aftermath of this incident Abbott stated his desire to convey “in flashing neon lights” that attempts to “grandstand” against Indonesia by involving Australia were “not welcome”. Asserting, as Australian leaders regularly do, that Australia respected Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, Abbott added, following the lead of Indonesian leaders, that “the situation in West Papua was ‘getting better, not worse’”(19).
The combined efforts of the Indonesian and Australian governments to whitewash ongoing brutalities in West Papua are under constant pressure, however. Moreover, since most Australian statements regarding relations with Indonesia are prefaced with references to the Australian national interest, Indonesia knows Australian policy on West Papua is strategically and, at times, legally contingent. Indeed, precedents exist for Australian support of human rights and self-determination in contested Indonesian territories. In addition to Australia’s about face from support for Indonesian sovereignty in East Timor in 1999 to rejecting it, Australia also recognized 43 West Papuans who arrived in Australia in 2006 as legitimate asylum seekers and granted them temporary protection visas, prompting Jakarta to recall its ambassador from Canberra in protest.
There have been other hints that Canberra’s continued acquiescence over West Papua has its limits. After allegations emerged in 2013 that Australia had been spying on Indonesian officials, and Indonesia responded by threatening to cease cooperation on managing “people smuggling”, Abbott reminded Jakarta that Australia had attempted to dissuade Australian-based West Papuan activists from traveling by boat to West Papua, effectively implying that Australian support for Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua was tied to cooperation from Indonesia on issues of Australian national concern (20).
All of this demonstrates that, at a state level, both Australia and Indonesia are willing to exaggerate the bona fides of Indonesian democracy in West Papua and collude to cover up direct violations of democracy and human rights in the territory. As a result neither country is acting altruistically with regard to West Papua. Indonesia is vested financially in occupying West Papua, and Australia is vested financially in appeasing Indonesia and thus condoning its occupation of West Papua (21). Nevertheless, there is hope that significant shifts in Australia’s approach to West Papua might be possible. At present though, it appears that the strength of Australia-Indonesia ties in relation to West Papua is in inverse proportion to the degree of democracy and human rights respect afforded West Papuans and their Australian supporters.

Grassroots democracy and digital networks
By contrast, transformative democratization, in essence coordinated purposeful action by and for the affected people, is occurring at grassroots activist and digital network levels, linking West Papuan, other Melanesian, and Australian civil society communities in solidarity against state-centric oppressive concepts of sovereignty. This is expressed in a burgeoning genre of West Papua independence music being created by West Papuans and their Melanesian and Australian supporters and distributed digitally via YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes, Bluetooth and SD cards through ever expanding digital networks (22). While evidently the digital revolution has not impacted all populations equally, it has had the effect of spreading music, foundational to Melanesian cosmology and the life force of West Papua’s independence movement (23) widely and lifting the regional profile of the West Papuan struggle. Moreover, social media has also elevated the perceived urgency of the struggle in mainstream Australia and internationally, propelling the circulation of mobile phone videos such as those depicting the torture of West Papuans (24), and attracting the intervention of internet activist hacker group Anonymous on behalf of West Papuans (25).
A grass roots activist movement—recognizing a shared history between indigenous Papuans and indigenous Australians of settler colonial violence and cohabitation of the prehistoric continent Sahul (a Pleistocene era landmass that included mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, Seram and possibly the island of Timor)—has emerged over the past two years, most dynamically in the initiative of the West Papua Freedom Flotilla (26). This project has involved two maritime missions, with West Papuan and Aboriginal activists using Aboriginal “passports” and West Papuan “visas” in an effort to carry water from Lake Eyre to West Papua—a form of nonviolent direct action highlighting West Papua’s violent occupation and symbolizing Oceanic indigenous articulations.
Two other events are notable with regard to West Papuan-oriented activism in Australia. In April 2014 an office opened in Perth to carry out the work of Oxford-based West Papuan refugee and independence activist Benny Wenda and his Free West Papua campaign (27). Soon after, in June 2014, the author attended the opening of the Federal Republic of West Papua’s Department of Foreign Affairs Immigration and Trade office headed up by Foreign Minister, Jacob Rumbiak, a former West Papuan political prisoner living in exile in Melbourne. The office was located in an architecturally slick, eco-friendly complex in Melbourne’s central business district and its opening was officiated by various local government officials, indigenous Australian leaders, and a university representative. Both of these offices were established in contravention of the Lombok Treaty and remain in operation, demonstrating that grassroots, people-led movements can thrive in the interstices of top down, anti-democratic power.
Supporters of the West Papuan rights movement in Australia include artists, academics, people of faith, lawyers and environmental and indigenous rights activists who are often loosely aligned with the several city-based Australia West Papua Associations and who work in tandem through these networks.

Biak Tribunal in Sydney - Suplied

Biak Tribunal in Sydney – Suplied

In July 2013, the West Papua Project at The University of Sydney produced a citizens tribunal, the first of its kind in Australia, weighing evidence and hearing testimonies from survivors of the 1998 Biak Massacre in which Indonesian security forces murdered up to 200 West Papuans peacefully demonstrating on the West Papuan island of Biak (28).
The Indonesian military has never been held accountable for this massacre, and notable Australian legal personalities, concerned academics from institutions across Australia, and other activists cooperated in an effort to bring a degree of justice and closure to the victims even in the absence of a legal remedy. In March 2015, several of the tribunal team led by Justice John Dowd and academic Eben Kirksey presented the evidence brief to Liberal, Labor and Greens party politicians in federal parliament and met with a favorable tripartisan reception, further evidence that small initiatives can reach the halls of power, if not yet the decision-making chambers.
Australian academics—some of whom are affiliated with the West Papua Project at The University of Sydney—have also been involved with West Papuan efforts to make their political presence known in the Melanesian region, assisting the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) to develop its latest submission for membership to the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). The MSG, a political bloc comprised of the four Melanesian countries – Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji—was formed in 1986, in part to lobby France for New Caledonian independence. As such, the indigenous Kanak independence party, the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (French: Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste, FLNKS), has been an integral member of the MSG from its inception.

ULMWP in Honiara for MSG Summit - Jubi

ULMWP in Honiara for MSG Summit – Jubi

And West Papua has for several years sought membership on the same basis. A limited victory was celebrated in June 2015 by West Papuans and their supporters when West Papua was granted observer status in the MSG, although at the same meeting Indonesia was granted associate membership, a higher level, which somewhat dampened West Papuans’ celebrations.
These community-initiated activities of West Papuans in Australia, and of Australians working in solidarity with them, demonstrate that steps toward positive change in West Papua are being pushed from the bottom up rather than the top down. These actions in Australia and West Papua suggest possibilities for a brighter, more democratic future for West Papuans, in spite of Indonesian and Australian government efforts to stymie them.

Reclaim Australia and the Free West Papua Party
(29), which appears to be capitalizing on the Free West Papua Campaign “brand” created by dynamic West Papuan activist Benny Wenda. The party combines anti-Islamic ideology and unrealistic goals, (30) claiming to possess “the potential to quickly free West Papua through the next Federal Election” (31). In July 2015 its leader delivered a speech at an ultra-nationalist Reclaim Australia rally purporting to support West Papuan freedom in an era of Islamization. Campaigning for West Papua at such events conveys the impression that the fight for the independence of West Papua is primarily religious (i.e. a Christian versus Muslim struggle), which it is not, although at times it does assume a religio-cultural tone. In fact, many West Papuans, including some independence leaders, are Muslim (32). Both Australian supporters of West Papuan rights and West Papuans residing in Australia have moved quickly to distance themselves from the Free West Papua Party and its ideological tenets and implications (33).
Further, indigenous Australians are protesting against the Reclaim Australia movement (34). If what Reclaim Australia supporters are really trying to do is “reclaim” Australia for a majority “caucasian [sic] and Christian” (35) population (and those with “assimilationist” aspirations), then it hardly seems appropriate for an Australian political party to drag indigenous West Papuans into the movement. Finally, as previously mentioned, indigenous West Papuans and indigenous Australians are already working together in a dynamic movement to recognise indigenous sovereignty in their respective lands with the Freedom Flotilla initiative. This is an internally organized, organic movement that represents a positive reclamation and an indication, among others (for example the progress made within the MSG, the tabling of West Papuan grievances at the Pacific Islands Forum (36), and the rise of Pacific-wide solidarity for West Papua (37)) that the West Papuan independence movement is garnering increasing international awareness.
Yet despite this forward momentum, West Papua is in the grip of a serious demographic crisis. A history of Indonesian state-sponsored transmigration and continuous, rapid and spontaneous migration from other parts of Indonesia to West Papua, coupled with high mortality and morbidity rates for West Papuans compared with non-Papuans (38) has meant that indigenous West Papuans, since 2010, have become a demographic and cultural minority in their homeland (39). Even though many West Papuans campaign for a referendum on independence, in statistical terms, if this becomes an option for them as it did for the East Timorese in 1999, it is unlikely to deliver the result hoped for by indigenous independence-seekers. The future is likely to be bloody, as West Papuans have demonstrated since the 1960s that they will not back down, even in the face of military terror, from their pursuit of independence.
When the Suharto-era general and notorious strongman Prabowo Subianto was Widodo’s challenger for the position of Indonesian president leading up to the last election, predictions for the status of West Papuans should his campaign be successful were “apocalyptic” (40). Yet Widodo’s apparent inability to stand up to pressure from military forces lobbying to sit above civilian authority may still have apocalyptic consequences for West Papuans should the military subsequently be given freer reign in West Papua. If the result of increased militarization in West Papua is a showdown like that of East Timor’s 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which 250 protesters were murdered, international civil society pressure might occasion a multilateral intervention. Although the second of these possible futures is West Papuans’ most immediate hope for independence, both are grim. Their most promising option, and the one in which most efforts are currently being channelled, is the strengthening of grassroots democratic networks and forging of regional solidarity. Time, however, is of the essence. Demographic transition in West Papua is the key challenge.

This article has attempted to demonstrate that it is important that the Australian public not take too narrow a view of Australian national interest – the Australian government has already made that mistake with regard to West Papua. Indeed, the Australian government should remember that what it considers to be in its best interest can change dramatically and rather suddenly, as its 1999 intervention into East Timor revealed. The Australian public would do well to follow the lead of indigenous West Papuans and indigenous Australians in lobbying the Australian government and demonstrating to mainstream media that democracy in Indonesia and in Australia should not be solely for the benefit of privileged ethnicities and the already rich. Rather, democracy ought to encompass politico-legal ethics and processes that facilitate the meaningful self-determination of each society’s most vulnerable groups. A healthy relationship between the two countries—one that valued democracy in each—would acknowledge both in law and in practice the traditional custodians of the various territories comprising the two countries. It would be committed to fostering peaceful explorations of self-determination engaging indigenous peoples as primary actors. It would consider unacceptable the circulation of tired, clichéd and frankly dehumanizing portrayals of West Papuans as cannibals, as subjects for entertainment on Australian television. Given the tragedy of Australia’s own Stolen Generations from indigenous people, further Australian media interventions in the life of Wawa, an already traumatised indigenous child, should certainly be off limits.

Comments by Adam Stott, Peter King and Michael Webb helped to improve an earlier version of this manuscript, for which I am most grateful.

Camellia Webb-Gannon is a Research Fellow with the Digital Humanities Research Group at Western Sydney University and is the Coordinator of the West Papua Project at The University of Sydney. Her PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies from The University of Sydney examined the dynamics of unity and conflict within West Papua’s independence movement. Recent research considers the impact of digital technologies and the arts on human rights advocacy as well as local interpretations of Melanesian indigenous rights, Melanesian self-determination movements, and concepts and mechanisms of justice in Oceania.

Recommended citation: Camellia Webb-Gannon, “Salvaging Democracy for West Papuans in the Face of Australia-Indonesia Obstruction”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 45, No. 1, November 23, 2015.

Related articles
• Camellia Webb-Gannon and Jim Elmslie, MSG Headache, West Papuan Heartache? Indonesia’s Melanesian Foray
• David Adam Stott, Would An Independent West Papua Be A Failing State?
• David Adam Stott, Indonesian Colonisation, Resource Plunder and West Papuan Grievances


1 Rupert Stasch, 2014, ‘Powers of Incomprehension: Linguistic Otherness, Translators and Political Structure in New Guinea Tourism Encounters’, Hau Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4:2.

2 Ibid.

3 Hayden Cooper and Lisa Main, 2012, ‘Australia Faces Links to West Papua Torture’, ABC’s 7:30.

4 Other examples (not Australian) of such media portrayals of West Papuans include the following: Carl Hoffman, 2014, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, Text Publishing; Milt Machlin, 1972, The Search for Michael Rockefeller, Putnam; Robert Norton, 2015, ‘Ambushed: Escaping the Cannibals of West Papua, Indonesia’, Yahoo Travel; and Paul Raffaele, 2006, ‘Sleeping with Cannibals’, Smithsonian Magazine.

5 Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas E Ramage, 2008, ‘Seeing Indonesia as a Normal Country: Implications for Australia’, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

6 Jason MacLeod, 2010, ‘Papuan Struggle Enters New Phase’, Open Democracy.

This curtailment of political freedom extends into all provinces of Indonesia with the exception of Aceh which alone has been able to successfully lobby (as part of its 2005 peace negotiations with Jakarta) for the formation of its own political parties.

7 Freeport is Indonesia’s largest revenue contributor – in 2014 alone it paid the Indonesian government US$1.5 billion in tax (Nithin Coca, 2015, ‘West Papua: Mining in an Occupation Forgotten by the World’, Equal Times). It operates the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine in Timika, West Papua, and the untold environmental devastation it has wreaked during its tenure in West Papua prompted the Norwegian government, in 2008, to divest AU$1 billion

from Rio Tinto, Freeport’s partner in West Papua (Benny Wenda, October 12, 2011, ‘Everyone profits from West Papua, except for West Papuans’, The Guardian). Papuan miners are paid unconscionable wages, the local peoples – the Amungme and Komoro tribes – have lost ancestral lands of sacred, economic, and social significance, resultant internecine violence abounds, and the military and police wage an ongoing war over ‘security’ contracts for the mine (see Coca and Wenda, this note).

8 For an excellent exposition of the politics of security around Freeport, see Eben Kirksey and Andreas Harsono, 2008, ‘Criminal Collaborations? Antonius Wamang and the Indonesian Military in Timika,’ South East Asia Research 16:2, pp. 165-197.

9 ‘May 2015: While Jokowi Releases Five, Nearly 500 are Arrested’, Papuans Behind Bars.

10 Andreas Harsono, June 12, 2015, ‘Jokowi, Human Rights in Indonesia and Peace in West Papua’, Special Forum hosted by the Centre for Peace and Conflict and the Department of Indonesian Studies at The University of Sydney. See also Coca, above n. 7.

11 Budi Hernawan, November 3, 2015, ‘The Rise of Pacific Solidarity for West Papua,’ Special Forum hosted by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Sydney.

12 Ibid.

13 Stuart Rollo, 2013, ‘Ending Our Pragmatic Complicity in West Papua’, The Drum.

14 See John Wing and Peter King, 2005, ‘Genocide in West Papua? The Role of the Indonesian State Apparatus and a Current Needs Assessment of the Papuan People’, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney;

Jim Elmslie and Camellia Webb-Gannon, 2013, ‘A Slow-Motion Genocide: Indonesian Rule in West Papua’, Griffith Journal of Law and Human Dignity 1:2, pp. 142-166; Elizabeth Brundige, Winter King, Priyneha Vahali, Stephen Vladeck and Xiang Yuan, 2004, ‘Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Rule’, Allard K Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic Yale Law School.

15 Richard Chauvel, 2012, ‘50 Years On, Australia’s Papua Policy Is Still Failing’, Inside Story.

16 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2006, ‘Agreement Between the Republic of Indonesia and Australia on the Framework for Security Cooperation (“The Lombok Treaty”)’.

17 Hayden Cooper and Lisa Main, 2012, ‘Australia Faces Links to West Papua Torture’, ABC’s 7:30.

18 Clinton Fernandes, 2013, ‘West Papuans in the Consulate’, Right Now: Human Rights in Australia.

19 Lauren Wilson, October 8, 2013, ‘Abbott Warns West Papuan Activists, The Australian.

20 Michael Bachelard, December 6, 2013, ‘Lines Crossed on Indonesia-Australia Spy Agreement’, The Sydney Morning Herald.

21 As mentioned in note 7, the Indonesian economy relies heavily on revenue raised through Freeport’s mines in West Papua. In 2013, Australia’s two-way trade with Indonesia amounted to nearly $3.7 billion, and its investment in Indonesia was “$10.9 billion, up from $6.2 billion in 2012. Indonesian investment in Australia was around $959 million in 2013” (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, n.d., ‘Indonesia Country Brief’).

22 Many of these songs have been collated on the author’s YouTube channel.

23 Julian Smythe, 2013, ‘The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force To Be Reckoned With’ Indonesia 95.

24 Asian Human Rights Commission, 2010, ‘The Indonesian Military Ill-treat and Torture Indigenous Papuans’.

25 Papua Merdeka, 2014, ‘Anonymous Message to the Indonesian Government About West Papua Genocide’, YouTube.

26 See the Freedom Flotilla website.

27 Free West Papua Campaign, April 25, 2014, ‘Free West Papua Campaign to Open New Office in Perth, Australia’, Free West Papua Campaign.

28 See the Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal website.

29 Free West Papua Perth Australia, May 6, 2015, ‘Membership for Free West Papua Party’.

30 Suresh Rajan, July 21, 2015, ‘“There Are Many Causes I Would Die For. There Is Not A Single Cause I Would Kill For”. Mahatma Gandhi”, The Stringer,

31 See the “FWPP Response to the West Papua Solidarity Movement Rejection of Reclaim Australia Public Statement”.

32 Indigenous West Papuans are predominantly Christian but a Papuan Muslim minority resides primarily in the western coastal regions of West Papua in Fak Fak, Sorong, and Manokwari (cities with a long history of trade with other parts of Muslim Indonesia), and, to a lesser extent, in the eastern cities of Merauke and Jayapura. Independence leader Thaha Al Hamid, originally from Kaimana on the west coast of West Papua but now residing in Jayapura, is Muslim. The number of indigenous Muslim Papuans is difficult to ascertain given that Papuan censuses are infrequent and unreliable.

33 A statement by activists to this effect with the signatures it has acquired has been posted to the Australia West Papua Association blog site.

34 Amy McQuire, August 4, 2015, ‘Father of the Aboriginal Flag Slams Reclaim Australia for “Idiotic” Appropriation’, New Matilda.

35 See the home page of the Reclaim Australia website.

36 Pacific Beat, September 7, 2015, ‘West Papua Human Rights and Climate Change Top Pacific Islands Forum Agenda’, ABC News.

37 Examples include protests for West Papuan independence by New Zealand based activist collective Oceania Interrupted (view their website here); the recent launching of a pan-Pacific solidarity group for West Papua by Benny Wenda in London (view his website here); and calls in October 2015 by Tonga’s prime minister at the United Nations to take action on West Papua (ABC News, October 1, 2015, ‘Tonga’s Prime Minister Calls on UN to Take Action on West Papua’, ABC News.

38 Susan Rees, Remco van de Pas, Derrick Silove and Moses Kareth, 2008, ‘Health and Human Security in West Papua’, The Medical Journal of Australia, 189 (11): 641-643.

39 Jim Elmslie, 2010, ‘West Papuan Demographic Transition and the 2010 Indonesian Census: “Slow Motion Genocide” or Not?’ CPACS Working Paper 11/1, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney.

40 Sally White, July 8, 2014, ‘Prabowo an ‘Apocalypse’, Jokowi a False Promise: West Papuans Opt Out’, Crikey.


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The crackdown in West Papua continues before the pools



A young Papuan and his colleagues who had been arrested by Surabaya Police for celebrating West Papua independence day December 1st, Saturday (1/12/2018) – AMP facebook

By Nithin Coca

WITH increasingly regular protests and a violent crackdown by police and the military, the contested Indonesian region of West Papua is currently seeing the highest levels of agitation it has experienced in years. Against a backdrop of Indonesia’s forthcoming general elections in April, tensions are rising over long-standing human rights violations, pro-independence agitation and lack of accountability for crimes committed by security forces.

“The situation is not improving for the better, it’s getting worse,” says Ronny Kareni, an Australian-based activist of West Papuan origin. “There is a divergence between Jakarta and locals, and that is deeply rooted in the historical status of West Papua.”

On 1 December 2018, more than 500 people were arrested in cities across Indonesia for commemorating the 57th anniversary of Papuan attempts to declare independence from Dutch colonial rule. Raising the pro-independence Morning Star flag or publicly expressing support for Papuan self-determination is considered a criminal offense against the Indonesian state.

The following day, on 2 December, pro-independence militants are reported to have killed up to 31 workers on the Trans Papua Highway construction project in the Nduga region of the Papuan highlands. Although the ongoing independence conflict in West Papua has resulted in the deaths of approximately 500,000 Papuans since 1969, this was the deadliest attack by militants in recent years.

The government response has been fierce, with activists reporting that military action has forced thousands to flee their homes.

With the media and civil society prevented from independently visiting the region, these reports are difficult to verify, but international human rights organisations have made pleas for calm. “We call on all parties, the Indonesian army, police and the Free Papua guerrilla fighters, not to target civilians,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

West Papua, which forms about half of the island of New Guinea, was not part of Indonesia when it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. It was annexed in 1969 in a military-run election approved by the United Nations, in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote against independence. West Papua was then ruled with the strongest of iron fists during Indonesia’s New Order era under General Suharto (1966-1998), before being granted special autonomy status in 2001 in a bid to quell the independence movement. The island’s population, estimated at around three million, are mostly Melanesian and follow either Christianity or indigenous religions, unlike the rest of Indonesia which is mostly Polynesian and Muslim.

Natural resources have played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of Papuan history. Shortly after the rigged election of 1969, Freeport McMoRan, an American mining company, began operating in the region. This marked the beginning of a long relationship which has proved prosperous for the company and the Indonesian government. However, tax revenues mostly go to the western part of Indonesia which is much more developed; West Papua, in the east of the country, is the poorest region in Indonesia and its people see few benefits from resource extraction.

Jokowi’s promises of reform

In 2014, then Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (now president of Indonesia), an outside candidate in the presidential elections with no connection to Indonesia’s elite or military, made several campaign promises to address human rights in Papua. This included addressing the ability of the military to use its own internal trial mechanism rather than civilian courts, opening up the region to the foreign media and freeing political prisoners. Papuans saw hope in Jokowi, and he won the two provinces (Papua and West Papua, formerly Papua until 2003) that make up West Papua by more than 30 percentage points each. In an election where Jokowi won nationally by only 6.3 per cent, the region provided him with some of his best results.

Even months after his inauguration, President Widodo reiterated his promises directly to Papuans after a police shooting in Paniai killed five people.

“Jokowi made bold promises in front of Papuans attending Christmas celebrations, saying that he would investigate and solve this case, and bring peace to Papua,” says Papang Hidayat, a researcher at Amnesty Indonesia.

Jokowi initially made a few attempts to improve the situation in West Papua by releasing five political prisoners in 2015 and declaring the region open to foreign journalists, for example. But his power has been limited due to the role of security forces in West Papua, including the Indonesian soldiers who have maintained their presence in the region despite the fall of Suharto’s military rule more than two decades ago. As a result, most of his promises to make reforms remain unfulfilled.

“It became clear to many people that whatever [Jokowi] says, it will not be implemented,” says Kareni. “He is only a face for democracy, but [he is] not actually in power.”

Harsono agrees: “The situation on the ground, especially the resistance from the bureaucracy, is much bigger than his presidential authority, I’m afraid.”

Attempting to address political grievances through economic development

One area in which Jokowi has been able to push forward is on development. The government is investing massively in roads, airports and agriculture, including a plan to build 1.2 million hectares of palm oil and sugar plantations.

Following decades of underdevelopment, “the government feels the need to pay more attention to Papua,” says Arie Ruhyanto, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. “Given the political setting, the option is limited to the non-political issues…hence, the Papua problem is always framed in the context of development issues, such as poverty and underdevelopment.”

In the end, this has only increased tensions, as many Papuans feel that development is either aimed at extracting resources or benefitting migrant workers from other parts of Indonesia. That’s one reason why the December attack by separatists was against the construction of the centrepiece of this new development plan – the 4,300 kilometre Trans-Papua Highway.

The response to the attack also highlights a major problem – that many in the Indonesian security apparatus do not distinguish between the peaceful protests and aspirations of the vast majority of Papuans, and a small minority of militants. In response to the Nduga attack, police arrested members of the West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB), a student-run organisation that coordinates peaceful protests, and forcefully closed their offices.

With the security forces entrenched and Jokowi’s power limited, many fear that the divide between the two sides is growing. Papuans know that the April elections are unlikely to change anything.

Gaining momentum

However, instead of waiting and hoping for action from Jakarta, more West Papuans are starting to agitate on local, national and global stages. In 2014, several West Papua independence organisations unified under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), headed by the renowned Papuan activist Benny Wenda. The entity has been active within the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group within it, which counts the four Melanesian nations of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as members.

“In 2015, the ULMWP put in an application bid for a membership of observer status,” says Kareni. The bid was successful. “For Papuans it was a recognition of our cause. The movement has gained a lot of momentum, especially in the Pacific.”

In 2017, organisers in West Papua undertook an impressive effort, smuggling a petition across the island and collecting signatures from 1.8 million residents – 70 per cent of the population – in support of an independence referendum, as promised in the 1960s. The petition was delivered to the United Nation’s Special Committee on Decolonization, to which Indonesia responded by arresting Yanto Awerkion, a KNPB activist and organiser of the petition drive, and sentencing him to 10 months in prison.

One small opportunity to shine a light on the human rights abuses taking place in West Papua came when a UN human rights panel issued a statement condemning racism and police violence in the region, resulting in a rare apology from the Indonesian police for one incident in particular.

There is also hope in the expression by the Indonesian foreign ministry that it will allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. However, civil society are skeptical that the UN visit, if it takes place, will result in concrete changes.

“It is not new,” says Harsono, referring to previous invites that were not followed up with visas or details. “I won’t believe it until I meet them in Jayapura, until I see them in Papua.”

Meanwhile the election campaign is gathering steam, with the Nduga incident becoming a campaign issue, spurring increased nationalist sentiment against West Papuans. Unfortunately, there may be little that either Jokowi or his opponent – former military general Prabowo Subianto, who has a checkered record due to his involvement in East Timor – can do to change the plight of Papua.

“Whoever the president is, he will be in a difficult position since all political forces in Indonesia, whether the nationalist, the military or Islamic groups, seem to be reluctant to address the human rights issue,” says Ruhyanto. “It remains a marginal topic that only concerns a handful of activists and academics.” (*)

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in south-east Asia.


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Military approach questioned as violence worsens in Papua



Indonesian National Armed Forces carrying a coffin of a fallen fellow soldier. Three Indonesian soldiers were reportedly killed by the West Papuan Liberation Army in Nduga regency on March 7th, 2019. – Photo: Tempo

Papua, Jubi – As the numbers of casualties and displaced people in Papua’s Highlands pile up, prospects for an end to armed conflict in the Indonesian-ruled region appear dim.

Humanitarian concern is growing for villagers who have been displaced by conflict in the Highlands between Indonesia’s military and the West Papua Liberation Army.

But even elected Papuan leaders in government pushing for a de-escalation of military operations risk a reprimand or threat of prosecution from Indonesia’s military.

In the latest bout of clashes yesterday, Indonesia’s military said between 50 and 70 Liberation Army fighters descended on soldiers guarding the construction of a bridge in Nduga’s Yigi district.

Indonesia’s military said three members died before the military was able to drive the rebels back. It also claimed that between seven and ten Liberation Army fighters were killed.

According to the Liberation Army, the violence on Thursday was sparked when Indonesian soldiers interrogated a local villager and then set fire to five houses.

Indonesian military and police operations intensified in the remote Highlands regency of Nduga in December after the Liberation Army massacred at least 16 road construction workers.

The Indonesian government’s major Trans-Papua Road project was already controversial among Papuan Highlands communities without the involvement of military engineers on the job adding to mistrust among Papuans.

However as military operations to pursue the Liberation Army’s guerilla fighters ramped up, thousands of Nduga villagers caught in the middle of hostilities fled to the bush or neighbouring regencies such as Jayawijaya.

An Indonesian academic, Hipolitus YR Wangge of Jakarta’s Marthinus Academy, has been working on research in Papua and found himself volunteering help for Nduga’s refugees streaming into Jayawijaya’s main town of Wamena.

He said the people were traumatised and short on basic needs, having come from a regency which is extremely isolated. According to him, over two thousand Nduga people have sought refuge in the Wamena area, including over six hundred children.

“Those refugees are coming down from the jungle, from Nduga, and they have nothing here, even the local (Jayawijaya) government here say ‘these are not our people, these are not Jayawijaya people, it is Nduga regency people, so let their government deal with this one’,” he said.

“On the other hand, Nduga’s government, their focus is mainly on those Nduga people who are running away and staying in the (local) jungle.”

The impact of displacement was also seen by Peter Prove, a member of a delegation from the World Council of Churches which was last month permitted to visit Papua.

“And in particular in Wamena we met with a group of more than 400 children and adolescents who were displaced, and who were being provided with refuge in the compound of the Roman Catholic Church there,” he explained.

“And we heard very alarming stories about the circumstances under which they had fled from their territory, including indications of a very strong-armed military response.”

An emergency makeshift school was established by volunteer groups in Wamena for the displaced children. However last month when Indonesian military and police personnel came to the school, a number of children reportedly ran away in fear.

Concerned for the displaced communities, governor of Papua, Lukas Enembe, recently called for Indonesia’s president to withdraw troops to allow villagers to return home and access basic needs.

His call was echoed by local parliamentarians, customary leaders, church and civil society organisations who continue to press for a de-escalation of military operations in the region.

However Indonesia’s military spokesman in Papua, Colonel Muhammad Aidi, has warned that the governor had violated state law and should be prosecuted.

“A governor is an extension of the state in the region and is obliged to defend the sovereignty of the republic of Indonesia,” Colonel Aidi explained.

“A governor must support all national strategic programs. But on the contrary the governor through his statement actually inhibited the national development process.”

A West Papuan anthropologist based in Australia, Yamin Kogoya, worries that telling the truth in his homeland has become an act of treason.

He said that by practically labelling Governor Enembe a supporter of the Free West Papua Movement, Colonel Aidi had added to the sense of threat over this leading elected official who is already being investigated by Indonesian anti-corrution investigators.

“This is a very, very harsh statement by the military spokesperson in Papua against the governor of Papua province who has every right to express his concerns and worries about the welfare of the people under his care,” Mr Kogoya said.

“He never, ever expressed publicly that he supports the independence of Papua.”

Following the Liberation Army’s massacre of road construction workers, the chairman of the Papua People’s Assembly, Timotius Murib, said he and his colleagues condemned the violence. He added that security approaches rarely helped in Papua.

“This does not solve the problem in Papua, but instead creates human rights violations and trauma for indigenous Papuans,” Mr Munib said.

Indonesian police and military posts are common in every town and most villages throughout Papua. From his observations in the region, Peter Prove said the increasing militarisation and security approach in Papua had only exacerbated the problems there.

“There are many accusations and counter-accusations as to who is responsible for specific instances of violence. But I think the military approach to securing and stabilising the territory evidently hasn’t worked not in terms of improving the human rights situation in the region.”

Armed conflict between the Liberation Army and Indonesian security forces is mainly confined to the Highlands region. The Papuan guerillas are outnumbered and outgunned by Indonesia’s military forces, yet are also difficult to totally defeat, as they easily move in and out of the bush in their rugged home terrain.

But the presence of Indonesia’s military, special forces, police, and intelligence agents throughout Papua have added to a climate of fear for Papuans.

According to Mr Wangge, the Indonesian government appears to favour the security approach as the most effective way of containing Papuan resistance, even though it does not win hearts and minds of Papuans.

He said that Jakarta had long since identified core problems in Papua – related to historical grievances, politics, human rights abuses and economic development. But apart from its promotion of economic development through its major infrastructure drive, Mr Wangge said the government had not openly addressed these core problems in a wholehearted way that involved Papuan participation.

While it was difficult to pinpoint why the problems hadn’t been confronted Mr Wangge said the military was still a powerful political entity within the Indonesian republic.

“If human rights or historical problems will be discussed both by central and local governments, the military will face some legal consequences for this one,” he said.

Mr Wangge, who has been involved with efforts to build temporary schools for the children displaced in Wamena, was doubtful whether President Joko Widodo’s economic development approach was a lasting solution either for Papuans’ grievances.

“To some point, yes, it can benefit some Papuans,” he said, “but the benefits of the economic approach, it’s only for outsiders, non-Papuans, immigrants – that’s how many Papuans see it.”

This was echoed by Mr Murib, who said “we as state institutions that are representatives of indigenous Papuans have never been involved in discussing the Trans Papua road project”.

“Papuans are eliminated from their own land, lose their rights as indigenous people and face depopulation problems. Papuans want life, not roads and companies.”

He said if the central government respected Papua’s Autonomy Law, and indigenous Papuans, it should “sit down to talk with us for all forms of policy in Papua”.

Meanwhile, Colonel Aidi has confirmed an extra 600 military personnel have been deployed to Nduga region to secure conditions for construction of the Trans Papua road to proceed.

Since December, dozens of people have died in escalating clashes in Nduga. The Liberation Army has indicated it was willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but Colonel Aidi suggested this would be not be possible.

“The aim of Indonesia’s military is to preserve the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia. If the purpose of the “armed criminal group” is to be independent from Indonesia, surely the dialogue or negotiation will never be realised.”

Armed conflict continues in Papua, intractable as ever. (Johnny Blades Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific)



Source: RNZ Pasific

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Indonesia’s pressure tactics over West Papua issue resemble the actions of China over Tibet



Protest lead by National Committee of West Papua were always faced repressive measures by the security forces – Jubi

By Nithin Coca

EARLIER this month, the Indonesian military raided and destroyed the offices of the West Papuan National Committee, a separatist group in the country’s easternmost region, which has long agitated for independence. The raid came amid allegations that the military had used chemical weapons in airstrikes on separatists in West Papua in late December. The Indonesian government has responded harshly after at least 17 construction workers were killed by West Papuan militants in early December, the deadliest such attack in West Papua in years.

This surge in unrest in the region is the outcome of a harder line that the Indonesian government has taken on West Papua in recent years. During the United Nations General Assembly last September, the prime minister of the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Charlot Salwai, criticized that approach. Referring directly to West Papua, he said the Indonesian government needed to “put an end to all forms of violence and find common ground with the populations to establish a process that will allow them to freely express their choice.”

The reaction from Indonesia, which is usually quiet at the U.N., was fierce. President Joko Widodo hasn’t even bothered to attend the General Assembly in his five years in office, but his government immediately lambasted Salwai. Jakarta’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dian Triansyah Djani, declared that “Indonesia will not let any country undermine its territorial integrity.” Referring to separatist and independence groups in West Papua, he said Indonesia also “fail[ed] to understand the motive behind Vanuatu’s intention in supporting a group of people who have [struck] terror and mayhem [on] so many occasions, creating fatalities and sadness to innocent families of their own communities.”

West Papua was not part of Indonesia when the country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. The region, which has a distinct ethnic and linguistic identity from mostly Polynesian Indonesia, was formally annexed in 1969 after what Indonesians call the “Act of Free Choice,” when a group of hand-selected Papuans voted unanimously in favor of Indonesian control in a vote marred by allegations of blackmail and coercion.

Since then, West Papua has been the site of regular violence, either from one of the many separatist groups on the island, or, more often, the Indonesian military. The island is rich in minerals, the revenue from which make up a significant portion of Indonesia’s budget. Freeport-McMoRan’s huge Grasberg mine alone provided more than $750 million in revenue in 2017.

Many West Papuans, either living in Indonesia or abroad, have been advocating for self-determination for years. But what was primarily a local conflict has now become more regional, as both sides have attempted to internationalize the issue. West Papuans are ethnically Melanesian, like the citizens of Vanuatu and other Pacific Island nations, such as the Solomon Islands and Fiji. West Papuan activists have been working to build connections with these countries, with the goal of having them speak up for Papuan independence, like Salwai did at the General Assembly.

“West Papua is a regional issue, because we are part of Melanesia, connected culturally and linguistically,” Benny Wenda, an exiled leader of the Free West Papua organization currently based in the United Kingdom, told WPR. “The majority in the Pacific islands, they don’t see West Papua as distant. It’s close to them.”

The main entity for cooperation in the region is the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, founded in 1971, and the Melanesian Spearhead Group within it, which counts the four Melanesian nations as members. West Papuan advocates have used the forum to push for global recognition, including formal membership for West Papua as an occupied country.

Indonesia, however, has been pushing back by sowing discord among the forum’s members. It provided military support to Fiji after the island’s 2006 coup, which had led to the imposition of Western sanctions, and offered significant aid to Papua New Guinea. With both countries’ support, in 2011, Indonesia was granted observer status in the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Since then, attempts by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, an umbrella organization of independence groups, to get a similar status have proved futile. Now, both Fiji and Papua New Guinea say they support Indonesia’s full membership in the group, which would push the West Papua issue to the sidelines.

Since Indonesia got its observer status, “the MSG has become an empty house,” says James Elmslie, a political scientist with the West Papua Project at the University of Sydney. “The MSG is now split on the issue.”

Indonesia’s pressure tactics resemble the actions of a much bigger power in Asia dealing with territories it considers its own: China. Having long sought to isolate supporters of Tibet, China regularly pushes countries to refuse access to the Dalai Lama, as both Russia and South Africa have done in recent years. Beijing also uses a carrot-and-stick strategy to shrink the number of countries that recognize Taiwan, which it sees as a breakaway province. In the past year, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have dropped their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China. Like other countries that have done this, they can expect to be rewarded with aid, investments and more. Conversely, countries that refuse to switch, like Palau, have been squeezed by China and seen their tourism industries suffer.

Unlike China, though, Indonesia is a democracy, one that is often hailed as a model for both Asia and the Islamic world. There was a small window of opportunity, right after the fall of the three-decades long Suharto dictatorship in 1998, when newly democratic Indonesia was engaging with pro-independence activists in West Papua. At the time, East Timor was permitted to hold an independence referendum, and there were calls for something similar in West Papua.

But when reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid—facing corruption allegations, economic woes and political unrest—was forced to step down in 2001, that window slammed shut. The Indonesian military reasserted control, killing Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay, and things went back to the status quo of repression. Indonesia continued to exploit the region for resources and suppress the voices of Papuans. Democracy may have transformed Indonesia, but it brought little change to West Papua.

Now the situation is only getting worse. The core problem is that unlike a decade ago, the Indonesian government is refusing to engage peacefully, instead allowing, either implicitly or explicitly, the Indonesian military to take the lead.

Getting an independent view of what’s taking place in West Papua remains as difficult as ever. For decades, the Indonesian government has essentially closed off the region to journalists, international observers and NGOs. The few who do enter face risk of arrest, like Jakub Fabian Skrzypzki, a Polish citizen who is now on trial for alleged ties to Papuan separatists and faces potential life imprisonment in Indonesia if convicted.

It looks like another move out of China’s playbook. Why would democratic Indonesia go that route? Because so far, it’s working.

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social, economic, and political issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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