Indonesia’s military crackdown on the West Papuan independence movement

Home to 3.5 million people, daily life in West Papua is characterised by widespread violence, intimidation and political suppression. On July 9, a boycott against the Indonesian presidential election was organised by activists – 14 of whom were reportedly tortured by the military and now reside in prison.

Officially named Irian Jaya Barat until it was split into two administrative parts in 2007, the Indonesian State is inflicting what is considered to be a silent genocide on the indigenous people of West Papua.

If the conflict between the Indonesian military and the Free Papua Movement (OPM) has not been given its just representation in the spotlight of the international media, it has been an issue of restrictions: the Indonesian government has banned foreign journalists from reporting on the political situation.

Violent suppression of information has been a substantial obstacle in the way of accurate reporting. Rough estimates suggest that up to 1 million Papuans have been killed during the 50 years of Indonesian repression. Rape, torture and forced disappearances of civilians are common.

Travel within the territory is uncompromisingly restricted. The region remains desperately poor and underdeveloped – decades of Indonesian domination throughout the Suharto dictatorship (1967-98) have silenced the opposition and intentionally neglected economic growth to ease resource extraction.

When Indonesia gained sovereignty from Dutch colonial rule in 1949, West Papua prepared for its future as an independent nation. By 1962, after less than a year of autonomy, the country was invaded by the Indonesian military. The annexation that followed has never been relinquished.

The military, indulging with almost limitless impunity, has seemed to act as it pleases. Raising the national flag of West Papua, the ‘Morning Star’, can result in a jail sentence of up to 15 years.

The Racial Pyramid in West Papua

There are two keys to understanding the conflict. The first is an issue of institutionalised racism. West Papuans have no solid ethnic or cultural links with Indonesia, as they are of a Melanesian ethnicity that has far more in common with Australian aborigines than it does with the Javanese.

The Indonesian government continues to cultivate a systemic racial hierarchy between the Java and Papuan, both justifying and perpetuating the political and economic exploitation of the latter. West Papuans routinely describe their treatment by Indonesians as being compared with ‘pigs’ and ‘dogs’, being spat at and called ‘dirty’.

Dr. Nick Long, a specialist in Indonesian anthropology at the London School of Economics, told The International that stereotyping the ‘Papuan’ cements a “radical difference” between the two ethnicities, in his words making it “much easier to justify the policies of domination and exploitation”.

Certainly, a large segment of the Indonesian population is profoundly critical of the government’s policy in West Papua. However, Dr. Long suggests that the patronising tone and unequal distinction between the two groups means that it is “not surprising Papuans should feel alienated from Indonesia and seek to fight against it”.

Confronted with extreme violence in their homeland, Papuans who do work or study in mainland Indonesia report that their own cultural history has been whitewashed from official records.

Struggling for Resources

Additionally, the Indonesian government has pursued a policy of Java resettlement into camps carved out of Papuan forest. Approximately 1 million slum-dwelling Javanese have been moved into the West Papuan frontier.

Although this action is not explicitly claimed to be a method of cultural extermination, it is a tactic that might be seen to chime with the colonial logic of Indonesian military policy.

Control of the region is highly prized because of its unusually rich amount of material resources. Forests available for logging in mainland Indonesia are being exhausted at astonishingly unsustainable rates.

The move towards timber extraction in West Papua is irreversibly desecrating tribal communities and their traditional homeland. These forests are matched only by the Amazon in terms of size and bio-diversity.

As in Colombia, tracts of timbered lands are also used for the cultivation of Palm Oil, a cash-crop that is used ubiquitously in Western consumer products. Rampant corruption within the Indonesian government leaves little, if any, of this wealth in the hands of either the West Papuan or the Javanese population.

One of the many responses to the ongoing occupation of West Papua has been the formation of the National Committee for West Papua (or KNPB), established in 2008. By cultivating support for independence, the organisation has been gathering national momentum. In West Papua, however, the committee’s supporters still face arrest, torture and even execution.

Meanwhile, the Free West Papua Campaign, headquartered in Oxford, has attracted international attention for its efforts to spread light on what they have termed ‘The Secret War in Asia’. Led by Benny Wenda, head of the Koteka Tribal Assembly, the campaign has drawn support from influential figures both in the UK and abroad.

Though media attention has increasingly focused on the shrouded atrocities being committed in West Papua, the Indonesian government remains unwilling to allow foreign investigation in the area. Until they do, life for those in West Papua will remain a struggle against further human rights violations.