Throttled: The struggle for self determination in West Papua

Papua! Merdeka!”

These two words, chanted repeatedly by a group of indigenous peoples in the hinterlands of Central West Papuan in an undercover documentary made almost a decade ago (Forgotten Bird of Paradise, 2009), captures the aspirations of a large number of indigenous peoples in conflict-ridden West Papua. Merdeka means freedom, and for many a West Papuan, this means freedom from Indonesian control. Despite the decades-long struggle of West Papuans for freedom, however, these aspirations still seem far beyond reach.

Far more chilling is the fact that these aspirations, and the right to self determination of West Papua’s indigenous peoples, continue to be undermined by the Indonesian authorities. This paper seeks to question why the Indonesian government continues to refuse to recognize the right to self determination of the West Papuan people. The first part of this paper explores the possible meanings of self determination. The next part of the paper then views the colonial history of West Papua followed by a discussion of violations of West Papuans’ right to self determination under Indonesian rule. Part four then discusses the possible reasons why Indonesia is keen on holding on to West Papua. Part five talks about the different reactions of international actors regarding the circumstances in West Papua. I argue in this paper that Indonesia refuses to recognize the freedom and the right to self determination of the West Papuan people due to economic and political reasons.

The right to self determination

The right to self determination (RSD) was initially not explicitly defined as a right by international bodies and instruments such as the United Nations (UN) and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR, 1948), although several thinkers had already theorized regarding self determination previous to the establishment of the UN. Lenin defined self determination as the “political separation (of nations)… from alien national bodies and the formation of an independent national state” (Lenin, 1914, p. 397). Wilson, in his famous Fourteen Points speech (1918), did not explicitly define what self determination was, but it can be inferred as referring to the right of people to be governed only with their consent. Despite the fact that these ideas come from different ends of the ideological spectrum, in both Lenin’s and Wilson’s ideas about self determination, the need for a nation or people’s conscious decision regarding self-governance is evident.

The UN Charter viewed self determination more as a means of a necessary prerequisite for peace among nations (UN Charter). It is mentioned only twice, in Articles 1 and 55 (UN Charter). But this was infinitely better compared to the UDHR (1948), which, despite a relatively comprehensive list of rights, failed to mention RSD of peoples or nations.

It was only in 1960 when a clearer internationally-recognized definition of RSD came into being in the form of UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, otherwise known as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to the Colonial Countries and Peoples (UNGA, 1960). Art. 2 stated that “all peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (UNGA, 1960). In this declaration, RSD was viewed in the context of peoples and nations under foreign domination.

The convention’s clarification regarding what RSD meant was carried over in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR, 1966), which shared a common Art. 1 regarding RSD. The same wording in the Decolonization Convention was used. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) adopts the same framework regarding RSD, namely people as a collective freely determining their political status as well as how to pursue socio-economic development for their own collective benefit.

Looking back

The region of West Papua has been inhabited for at least 42,000 years (Gillespie, 2002). The people of West Papua are considered Melanesians and share much characteristics with people from neighboring Papua New Guinea as well as the native inhabitants of Fiji, Solomon Islands, and other southwestern Pacific islands. Before the coming of Western powers, parts of West Papua were at one time or another under the influence of small states in the area (Anderson, 2015). Spanish explorers, who thought the inhabitants of Papua looked like the Guineans of West Africa, named the island Nueva Guinea in the 1500’s.  It was the Dutch, however, who were successful in establishing control over West Papua.  

Although Sukarno-led Indonesian government viewed that West Papua should be handed over to them by the Dutch empire as part of a united Indonesia, the Dutch retained control of West Papua after the declaration of Indonesia’s independence in 1949 (Saltford, 2003). In 1957, Sukarno started expelling Dutch citizens and nationalizing Dutch businesses after its last draft resolution calling for recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua was rejected by the UN General Assembly (Anderson, 2015, p.12). The Dutch, meanwhile, had started preparing West Papua for self-rule by allowing the creation of political parties and setting up of elected regional councils in 1959.

Independence, according to the Dutch timetable, was to be granted by 1970. Support for independence form the local populace was overwhelming. (Saltford, 2003, p.10). The West New Guinea Council was established in 1961 and a flag, the Morning Star, and an anthem were chosen for the future independent country. (Alua in Viartasiwi, 2018, p.151).

In 1962, in what is now called the New York Agreement, the Dutch agreed to turn administration of West Papua to the UN on condition that a referendum be held regarding whether the West Papuans favored independence or integration with Indonesia.  On August 1962, administration of West Papua passed into the hands of the UN and, nine months later, control over West Papua passed to Indonesia, who was supposed to hold West Papua in the name of the UN. Between 1963 and 1969, Indonesian security forces and paramilitary groups used violence and intimidation against groups opposed to the Indonesian takeover. Opposition leaders were arrested and killed, whole towns were bombed, and whole village populations massacred (Catholic Justice and Peace Commission or CJPC, 2016).  

Between July and August 1969, in what was to be one of the bases of the independence movement in West Papua, the Indonesian government conducted a referendum called the Act of Free Choice. 1025 leaders and members of the West Papuan community were gathered by the Indonesian government in a series of eight regional assemblies to decide on the fate of West Papua. The delegates were asked to vote for either independence or integration to the Indonesian state. The delegates “unanimously” voted in favor of the latter (Budiardjo and Liong, 1983).

Yet the voting was marred with harassment, intimidation, and coercion of the delegates by the Indonesian military. One of the delegates to the referendum recounted how she and other delegates were separated from their families and held in “special accommodations” several days before the actual voting. She was not allowed to communicate with her family and was intimidated and threatened with dire consequences if she did not vote for integration. Statements prepared by the Indonesian military were read aloud in the actual voting, and instead of secret ballots the delegates were asked to raise their hands if they agreed to integration (CJPC, 2016). Musgrave, in an analysis of the Act of Free Choice in the context of applicable international laws on self determination, noted how “Indonesia not only failed to fulfil its international obligations” to respect RSD of West Papuans but also “acted in a manner which traduced those obligations” (2015, p.228).

“Slow-motion genocide”

Regardless of the questionable circumstances surrounding how the Indonesian control over West Papua came about, Indonesia’s claim over West Papua was recognized by the international community. And since then, Indonesia has conducted a reign of terror in what has been called a “slow-motion genocide” against the West Papuan people (Elmslie and Webb-Gannon, 2013, p.144).  

It is estimated that between 100,000 to 500,000 have been killed by Indonesian security forces and paramilitary groups since 1969 (International Parliamentarians for West Papua, n.d.), although it is difficult to give an accurate number due to an absence of systematic documentation of cases of extrajudicial killings until recent times.  Amnesty International (2018) recorded a total of 95 unlawful/extrajudicial killings between 2010 and February 2018; 85 of the victims were indigenous West Papuans. The International Coalition for Papua (ICP, 2018) adds an additional six killed from March to October 2018.

Public display of the Morning Star is banned and is seen as a challenge against Indonesian authority. Assemblies and demonstrations are also banned, and those demonstrations that are successfully held are often violently dispersed (CIVICUS, 2018; UNPO, 2017; Politics of Papua Project, 2016; Radio New Zealand, 2016). Many of the demonstrators are illegally arrested and detained, with ICP (2017) documenting 7572 cases of illegal arrest and detention between the period of 2012 to 2016 alone. Just recently, 537 were arrested before and after 1 December 2018, when West Papuans and their supporters staged rallies calling for West Papuan independence in different areas in Indonesia (Belau and Boediwardhana, 2018).

Research on the West Papuan situation as well as news regarding the state of human rights in the area is also scanty at best, as the government severely restricts access of academics, media personnel, and human rights workers to West Papua (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Despite pronouncements by Indonesian president Joko Widodo regarding gradual easing of media restrictions, not much appears to have changed (Galhotra, 2015; Robie, 2017; Da Costa, 2018).

To top it all off, the Indonesian government “does not recognize the application of the indigenous peoples concept… in the country” (Survival International, 2012). Thus, Indonesia does not recognize West Papuans as an indigenous group that possesses the right to self determination, violating Art. 1 of the ICCPR. Hence, the efforts of the Indonesian government to violently suppress the West Papuan assertions of self determination and freedom from the onset.

Holding on

Indonesia’s adamant refusal to recognize West Papuan self determination efforts stems from economic and political reasons. West Papua plays an integral role in Indonesia’s Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development or the MP3EI (Government of Indonesia, 2011), which was unveiled in 2011 under President Susilo Yudhoyono. This grand design divided Indonesia into six “economic corridors,” with West Papua in the Papua-Maluku corridor that will serve as the mining center and food basket of Indonesia.

West Papua is an area rich in energy and mineral resources, including gold and copper. In 2000, the Indonesian government granted 26 commercial mining concessions for exploration and production; by 2007, this had increased to 23.3 million hectares (NORAD, 2009, p.30). The largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine in the world, the Grasberg mine, is located in  the region. Operated by Freeport-McMoran, it has proven gold reserves amounting to 58 million ounces, proven copper reserves of 56.6 billion ounces, and proven silver reserves of 180.8 million ounces. (Nakagawa, 2008, p.75).

Starting operations in 1967, Freeport-McMoran has become the single largest taxpayer in Indonesian history. In 2017, the Indonesian government collected USD 756M from the company, while the total revenues paid by the Freeport-McMoran to the Indonesian government from 1992 to 2017 amounted to USD 17.3B or an average of USD 692M (Singgih, 2018). In addition, Freeport-Mcmoran also doled out USD 20 million worth of bribes to Indonesian security and public officials to maintain their goodwill and ensure that its assets are well-protected by the military (Global Witness, 2005).

The Grasberg mine, however, is but one of many that operate in West Papua, all of them contributing to the coffers of the Indonesian government in the form of taxes and dividend revenues. In 2017, the mining industry contributed 4.7% to Indonesia’s gross domestic product and 14% to the country’s total exports (PwC, 2018). These figures are expected to rise in the coming years once policy and regulatory reforms come into effect.

West Papua is also a major source of Indonesia’s natural gas. Indonesia is the world’s 12th largest producer of natural gas in the world, and it also has the the world’s 13th largest natural gas reserves (EIA, 2015). Out of the country’s proven gas reserves of 99.8 trillion cubic feet (tcf), 23.45 tcf are in West Papua (Purwanto et. al., 2016), or almost one-fourth of Indonesia’s natural gas reserves.  

West Papua’s large land area is covered with 37.3 million hectares of forest (NORAD, 2009). One public official was quoted as saying that West Papua’s forests are worth USD78 billion, and that West Papua can produce 500 million cubic meters a year, given the right conditions (Jakarta Post, 2011). The Indonesian government is apparently keen on cashing in on these forest resources, as it has granted, by 2003, at least 56 concessions to large-scale logging companies that covered approximately 12 million hectares (NORAD, 2009, p.26).

Part of the forests to be cleared will also be used for palm oil plantations as Indonesia plans to maintain its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. In 2017, it produced 35.4 million tons of palm oil, and production is projected to grow to 39 million tons by 2018 (Indonesian Palm Oil Association, 2018). While large-scale palm oil production is currently centered in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, the Indonesian government envisions a larger role for West Papua in palm oil production and has slated 27.6 million hectares of West Papuan land for palm oil development (NEPCon, 2017, p.5).

Under the MP3EI, Indonesia inaugurated the Mirauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a large-scale development production in southern Papua designed to produce food and biofuels for local and domestic consumption. MIFEE’s production targets are massive, designed to make MIFEE and West Papua one of Indonesia’s food baskets and reducing Indonesia’s annual net food imports by USD 154 million. When fully operational, MIFEE is planned to annually produce 1.95 million tons of rice, 2.02 million tons of maize, 167 thousand tons of soybeans, 64 thousand heads of cattle, 2.5 million tons of sugar, and 937,000 tons of palm oil. By 2011, 2.1 million hectares of land had been granted to 44 agricultural corporations to achieve these targets (Ito et al, 2014).

In addition, West Papua, with its low population density and large tracts of land, was a major destination of the government’s erstwhile transmigration program. Called transmigrasi in Bahasa, the program involved voluntary movement of people from the overpopulated inner islands to less densely-populated islands such as West Papua. It’s goal, aside from population movement, was also to create employment opportunities for poor Indonesians and jumpstart economic development in the recipient areas (World Bank, 1988). Although transmigration to West Papua was stopped by Widodo in 2015, the area is still a major destination for migrants hoping to find economic opportunities. In addition, transmigrasi is seen by many as a vehicle for the “Indonesianization” of outlying regions like West Papua, with many non-West Papuans bringing Indonesian customs and traditions with them to West Papua, binding the region more closely to the Indonesian state (Gietzelt, 1989).

While it is evident that Indonesia views West Papua as integral to its economic development, there is also at least one political consideration for Indonesia’s reticence in recognizing West Papuan RSD and freedom. Recognizing West Papuan independence will in all likelihood re-open major cracks in Indonesia’s claims of sovereignty over the peoples of the whole Indonesian archipelago, cracks that were first opened by the successful establishment of a free East Timor in 2009. While the secessionist movement in Aceh has laid down its arms after Aceh was granted regional autonomy (Ansori, 2012), and other smaller groups have been neutralized by the Indonesian military, West Papuan independence will certainly provide inspiration to quiescent pro-independence and secessionist groups to resume their struggles.

Thus, to recognize the right to self determination and independence of the West Papuan peoples is an event that will have economic and political ramifications for Indonesia, and it is a risk that Indonesia is not willing to countenance.

Looking away

As Indonesia continues to exercise iron-handed control over West Papua, international actors have mostly looked the other way. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) cannot be expected to speak out in defense of West Papuans, as it is currently only a consultative body and does not have the power to investigate human rights violations or prosecute perpetrators (Netipatalachoochote et al, 2018). The AICHR’s mother organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has a policy of non-interference in its members’ affairs and has shown an aversion to discussing human rights issues that pertain to its own members, making it an unlikely candidate to champion West Papua’s cause.

The UN system continues to recognize the results of the 1969 referendum, and the recent rejection by the Decolonization Committee of a petition of two million signatures from West Papua calling for independence (Doherty and Lamb, 2017) implies that the UN system is unlikely to change its views regarding West Papua anytime soon. Only the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a confederation of small Pacific states has formally recognized the problems facing the West Papuans (Lawson, 2016), and even then it has granted Indonesia membership alongside West Papuan organization United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), indicating that it is also being careful not to appear too adversarial against Indonesia in its support of West Papuan independence. It is evident that even in the international arena, the West Papuans’ struggle for freedom faces an uphill battle.

Papua! Merdeka!

The right to self determination is a right all peoples and nations should enjoy. This right allows peoples and nations to make decisions for their collective political, economic, social, and cultural development. Indigenous peoples, most especially, should be able to enjoy these rights. Yet the indigenous peoples of West Papua, which has been under the iron grip of Indonesian rule since the 1960’s, do not. Indonesia continues to deny West Papuan right to self determination and freedom due to economic and political reasons, and its actions violate Art.1 of the ICCPR. Indonesia has no plans of giving West Papuans independence because of its vested interests in the area, and many international actors are complicit in the denial of the right to self determination of West Papua’s indigenous peoples.

Will the West Papuans ever achieve independence? That remains to be seen. What is sure is that West Papuans will certainly continue their struggle for freedom and self determination, so that the words “Papua Merdeka!” chanted in the hinterlands of West Papua will no longer be simply aspirations, but reality.


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Photo from Newsweek

(This paper was written in 2018 as part of requirements for one of my graduate classes in human rights)