West Papua: The Next East Timor?

Our Melanesian brothers and sisters in West Papua are still striving to break the imposition of colonial domination and foreign control, following the so-called act of free choice in 1969. It is imperative that West Papua be given the rightful opportunity of a democratic referendum of its indigenous peoples, to exercise at last their right of self-determination. The United Nations cannot stand by and witness the destruction of the people of West Papua, where already more than half a million have been lost to human rights abuses. We must not in this area witness another catastrophe as occurred in East Timor.
Bernard Dowiyogo, President of Nauru, United Nations Millennium Summit, Sept. 7, 2000

By David Webster | 2001-04-01 12:00:00

They've waited years for this. Thousands of indigenous West Papuans are in the streets, in churches, in sports stadiums, in jungle clearings. They're raising hundreds of flags carrying the image of the morning star, the banned flag of a free West Papuan nation, and singing the banned anthem Hai Tanhku Papua, (Hail Papua, My Homeland). The date is December 1, 1999, and organizers are calling it "the 38th anniversary of the West Papuan nation."

Actually, West Papua was never independent under international law. The day being commemorated is the day that the symbols of a new nation were first flown in what was then the colony of Netherlands New Guinea. Now it is ruled from Jakarta, the distant capital of Indonesia. Only this year has it regained its name after years of being called Irian Jaya by the former Suharto dictatorship.

With the days of dictatorship over, Papuans have chosen to remember a date that points the way to the sort of independence they are seeking: not one that proceeds from nineteenth-century notions of indivisible national sovereignty, but one that may point the way to new forms of independence better suited for the twenty-first century. December 1, 1961, was not the date of formal decolonization, but it was the date that symbolized a "decolonization of the mind," when Papuans asserted their status as a nation. On December 1, 1999, they did the same thing again. In their minds, perhaps, they are already independent: a notion-state, if not yet a nation-state.

A year later: December 1, 2000, the date on which many Papuans expect to resume their independence. The Indonesian army sees things differently, and launches a rather brutal crackdown of the type it has become notorious for. Top Papuan leaders are arrested; a group that is flying the West Papuan flag is attacked; at least ten people are killed in clashes between Indonesian soldiers and tribesmen armed with bows and arrows; even peaceful prayer meetings are met with massed military force. It is the culmination of a covert campaign by the Indonesian armed forces that follows almost exactly the tactics employed in the lead-up to East Timor's 1999 walk to freedom: fresh crack troops, the sponsoring of militia groups, an atmosphere of random terror.

"The military is involved in the East Timor style of nurturing undercover support, logistically and financially, of the unemployed West Papuan youths, who are being lured into that kind of activity, just similar to what they did to the East Timorese," says Clemens Runaweri, a spokesperson for the Presidium Dewan Papua (PDP - Papuan Council Presidium: considered to be an embryonic West Papuan Parliament).

West Papua's Many Colonizations

Few Canadians will have heard of West Papua, a diverse land which draws its name from the curly hair of its Melanesian inhabitants (in contrast to the straight hair of most Indonesians). A few will know the other half of the island, the Commonwealth member state of Papua New Guinea. The border that bisects the enormous island is the result of a nineteenth-century Dutch move to protect its East Indies colony from encroaching British and German colonizers. The Dutch kept West Papua as a giant buffer zone for the rich East Indies, but made little effort to rule it.

When most of the East Indies gained independence as Indonesia, the Dutch decided to cling to this one remaining scrap of empire, and governed paternalistically from 1949 to 1960. Indonesia demanded that the territory be handed over, but the Dutch decided instead on a ten-year decolonization plan in 1960. West Papuan political parties and movements quickly sprang up. In 1961, they convened a Papuan National Congress that chose the traditional morning star symbol of the Koreri religion as the symbol of their new nation, and began to press the Dutch to grant real independence on a stepped-up timetable. In effect, although not yet independent, they had established what Malaysian politics professor Shamsul A.B. calls a "nation of intent." The Dutch acceded to the new symbols, and on December 1 the flag was raised for the first time alongside the Dutch banner.

The trouble was, Indonesian President Sukarno was unwilling to accept Papuan independence, seeing the territory as part of Indonesian soil that had been unfairly occupied by the Dutch. His foreign minister called it an "amputation of our national body" Many Indonesian nationalists had been sent to the malaria-ridden Boven Digul prison camp in the interior of West Papua in the 1930s, and invested tremendous symbolic importance in the land. Even the independence slogan, "From Sabang to Merauke," asserted West Papua's place as part of the Indonesian national homeland. Indonesia was one and indivisible, its leaders insisted, and West Papua had to be "recovered."

This took no account of the people themselves, who now overwhelmingly favored independence. "We are not the same people we were fifteen years ago," said one nationalist. "We know what future we want now. We want independence."

The political classes in Sukarno's increasingly repressive "guided democracy" dismissed this sort of statement as the words of colonial puppets. Indonesia was far from helpless: with massive Soviet aid, it had become the leading military power in the region by this time. Sukarno justified his enormous military budget by the need to force the Dutch out of West Papua, and used his military clout and anti-colonial stature to play a game of brinksmanship with the Dutch.

By the time John F. Kennedy came to power, the United States was ready to intervene. Kennedy saw Indonesia falling into the clutches of the Soviet bloc, and tried to woo it to the American side, or at least a pro-American neutrality. Indonesia's price was West Papua. In the first half of 1962, American diplomats brokered a deal and forced the Dutch to accept it. Under the New York Agreement, the Netherlands agreed to hand its colony over the United Nations, which in turn would hand it to Indonesia.

The United Nations's part in this was a cynical exercise in realpolitik. Countries had for years voted in the General Assembly based on their respective ties to the Netherlands and Indonesia. In 1962, despite lobbying by West Papuan nationalists who had been excluded from the negotiations on their homeland's future, there were just a handful of objections from African states to the New York Agreement.

The United Nations administration was the first time that the international body had governed a territory itself. Most United Nations histories roundly praise it. But it was the United Nations that banned the morning star flag for the first time. Some months later, when Indonesia took full control, the day was celebrated with a bonfire of West Papuan flags and cultural artifacts. The Indonesians had arrived, and their agenda (as the foreign minister said) was to "get them down out of the trees, even if we have to drag them down."

Under Sukarno's rule, West Papua languished. After 1965, many Papuans were among the hundreds of thousands of victims of the new military dictator, Suharto. Sukarno's arms buildup had helped to centralize power in the hands of the army. Suharto had come to national prominence as commander of the Mandala Task Force established to coordinate military operations against the Dutch. In a way, Sukarno's obsession with West Papua had created the force that would topple him.

In order to save Dutch face, a clause in the New York Agreement had promised an act of self-determination for the West Papuans by the end of 1969. Suharto's army set about organizing one to show that Indonesia could be trusted to abide by its treaties. But there was no question of the outcome. Suharto had ordered his soldiers to "see that the [act] on West Irian's future status will yield a clear pronouncement in favor of Indonesia." Although billed as an "act of free choice," the process implemented by the Suharto regime was a farce quickly dubbed the "act free of choice." Indonesia refused to hold a referendum, calling the Papuans too "primitive" to vote (they would be asked to vote in Indonesian elections two years later, however, a more rapid "civilizing" process than any previous colonial power had ever claimed). A little over a thousand Papuans were carefully chosen and forced at gun point to express their desire to remain with Indonesia.

The United Nations had been charged with participating in and observing the act of free choice. There were about 1,000 United Nations observers of the 1999 East Timor referendum. In 1969 in the far larger territory of West Papua, the United Nations thought it could make do with 16. Most of the delegates had already been chosen by the time United Nations officials arrived, and even those meetings that were observed fell far short of "free choice."

United Nations mission chief Ortiz Sanz's report called the whole exercise flawed, but also misrepresented other expressions of Papuan opinion such as the number of pro-independence petitions handed to his office, and gave the whole exercise his stamp of approval. So, over some renewed African objections, did the General Assembly. West Papua was now fully Indonesian under international law. For thirty years, no government would raise it at the United Nations again.

Stimuli for Nationalism

All of Indonesia suffered United Nationsder Suharto's rule, but it was the independence-minded regions of "special military operations" - West Papua, Aceh and after 1975 East Timor - that bore the brunt after the initial killing spree. West Papua faced a number of programs that only stimulated nationalism:

Transmigration. The Suharto regime adopted the colonial transmigration program, which sought to relieve population pressures in Java by shipping peasants to more sparsely-populated islands. The new goal was cultural assimilation. "In the end," said the minister of transmigration, "the different ethnic groups will in the long run disappear because of integration ... and there will be one kind of man ... the Indonesian man." Popu-lation density in West Papua was four people per square kilometer. Suharto said the ideal level would be 400, a level that would swamp the indigenous people.

Indonesianization. Spontaneous migrants have reduced Papuans to a minority in the main cities and to economic marginality. These migrants like their government, have shown little sensitivity to indigenous people, who are often referred to as Papua bodoh, stupid Papuans, or more politely assuku terasing, exotic alien tribes.

Loss of land. New migrants needed new land, and West Papua to outside eyes had plenty of empty land. Melanesian land tenure, however, holds that there is no such thing as empty land; all land is used by someone. Perhaps 200,000 Papuans have been displaced. Today, much of West Papua has been carved up into forestry concessions, raising the threat not only of further land confiscation but also of the rapid loss of one of the world's largest remaining stands of rainforest and consequent damage to global biodiversity.

Economic exploitation. The first foreign investment contract signed by the Suharto regime was with US multinational Freeport for a copper and gold mine in West Papua, rammed through over local objections and now the largest mine of its type in the world as well as Indonesia's largest taxpayer. Freeport is only the largest of many mining firms (including Canada's own Inco) which have made West Papua into a treasure trove.

Cultural destruction. there were regular campaigns in the name of economic development which have sought to stamp out "backward" indigenous traditions like the penis gourd costume of Dani men. Papuans who have devoted themselves to the preservation of indigenous traditions like song and dance have been targeted as suspected subversives. The most famous, anthropologist Arnold Ap, was jailed and then shot, allegedly while trying to escape.

Human rights violations. Estimates of the number of people killed in the course of Indonesia's running war with the Organisasi Papua Merdeka are impossible to make with precision, but the figure 100,000 is often used by human rights groups. As in Indonesia proper, torture, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrest, restrictions on freedom of movement, speech and so on, were widespread.

After Suharto

When Suharto was toppled in 1998, there was no immediate change in West Papua. A hundred of the territory's community leaders traveled to Jakarta to meet with the new president, B.J. Habibie, and shocked him by calling for a referendum on independence. Rule by Indonesia had done nothing to make West Papuans feel like Indonesians; quite the reverse. But the context had changed, and they were seeking a dialogue with the Indonesian president, not pressing their case with arms.

In 1999 there were two national Papuan Congresses, the most recent with the theme of setting the historical record straight. Since West Papuans asserted control over their own destiny in 1961, this Congress declared, both the New York Agreement and the "act of free choice" were invalid. The Congresses brought together for perhaps the first time ever a truly representative sample of thousands of West Papuans from large cities and tiny villages alike. There were different views on the future, but everyone was united behind the call formerdeka, freedom. That means independence in the sense of Papuans ruling themselves. Whether it has to mean independence in the sense of a state with absolute sovereignty within defined borders is another question.

Indeed, Papuans seem open to all sorts of experimentation within the context ofmerdeka. The Congress groups advocates of a new Papuan state with those who might be happy with local control of local affairs with those who want to try new forms of "tribal democracy." It wants a dialogue with President Abdurrahman Wahid and has already announced it will declare a new state if he is overthrown by the military - in this way, it is also serving as a force for greater democratization within Indonesia. Creativity is the name of the game. Maybe West Papua could end up in an associated-state status with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea or both. Maybe hybrid forms of indigenous governance will be tried on a larger stage. If rigid definitions of territorially-based international law are followed, there is no right to self-determination. If international justice is allowed to prevail, something new might emerge that could point the way to new types of sovereignty for a borderless world.

From Jakarta Today

Unfortunately, none of the creative thinking evident in West Papua is visible in Jakarta. Wahid has offered an unspecified form of autonomy and agreed to restore the name Papua in place of Irian Jaya, but has rejected any form of independence outright rather than seeking a middle ground. Under military pressure to roll back concessions, he has begun to sound at times like a clone of Suharto. "Any effort to deviate from this spirit and commitment, even more so when in the form of a movement to secede... will certainly be halted, and will be acted on firmly, in line with the mandate of the MPR [people's consultative assembly, the top lawmaking body] and the prevailing laws," he said in December.

The biggest obstacle is the Indonesian army, which has long had an image of itself as an impartial guarantor of national unity against the ever-present threat of dissolution. By portraying itself as tough on independence-minded regions like West Papua and the president as soft on separatism, the army can still hope to cling to a share of power.

There are more than a few similarities with East Timor, where the army undermined ex-president Habibie's promise of a violence-free referendum on independence last year. As with East Timor in 1999, so West Papua in 2000. Army-sponsored militia organizations, virtual carbon copies of those established last year in East Timor, are growing in size and boldness. New Indonesian troops are arriving by the day.

"We are leading up to an East Timor-type situation now," says John Rumbiak, head of a West Papuan human rights organization. "There seems to be a deliberate process of tension development. Each incident raises many questions - who is paying people? Who is buying the uniforms for the militia? Why are the police allowing such an increase in unlawful acts?"

Most alarmingly for those who hope for a solution by dialogue, the top leadership of the non-violent Papuan Presidium has been jailed and charged with treason. Orders by President Wahid to release them were ignored. In prison are presidium president Theys Eluay, secretary-general Thaha al Hamid, and members John Mambor, Don Flassey and Rev. Herman Awom. Warrants were also issued for vice-president Thom Beanal, leader of the Amungme tribal council (on whose land the Freeport mine stands), and Willy Mandowen, a professor at West Papua's only university (which receives Canadian aid through BC's Simon Fraser University).

Hope in International Support

The only hope to avoid further repression is in international pressure directed at the source of the problem, not at the Wahid government. The Papua Presidium has called for dialogue and for a zone of peace (both sides would lay down their weapons). Internationally, West Papuans want a review of the "act of free choice" by the United Nations. At the Millennium Summit, they received their first international support from the Pacific island states of Vanuatu and Nauru, support that has now been echoed by the entire Pacific Islands Forum. The Dutch parliament is also conducting a review of the facts.

Before last year's blood bath in East Timor, Canada called on the Security Council to put measures in place to prevent an outbreak of violence. No one listened then, and many Timorese lives were lost as a result. Now that Papuan lives are at risk, will Canada try again?

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by David Webster here

Peace Magazine homepage