Righting Wrongs: The Struggle for Western New Guinea

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 20

Source: WikiMedia Commons

In the far east of Indonesia, thousands of miles from the capital of Jakarta, lies the area known as Western New Guinea. Made up of the provinces of Papua and West Papua, it is roughly the size of California and has a diverse population of hundreds of tribes that speak hundreds of different languages. Despite being a part of Indonesia for over fifty years, the marriage between Western New Guinea and the Indonesian state has been ugly, fueling a consistent desire for independence in the region. This struggle has particularly been agitated in recent months, with an incident in August that allegedly saw Papuan students desecrating the Indonesian flag and nationalist groups responding with racist chants towards the Papuans. This incident has since grown into an outbreak of protests by Papuans in Indonesian cities and widespread violence in Western New Guinea, leading to a harsh military crackdown, and resulting in forty deaths and many more arrests. With the political situation in this remote region becoming increasingly fraught, and considering its historical and economic issues, Indonesia must extend an olive branch to the people of Western New Guinea and address some of their omnipresent complaints about poor conditions.

The recent history of Western New Guinea reveals many of the underlying reasons why Papuans are seeking independence. Following a brief period of independence in the 1960s, the region was annexed by the former Indonesian dictator Suharto in a sham referendum called the “Act of Free Choice,” in which Suharto claimed Papuans to be too “primitive” to determine their own sovereignty and limited the franchise to a small group of hand-picked and coerced voters. Inspired by the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Papuans increased their calls for independence, a movement which coincided with that of former Indonesian colony Timor-Leste, calling for the “Act of Free Choice” referendum to be reversed and for a legitimate vote to be held. However, these voices were ignored and suppressed. Since this integration, more and more Indonesians from the main island of Java have migrated to the area in order to work in the mines and timber yards, and Papuans have become seriously concerned about Indonesian cultural imperialism. Fewer and fewer Papuans are living in the major Papuan cities, and instead, their shops and homes have been taken over by new arrivals from the main part of Indonesia. Over the course of fifty years, Papuans feel that they have been seriously wronged and forced to cooperate with an abusive and uncaring state that has done more to subjugate and harass the Papuans than to work in their best interests.

Despite the great harm caused by the present situation, there is a strong economic case for maintaining control of Western New Guinea. According to the University of Texas at Austin, Western New Guinea contains some of the greatest mineral wealth in the Indonesian archipelago. Large deposits of oil, gold, and copper have given Western New Guinea great material wealth. One particular mine, the Grasberg mine, has copper and gold reserves worth at least $40 billion USD. In addition, Papuan timber has an estimated value of $78 billion USD. Despite this great material wealth, the people of the region have not reaped its benefits. For the majority of these mines, the Indonesian government keeps 20 percent of the profits, while foreign backers keep the remaining 80 percent, taking both the Papuans’ natural resources and potential revenues. The Indonesian government’s own statistics report that Papua is Indonesia’s poorest province and West Papua its second-poorest, with 28 percent and 25 percent of their populations living below the poverty line, respectively. In addition, as TIME’s Febriana Firdaus has reported, the Indonesian military has been brought in to help clear even more land for natural resource extraction, often violating local tribal land claims, seriously polluting the local environment, and forcefully subjugating the local population in order to “maintain control.” Natural resource extraction has left the people of Western New Guinea deeply impoverished and bitter towards an Indonesian government which has actively worked to suppress them.

In response to these conditions and despite apparent sympathy from the Indonesian government, the situation in Western New Guinea has only grown more fraught. In 2014, during his first presidential election, President Joko Widodo campaigned in Papua and West Papua on a promise to “listen to the people’s voices” and directly address the concerns of Papuans. As a result, he secured 27 of the 29 voting areas in the region. Despite these pledges, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence has reported that rampant human rights abuses by the military continue, with thousands being subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, and killing. In response to the previously-mentioned protests of August 2019, the Indonesian military has only intensified its strict control of the region and heavily cracked down on dissent, as well as enforced internet outages and strict access on entry into the region.

If President Widodo wants to keep his word and actually “listen to the people’s voices,” then he would be wise to listen to Papuans’ concerns. To his credit, President Widodo has taken numerous trips to the region and made serious strides to improve infrastructure in this extremely rural area. However, this is not enough to win unconditional support. Instead of expropriating the land from its people, President Widodo must actively work to break this exploitative cycle and allow the Papuan people to reap the economic benefits of their land through methods such as including Papuans in discussions of land use and hiring Papuans to help extract resources. Allowing the local tribes to have some semblance of self-autonomy would allow both sides to work cooperatively for the benefit of each other.

While it may seem like the only possible move within the Indonesian government to crack down further on dissent and make it more and more costly to speak out, the long-term impact will not benefit Indonesia. Harsher restrictions and military crackdowns will only ensure that Papuans are further disillusioned with the Indonesian government, and only propagate the already popular independence movement, or worse, potentially spark a guerilla movement, like the long and drawn out rebellion in Timor-Leste that eventually led to its independence.

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