People & Power investigates one of the world’s most forgotten conflicts – the West Papuan struggle for independence.
When the Dutch decolonised their East Indies empire after the Second World War they handed it all to the emergent country of Indonesia – all except the territory of West Papua, which forms one half of New Guinea, the second largest island on Earth. This remarkable landmass – split neatly by colonial powers into West Papua and Papua New Guinea – is like few other places in the world.
Its mountainous terrain and dense rainforests have spawned extraordinary linguistic diversity among its indigenous population, some of whom are still in uncontacted tribes. Five decades ago few, if any of these tribes, showed any desire for their land to become an extension of Indonesia, a new nation state with which they shared neither history, culture, religion nor ethnicity, but which wanted resource-rich West Papua within its borders.
The Dutch resisted Indonesia’s demands for a while, beginning to invest in West Papuan education and encouraging nationalism. But eventually global realpolitik intervened in the shape of US President Kennedy. Concerned about the possibility of communism spreading across South and Southeast Asia, the Kennedy administration saw Indonesia as a useful regional ally that should be kept happy.
In 1963, with American backing, the United Nations gave Indonesia caretaker rights over the territory, on condition that a referendum on independence should follow. But when the poll – named, without apparent irony, as the ‘Act Of Free Choice’ – took place in 1969 it was widely perceived as a sham.
From a population of around of 800,000, just over 1,000 tribal elders were selected by the Indonesians to represent the nation. Allegedly threatened, intimidated and held in seclusion, they voted as they were told. Ignoring well-founded international protests that the referendum had been rigged, the UN accepted the result and West Papua moved from being a Dutch colony to an Indonesian province.
But a West Papuan resistance movement, the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), soon started fighting back – in the first instance using bows and arrows to capture the guns of the Indonesian military. A sporadic, low level conflict has continued ever since.
It has never been an even fight (a few thousand unfunded guerrillas against the well-equipped modern army of the world’s fourth most populous nation) and Amnesty International and other human rights groups estimate that the Papuan death toll has reached in excess of 100,000 over the years. Some believe it might be even higher, although it is hard to know for sure because the Indonesian authorities have never welcomed independent monitors and foreign reporting is banned.
Even today, 15 years after a democracy replaced Indonesia’s dictatorial President Suharto, West Papua is still one of the most policed places on the planet – with approximately 30,000 security personnel dealing with an indigenous population of around two million.