As West Papua marks independence day, experts say the declaration could be the beginning of its road to independence.
Hundreds of Papuans held rallies across at least eight cities in Indonesia on Tuesday to renew calls for independence, as a separatist group declared it had established a provisional government in exile.
The demonstrations marked the anniversary of West Papua declaring independence from Dutch rule in 1961, which was followed by a contentious UN-sanctioned referendum in 1969 that brought Papua under Indonesian control.
Among more than 100 students who marched in the capital Jakarta, Papuan Roland Levy said the date remained significant decades on.
“My goal in joining the rally today is to commemorate 59 years of the proclamation of independence of the West Papuan nation that was annexed by Indonesia,” he told Reuters, as demonstrators waved banners calling for the right to self-determination.
Some Papuans regard the 1969 plebiscite as unfair and say intimidation was used to influence the outcome, which Jakarta has rejected.
The rallies came after West Papuan independence leaders declared a new provisional government, intensifying their decades-long push to break away from Indonesia amid recent escalations in violence.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) outlined a new constitution on 1 December, as the contested Indonesian province marks independence day.
The provinces of Papua and West Papua, collectively known by independence activists as West Papua, form the western half of the island of New Guinea, bordering independent Papua New Guinea to the east.
Home to over 250 tribes, West Papua raised its now-banned "Morning Star" flag when it was declared independent from Dutch colonial rule in 1961.
The Indonesian military took control of West Papua within months of the declaration.
Indonesia’s control of the provinces has long been a cause of tension among Indigenous locals, with low-level conflict and independence movements simmering for decades.
But months of unrest and escalating violence have strengthened fresh demands for independence, prompting the ULMWP to announce its provisional government on Tuesday.
The group nominated exiled leader Benny Wenda, who is based in the United Kingdom, as its interim president.
“It’s a very important day for my people. We are now restoring our sovereignty and our provisional government of West Papua,” he told SBS News.
Mr Wenda said the provisional government means the provinces are “not going to bow down to Indonesia”.
“We are not complying with Indonesia rules and laws that are imposed on us,” he said.
He also called on the Australian government to support their efforts.
“West Papua faces a crisis and we need a big player like Australia [to support us]. It's very important for Australia to play a big role.”
The self-declared provisional government aims to mobilise West Papuans to achieve a referendum on independence, after which it will take control of the territory and organise democratic elections that are currently impossible under Indonesian rule.
It will centre on environmental protections, social justice, gender equality and religious freedoms, along with protecting the rights of Indonesian migrants who are living in the provinces.
Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who founded International Lawyers for West Papua, said the declaration is the beginning of West Papua’s road to independence.
“The intention is they will exercise powers to organise themselves and govern themselves within Indonesia,” she told SBS News.
“It is the beginnings of what I think will be their road to independence.”
Ms Robinson said the move falls completely within the international rights of the ULMWP.
“It’s common around the world for countries to create provisional governments, whether under United Nations rules or as part of a declaration of independence,” she explained.
“What they have done is completely in line with their international rights. It is right and proper that they take these steps.”
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua is just one of dozens of groups pushing for independence from Indonesia.
The ULMWP says the fledgling provisional government is supported by all of West Papua's liberation groups.
Up to 70 per cent of West Papuans have signed a petition rejecting Jakarta’s attempt to extend funding for so-called Special Autonomy provisions that were first introduced to the provinces in 2001.
The petition was delivered to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights by the ULMWP in 2019.
The Special Autonomy law, which is set to expire next year, was supposed to give Papua and West Papua a greater share of revenue from their rich natural resources, along with greater political autonomy.
But pro-independence protesters have said the law is being used to repress their movement, and has failed to bring protection and empowerment for Papuans.
‘Escalating unrest and violence’
The declaration comes as the United Nations warned of escalating violence in the provinces in recent weeks and months.
In a statement on 30 November, UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said she was “disturbed” by escalating violence, along with reports that both armed and nationalist militia are actively involved in it.
In one incident on 22 November, she said a 17-year-old was shot dead and another injured in an alleged shootout in the Gome District of West Papua.
In September and October, there was a “disturbing series of killings” of at least six people - including activists, churches and non-Indigenous residents - that involved at least two security forces members, she added.
An investigation by the National Human Rights Commission found one church worker, Reverend Yerimia Zanambani, a pastor of the Protestant Evangelical Church, may have been killed by members of the security forces, and that his killing was just one “of a series of violence occurring across the regency throughout this year”.
The UN has also received reports of at least 84 arrests, including Wensislaus Fatuban - a well-known human rights defender and advisor to the Papuan People’s Council, known as the Majeli Rakyat Papua or the MRP.
She said there was further escalation in August 2019, when anti-racism protests and widespread violence erupted in Papua following the detention and “discriminatory treatment’ of Papuan students in Java.
“We urge the Government of Indonesia to uphold people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association in line with its international obligations, particularly ahead of 1 December, when there are often protests, tensions and arrests,” Ms Shamdasani said.
“We also call on the authorities to pursue thorough, independent and impartial investigations into all acts of violence, in particular killings, and for all perpetrators - regardless of their affiliations - to be held accountable.”
- With Reuters.