Asia-Pacific

The history behind West Papua's resurgent political dissent

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As political unrest and civil violence again grip Indonesia’s eastern Papua provinces – what is the history behind the resurgent discontent of the region’s Indigenous people?

A resurgence of rebellion among West Papuans demanding independence for their native homelands is again gripping Indonesia’s easternmost provinces.

Thousands have taken to the streets across several districts in the territories of Papua and West Papua over the past fortnight.

The deadly protests have resulted in the torching of government buildings, clashes with police, mass arrests and dozens of deaths and injuries.

Social media videos from the region depict these scenes to the outside world - despite an earlier internet shutdown enforced by Indonesian authorities.

Indonesia’s control of the territory has long been a flashpoint of tensions with Indigenous locals with low-level conflict and independence movements simmering for decades.

Papuan activists shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, 22 August 2019.
Papuan activists shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, 22 August 2019.
EPA

West Papua’s Colonial History

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua - known commonly as just West Papua –  are located north of Australia on the western part of the island of New Guinea.  

This region – native to Melanesian Papuans - became a Dutch territory when it was formally colonised by the Netherlands in 1898.

But when the Republic of Indonesia became an independent state from the remnants of Dutch control in 1949 its future became disputed.

West Papua did not join the rest of Indonesia that won autonomy from the Netherlands because this territory was seen as being geographically and ethnically distinct.

As the Netherlands prepared their withdrawal from the region during the 1950s – native Papuans would declare their own independence in 1961.

The indigenous people holding a congress where their Morning Star flag – now a symbol of the Papuan independence movement - was raised.

Papuan students shout slogans during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.
Papuan students shout slogans during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.
AP

‘New York Agreement’

However, the Indonesia government’s desire for ownership of all the former Dutch Asia Pacific colonies meant that it also laid claim over the resource-rich region.

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Its military would soon invade the territory leading to conflict surfacing between Indonesia, the Netherlands and native Papuans.

In 1962 a United Nations-sponsored treaty to ease the territorial conflict was signed by the Netherlands and Indonesia. 

The deal brokered by the United States - known as the New York Agreement - resulted in West Papua being placed under the control of the UN for a year before Indonesia was made temporary administrator.

However, a provision of this treaty was for the Papuan people to be promised a referendum on their independence.

A Papuan student with her face painted with the colors of the separatist 'Morning Star' flag in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A Papuan student with her face painted with the colors of the separatist 'Morning Star' flag in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Disputed Referendum Vote

The ‘Act of Free Choice’ ballot held in 1969 would become marred in a dispute over its legitimacy despite being overseen by the United Nations.

Indonesian authorities picked 1,026 people on behalf of the population to participate in the vote supposedly allowing West Papuans to decide their future. The point of contention being Indonesia’s military is accused of using threats of violence and intimidation to coerce the outcome of the ballot.

The vote resulted in unanimous support for Indonesian control of West Papua, with this process receiving approval from the United Nations.

But Indigenous Papuans still strongly reject the ballot – with demands for another independence referendum – one of the bases for their discontent with Indonesian authorities.

In January this year, West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda handed a petition with 1.8 million signatures to UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet demanding such a referendum.

Mr Wenda told SBS News the United Nations must take more action in the region.

“How many people need to be killed for the UN to intervene, to come to West Papua and see what is going on,” he said.

Protesters march during a violent protest in Jayapura, Papua Province, Indonesia, 29 August 2019.
Protesters march during a violent protest in Jayapura, Papua Province, Indonesia, 29 August 2019.
EPA

West Papua's Human Rights Concerns

Another source of anger for Indigenous locals is perceived racism and accusations of human rights violations against them by Indonesian authorities.

However, West Papuan militant movements have also been accused of their own violations.

In response to recent escalation in the situation in West Papua, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison drew attention to human rights concerns in the region.

“This is a matter that the UN is dealing with – a current human rights investigation and that’s got the full cooperation of the Indonesian government,” he said.

“It is very important that the process is able to be facilitated and undertaken and we’ll wait for the outcomes of that process.”

The majority of the international community supports Indonesia’s control of the West Papua region including Australia.

A statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to SBS News confirmed this position.

“Australia recognises Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces. Our position is clearly defined by the Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia,” a spokesperson said.

“Information regarding ongoing protests is still unfolding and we are seeking to confirm reports of violence.”

A Papuan activist with their face painted with the colors of the separatist Morning Star flag in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
A Papuan activist with their face painted with the colors of the separatist Morning Star flag in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.
AP

Indonesia Rules Out Referendum

The Indonesian government has ruled out the possibility of another independence vote taking place despite renewed calls. This campaign has included wider support for the protest movement across Indonesia. 

Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Security told reporters demands for a referendum should not be considered labeling them “inappropriate”.

“Referendums are for occupied countries that are given the choice to be independent or to join … the occupying country,” he said.

“But Papua and West Papua are legitimate territories of the Republic.”

The flair up civil tensions erupted after allegations of racism surfaced against Indonesian security forces for their storming of a dormitory housing West Papuan students on the island of Java.

Forty three students were arrested in Surabaya over claims the Indonesian flag was found in a sewer near the building.

Indonesian authorities were accused of making racist remarks against those detained – these accusations fueling anger among already discontented Papuans. 

Indonesian military intervention

West Papua already has a heavy military presence due to decades of separatist conflict.

But this has been enhanced alongside the growing unrest.

The Indonesian government has deployed more than 6,000 military personnel to the region in an effort to quell dissent.

Recent evidence also suggests the Indonesian military is continuing to ramp up its presence in the Papua and West Papua provinces.

Video obtained by SBS has shown paratroopers descending on the region in the highlands Wamena and in Sentani near the Papuan capital, Jayapura.

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Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has declared there is no tolerance for rioters and perpetrators of “anarchistic acts”.

“Regarding Papua, legal action has been taken on civilian and military personnel who carry out these actions,” he said.

But he has also made pleas for calm and restraint.

“My brothers and sisters in Papua and West Papua, I know you feel offended,” he said.

“It’s OK to be emotional, but forgiving is better.”

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