In late 2018, a violent attack in Indonesia brought sudden, global attention to West Papua, a region whose fight for independence was by then decades old. The attack targeted construction workers who were building a stretch of the controversial Trans-Papua highway, a project the central Indonesian government has said will improve quality of life, but that many locals oppose. By the end, 17 civilians and Indonesian military members had been killed; a separatist militant group, the National Liberation Army of West Papua, later claimed responsibility.
It was the deadliest attack Indonesia had seen for several years—and it was a sign of things to come. Since then, violence in West Papua, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, which includes the provinces of Papua and West Papua, has ticked up significantly, as Jakarta ramps up its military and police presence there. Military operations in Nduga, the district where the 2018 attack took place, have led thousands of refugees to flee their homes in the face of rising civilian casualties. Worryingly, police are increasingly targeting even nonviolent protesters, such as in early December, when eight Papuan students were arrested for holding a peaceful rally.
“I do think there’s [been] a serious escalation of tensions and armed conflict in West Papua,” said Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s head of crisis and the environment. “There are reports of increased troops moving into West Papua, and that, along with media reports, paints a picture of a dire security situation.” That includes, he said, “a deterioration of the human rights of civilians.”
But that is not all that has changed since 2018. Efforts by Papuans, both within and outside Indonesia, have also brought greater global attention to the conflict. Jakarta has faced growing calls for investigations into alleged human rights abuses by security forces, and even for a referendum on West Papuan independence. It has had to respond to criticisms of its West Papua policy at international forums, particularly in the Pacific.
“We can definitely see an increase of awareness of West Papua,” said Raki Ap, the international spokesman for the Free West Papua campaign, a British advocacy group led by exiled Papuans. “Nowadays we really see more global support around what is happening.”
The Indonesian government has for decades sought to cement its control over West Papua by doubling down on a securitized approach to dissent. But so far, its strategies have only increased tensions. In time, what Jakarta sees as an internal security issue may well become a global one with significant geopolitical costs.
West Papua’s conflict has its roots in ethnic and racial divides. Although Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with as many as 1,300 ethnic groups, its largest ones—Javanese, Sundanese and Bataknese—tend to be lighter-skinned, Austronesian people. They share a long history of cultural connection and culinary traditions, and speak languages related to the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, which is itself related to Malay.
Papuans, on the other hand, are a generally dark-skinned, Melanesian people with unique linguistic, social and culinary cultures that bear little connection to those of most Indonesians. They are ethnically closer to other Melanesian islanders from Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. For most of history, their island, New Guinea—which today is split between two countries, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea—was politically distinct from the empires and kingdoms of Java and Sumatra, Indonesia’s two most populous and wealthy islands.
That began to change in 1949, amid decolonization, when Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands and asserted that its new territory should include all the land the Dutch had colonized in the area. That included West Papua.
Despite the Indonesian claim, West Papua was first kept under Dutch control and then placed under United Nations’ control until 1965, when a United States-backed military coup brought Gen. Suharto into power in Indonesia. In 1969, Suharto’s dictatorial regime held a sham referendum in West Papua, asking 1,025 hand-selected Papuan voters—less than 1 percent of the region’s population—whether they wanted independence. They voted unanimously for integration with Indonesia, an outcome that was recognized by the United Nations despite its very obvious shortcomings.
In time, what Jakarta sees as an internal security issue may well become a global one with significant geopolitical costs.
For the following three decades, both West Papuan provinces were under the de facto control of the Indonesian military. Its rule there was marked by mass atrocities and killings of civilians and any who opposed Indonesian control. At the same time, Suharto’s reign saw increased foreign investment, most notably via the massive Grasberg Mine operated by U.S. mining giant Freeport-McMoRan in West Papua. It was not Papuans who benefited, but migrant workers, mainly from crowded Java, who flooded into the region with government support.
The fall of Suharto in 1998 and the subsequent advent of democracy brought a ray of hope to the region, and many believed that the wrongs of the past would finally be addressed. It didn’t last.
In late 2001, Theys Hiyo Eluay—a pro-independence leader and chairman of the Papua Presidium Council, an advocacy group that advocates Papuan autonomy—was abducted in the provincial capital Jayapura and found dead the next day. Many suspect that the military played a role in what appeared to be a homicide and clumsy cover-up, but to this day there has been no justice. That crime ushered in another unstable period in West Papua, in which sporadic violence and reprisals became common and democracy achieved little in addressing past violence.
Hope returned again in 2014, when Joko Widodo, an outsider candidate also known as Jokowi, was elected president, winning a remarkable 70 percent of the vote across the two Papuan provinces. This was partly because, unlike his predecessors, all of whom hailed from the military or elite families, Jokowi took the time to campaign on New Guinea. He even celebrated Christmas in Papua shortly after being elected.
“At the time, Jokowi seemed a big hope for Papua, because he promised to solve some human rights issues and he gave signals that were different from other Indonesian leaders,” said Arie Ruhyanto, a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, whose research focuses on Papuan politics. Papuans’ hope in Jokowi was “genuine,” he added, even in the face of the region’s long-standing differences with the central government.
During his campaign, Jokowi promised to address human rights and open up West Papua to foreign journalists, who had long been prevented from reporting freely there. Yet from the start, he proved unable or unwilling to confront the military leaders and political elites who were responsible for the human rights abuses carried out under Suharto and his successors.
He also seemed powerless to prevent troops from carrying out new abuses. “In the Indonesian political system, the president is the commander-in-chief, but on the ground, the president cannot control every unit of the military or even the generals,” Arie said. “Jokowi isn’t to blame for all the violence in Papua. Even a president cannot control it; there are so many actors.”
At the same time, another of Jokowi’s campaign promises fell short of Papuans’ expectations. He had pledged to pursue massive economic development plans for West Papua to enrich what remains one of the poorest regions in the country, despite its vast natural resource wealth.
Indonesia has long been a major exporter of coal, palm oil and numerous minerals to the United States, Europe, China and Japan. More recently, Indonesia has made a play at becoming a hub for the production of electric vehicle components by expanding its domestic processing of natural resources. Papua, with its vast stores of minerals, has been central to those efforts. The Trans-Papua highway—the same one that was attacked in 2018—is one of the projects that got a boost from Jokowi’s election. It aims to connect potential mining regions in New Guinea’s inland forests with new ports and processing facilities along the coast and on other islands.
Jokowi speaks at the IMF and World Bank annual meetings in Bali.
Jokowi speaks at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group’s annual meetings in Bali, Indonesia, Oct. 12, 2018 (AP photo by Firdia Lisnawati).
Raki sees a direct link between the government’s development push and increased militarization in the region. “The military wants to protect the corporations that are active in West Papua,” he said. “They are finding new resources and new mining locations, and want to ensure that more security can go to West Papua to extract resources.”
Experts believe that the development of West Papua’s natural resources—using military assistance—may have contributed to the recent spike in violence, and that any expansion of these projects could enflame tensions even more. “There’s a real risk that continuing to extract resources at a time when there is so much resentment toward the approach of the Indonesia government and its security policy will make the situation worse,” said Pearshouse.
That is because West Papuans don’t see the benefits of economic development. The new, well-paying jobs and government contracts generally go to Indonesian migrants or foreign companies, while locals are left to deal with the projects’ environmental impacts and the loss of their land. Many also believe that the Indonesian government is using development as an excuse to expand its military operations on the island. These tensions may have contributed to the increased activity of the West Papua National Army, a separatist militia that has been involved in more and more violent incidents in the past five years.
Nonetheless, Jokowi’s spotty record did not seem to affect his popular appeal. He was reelected comfortably in 2019, this time winning more than 80 percent of the vote in West Papua. Since then, there’s been a crackdown on civil society and increased use of internet shutdowns by the police and military to prevent the spread of information. The government now considers separatist fighters to be terrorists, a determination that security forces have used to carry out mass arrests to sweep up even peaceful activists.
Jokowi has also been criticized for failing to speak up in 2019, when many Papuans joined anti-racist protests provoked by alleged racist abuse of Papuan students in Surabaya; seven of the protesters were reportedly killed after police opened fire on a crowd in Deiyai district.
Nevertheless, Arie believes that Jokowi, who has nearly three years left in his second term, still has an opportunity to at least kickstart a peace process.
“If Jokowi could start a more meaningful, inclusive dialogue and bring together parties that are on different sides, it could be a substantial legacy,” Arie said.
Indeed, it could even be in the Indonesian government’s interest to lower tensions in New Guinea. Increased violence has the potential to harm the country’s access to global markets, because major manufacturers like Tesla and South Korea’s LG are now facing pressure from investors and consumers—and, in some cases, new government regulations—to minimize human rights abuses in their supply chains. That would include ending their business in regions with a high human rights risk.
Failure to address human rights in Papua could therefore limit Indonesia’s ability to attract foreign investment and supply key markets like the U.S. and Europe.
Democracy has brought significant changes to Indonesia since the turn of the millennium—but not necessarily for West Papua. Increasingly, Papuans began to see international pressure as a more likely vehicle to achieve change than the ballot box. It’s a view shored up by recent history. In 1999, Indonesia was forced to respond to global pressure by allowing East Timor, similarly under brutal military occupation since 1975, an independence referendum. That paved the way to Timorese independence in 2002.
To ramp up similar pressure, though, Papuans faced a significant challenge: getting the hundreds of ethnic groups living on the island to work together. Disagreement and division also extended to the global community of exiled Papuans, as separate organizations and activists jockeyed for recognition and leadership positions.
Over the past few years, however, an unlikely unity has emerged. In 2015, several Papuan organizations, including Raki’s Free West Papua campaign, joined forces and formed the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, or ULMWP. The organization, which even set up a government-in-exile in 2020, aims to be democratic and represent Papuans both abroad and inside West Papua. ULMWP even has a state sponsor, Vanuatu, where the organization is now based, and which has increasingly raised West Papuan human rights issues in international forums, including the Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the United Nations.
Initially, ULMWP focused its diplomatic efforts in the Pacific. It became an observer member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, where it is now applying for full membership, and pushed the Pacific Islands Forum to support open dialogues on the region and an international human rights mission. Indonesia has protested these efforts and even lambasted Vanuatu for bringing up West Papua—a sign, to Raki, that the movement’s efforts are paying off.
“Indonesia is already panicking at every level, shouting about Vanuatu, but all we are doing is exposing the truth,” Raki said.
There is increased action in Europe, as well, where parliamentarians have raised concerns about West Papua in the British, Dutch and Basque legislatures. They have even formed an entity, International Parliamentarians for West Papua, which now includes more than 70 politicians currently serving in regional and national legislatures around the world.
Failure to address human rights in Papua could limit Indonesia’s ability to attract foreign investment and supply key markets like the U.S. and Europe.
ULMWP has even organized campaigns in West Papua, an impressive feat given that communication across the vast and remote region is challenging—a situation made worse by Jakarta’s attempts to limit the flow of information. The most notable example was in 2019, when it helped smuggle a petition across the island, collecting 1.8 million signatures calling for self-determination. The petition was delivered by ULMWP and its allies to the United Nations’ Special Committee on Decolonization. In addition to establishing the desire within West Papua for a new independence referendum, the petition also demonstrated the ULMWP’s legitimacy to act as the people’s “voice outside of West Papua,” Raki said.
In the short term, ULMWP hopes to achieve full membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which would constitute recognition of West Papua as an occupied country. It also plans to increase pressure on Indonesia to allow the U.N.’s human rights office to visit West Papua, a mission that has been stalled by Jakarta for years.
Nevertheless, the advocacy group and its allies face an uphill battle. Indonesia’s strategic location means countries like the U.S., Japan and Australia see it as a potential ally in efforts to contain China’s expansion into the South China Sea. That means its leaders may be unwilling to challenge Indonesia on its human rights violations, let alone to address them with the fiery rhetoric, diplomatic strategies or economic tools they might deploy for similar abuses elsewhere.
“Indonesia is an important country geopolitically," Pearshouse said. “On this issue in the past, there has been soft pedaling of human rights concerns.”
Despite the increased attention, for the most part, West Papua remains off-the-radar when it comes to global human rights issues. Part of this is by design: Indonesia continues to prevent foreign media and civil society groups from accessing the region, making it difficult to verify and disseminate any information about what’s happening on the ground.
“The overall effect is that the global human rights community has an underappreciation of how bad it is in West Papua,” Pearshouse said. “It doesn’t have the profile it deserves or requires.”
Raki, though, believes the new movement has already achieved much by bringing the region’s struggles to the forefront in the Pacific. “Looking at what we have done, from a humble position, with very little resources, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll have more funds and more support from governments,” he said. “We are not afraid we will lose our momentum.”
Jakarta’s hopes that security, censorship and political pressure will dampen Papuans’ aspirations for justice and independence seem unrealistic. Its heavy-handed security approach has only made matters worse. And its efforts to attract foreign investors may well give West Papua an even higher international profile as companies carry out the human rights, social and environmental audits that are increasingly part of doing business abroad.
“Indonesia needs to rethink its security approach in West Papua,” Pearshouse said, “and the international community has a role in making that case.”
One model could be replicating what took place on the other side of the country, in Aceh, which was also host to a violent separatist insurgency for decades. That conflict demilitarized following a 2005 peace deal that granted Aceh province special powers—including autonomy—and has proven remarkably sustainable. West Papua isn’t Aceh, but genuine dialogue and democratic engagement could enable Indonesia to finally address Papuans’ concerns, reduce violence and perhaps even promote equitable development.