Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Papua’s plight

By Jake Lynch - posted Friday, 8 May 2009

Indonesia is heading in some promising directions. Triumph for the Democrat Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - “SBY” - in the country’s parliamentary elections, endorses his achievements in office. Among them are the peace deal that finally brought a glimmer of hope to the long-suffering province of Aceh, and Indonesia’s ratification of two key human rights instruments, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights respectively.

That these steps are taking place in the world’s most populous Muslim country shows that democracy and human rights are not incompatible with Islam, and confirms a welcome change of course since the repressive New Order regime of President Suharto.

There is, however, one significant blemish in this generally benign picture. The people of West Papua have endured four decades of subjugation, with no real sign of any improvement. Peace in Aceh, and the secession of East Timor, amid the ruins of Suharto’s regime in 1999, deprived Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI, of two significant internal conflict zones in which to operate, since when the number of troops committed to West Papua has been remorselessly rising.


West Papua has now been sliced into two provinces. Suharto’s immediate successor, BJ Habibie, approved a significant degree of decentralisation in the country, and in 2002, West Papua was granted Special Autonomy status. One of the intended effects was for the province to keep more of the proceeds from the rich resources being exploited by corporations who reached deals with Jakarta. However, the proliferating levels of administration have ensured that much of the money is diverted to a burgeoning client class of bureaucrats, rather than being spent on genuine development.

One area in which development is sorely needed is in health services, especially by extending them to rural areas, where rates of infant and maternal mortality are shockingly high, and the spread of HIV-AIDS has decimated communities. Researchers from the West Papua Project (WPP), at Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, gathered evidence of army complicity in Papua’s HIV-AIDS crisis, with officers profiteering from legal and illegal brothels, where inadequate health testing regimes mean the disease can rapidly spread.

Under a law passed in 2004, as SBY took office, the TNI are supposed to divest themselves of all their business interests by this year. However, an interim report by Human Rights Watch concluded a couple of years ago that progress was glacial. Traditionally, half the military budget or less came from government coffers - it was up to officers themselves to raise the rest. “The military’s money-making creates an obvious conflict of interest with its proper role”, said Lisa Misol, a researcher with HRW’s Business and Human Rights Program. “Instead of protecting Indonesians, troops are using violence and intimidation to further their business interests”.

The most notorious case, the report pointed out, is the protection racket the army runs around the giant American-owned Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine, near Puncak Jaya in Papua’s central highlands. Protection from what, and whom? Peaceful protest against the Freeport mine, long the focus of discontent, has resulted in imprisonment, torture and extra-judicial killings. However, a second WPP report documented cases where the TNI was accused of provokasi, sending fake “independence fighters” into areas where it had not previously deployed, to raise the spectre of violent resistance, as a pretext for spreading its own operations in Papua.

Humanitarian crises

In the process, localised humanitarian crises regularly arise, with villagers, fleeing army units, taking to the forest in fear. Cut off from medical supplies and having left their homes and food gardens, many simply perish. The WPP report documented cases around the town of Mulia, which, it said, now “[stood] to be replicated across West Papua”.

The period leading up to the election was marked by a renewed upsurge in reports of violence. In spite of the provisions of the two human rights Covenants, the Indonesian authorities still clamp down, even on non-violent expressions of support for independence. At least 18 political prisoners are currently serving long jail sentences in cases where there is no dispute that their actions were purely peaceful, including merely being present when the Morning Star flag of the Papuan independence movement was raised.


On Friday, April 3, large pro-independence rallies were held in the town of Nabire and Wamena District, defying police attempts to ban them. A third rally, held in Nabire the following Monday, degenerated into violence, with nine demonstrators being shot and wounded. Paula Makabory, exiled in Melbourne, from where she runs the Institute for Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights, takes up the story:

Reports received from Nabire indicate that the violent confrontation that occurred on Monday the 6 April between the security forces and pro-independence protesters was actually promoted by a pro-Indonesian militia member and other Papuans working with the Indonesian security forces. The fact that there are reports that the Indonesian security personnel were positioned in [neighbouring] buildings, and armed, clearly suggests that this confrontation and the subsequent shooting and wounding of civilians was planned and staged by the Indonesian security forces.

This came shortly after rare pictures reached the outside world, showing genuine independence fighters, raising the Morning Star flag and vowing to die for their land, if necessary. The OPM, Organisasi Papua Merdeka or Free Papua Movement, arose in the 1960s to oppose Jakarta’s rule over West Papua, was quickly overwhelmed by the Indonesian military and receded to the sidelines. However, a film on the BBC’s Newsnight program showed them mustering significant numbers for the camera, filing through the bush and rallying at a rural highland stronghold.

The rebel commander, Goliat Tabuni, told the interviewer: “This is our land … how many of us have died? There are so few of us now.” The armed resistance was “fragmented and poorly armed”, according to the commentary by reporter Rachel Harvey, the BBC’s knowledgeable former Jakarta correspondent, but significant for its “symbolism” rather than “its ability to wage war”.

The Newsnight film briefly rehearses the history of the conflict. “Layers of grievance have built up over decades”, Harvey relates, since the so-called Act of Free Choice, which allowed Suharto to grab the territory in the first place. Forty years ago, about a thousand Papuans were corralled to vote publicly in favour of integration into Indonesia. This came after the United States had sponsored talks between Indonesia and the Dutch, who retained the territory as a colonial possession. The New York Agreement of 1962 was supposed to provide for all Papuans to vote in an act of self-determination, but the actual procedure, coming after years of political repression, was a sham, and the Americans knew it.

Documents obtained by the US National Security Archive include a US Embassy telegram from July 1969:

The Act of Free Choice (AFC) in West Irian [the Indonesian name for Papua] is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the Government of Indonesia, cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia.

America’s Ambassador, Frank Galbraith, noted that past abuses had stimulated intense anti-Indonesian and pro-independence sentiment at all levels of Irian society, suggesting that “possibly 85 to 90 per cent” of the population “are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause”. Moreover, Galbraith observed, recent Indonesian military operations, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians, “had stimulated fears and rumours of intended genocide among the Irianese”.

At the time, the UN “noted” the Act of Free Choice, and with that, the outside world effectively accepted Indonesian sovereignty over Papua. One of Suharto’s first acts on seizing power had been to pass a foreign investment law, and the first beneficiary was the Freeport company. What was good for Freeport was, apparently, good for America: Washington’s chief diplomatic priority, at the time, was for Papua to be integrated into Indonesia. Then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger passed secret advice, the NSA documents show, to President Lyndon B Johnson, that he was on no account to raise the matter with the Indonesian government.

The Lombok Treaty

It’s been the basic policy stance of the US and allied countries, at a governmental level, ever since. The second of the WPP reports, referenced above, focuses on the so-called “Lombok Treaty”, the security agreement between Indonesia and Australia, which goes so far as to suggest that expressions of support for Papuan independence - even from within Australia - should be regarded as “a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party”, and something which Australia is thereby committed to disallow.

The treaty was drawn up, apparently to repair relations with Jakarta after the Indonesian ambassador was recalled from Canberra, in protest over Australia’s decision to grant refugee status to a group of 43 Papuan leaders who reached Australia by boat and claimed asylum. That decision, in 2006, confirmed Australia’s recognition that - in the words of the 1951 Refugee Convention - they faced a “well-founded fear of persecution”. However, the Lombok treaty contains no mention of human rights, political freedom or free expression - all, apparently, off limits in the relationship.

Legislators in other countries have shown more of a sense of principle. The British parliament saw the launch, last year, of International Parliamentarians for West Papua, under the leadership of Andrew Smith, a former senior minister. In Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia-Pacific wrote recently to SBY in the following terms:

Dear Mr. President:

In 2005, at your request, we suspended our support for West Papua’s right to self-determination in order to give you time to implement the Special Autonomy legislation passed by the Indonesian Parliament in 2001. We welcomed the promise of this legislation and your personal assurances that your government would finally accord the Papuan people a fair share of the great wealth derived from Papuan resources. However, after three years, we note that the people of Papua, through the voices of Papuan religious and civil society leaders as well in broad public demonstrations, have declared Special Autonomy a failure.

Unlike the Australian government, sub-committee members sought to link the rights of Papuans with continued US support for Indonesia’s territorial integrity. “Doing right by Papua means: a) implementing a plan of success; b) opening your doors to allow Members of the US Congress, United Nations personnel, and non-government agencies access to Jayapura and the rest of the province; and c) demilitarising your approach”, the letter continues. This came after the Sub-Committee’s chair, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, visited West Papua but had his movements restricted by TNI troops.

Discussion and dialogue

Could there be a successful process for West Papua such as the one that did bring authentic and wide-ranging autonomy to Aceh? This was the subject of a humane and perceptive report, released last year by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, a body backed by the Indonesian government, and titled, Papua Road Map. One of the biggest obstacles to a genuine “dialogue” about a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict was, it said, the paucity of conversation among Papuans themselves, notably between provincial leaders and those “outside the state sector”.

An international third-party mediator could be appointed, LIPI suggested, to empower those presently confined to street protests, as witnessed in Nabire, to join in a broadly-based dialogue about “questions of violence and human rights abuses, the failure of development and the marginalisation of indigenous Papuans”.

Many are the promising auguries coming out of the country right now, certainly in comparison with the dark days of the Suharto regime. President Yudhoyono has promised, in past speeches, to approach the Papua issue “peacefully, justly and with dignity”. The international community must join the Congressional Sub-committee members in holding him to that, and “community” must mean everyone, including journalists, trade unionists, aid agencies and universities - not just governments.

  1. Pages:
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

3 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, PhD (City University, London) has spent the past decade developing, teaching and training in peace journalism – and practising it, as an experienced international reporter in television and newspapers. He was a presenter (anchor) for BBC World News; the Sydney Correspondent for the London Independent newspaper, and a Political Correspondent for Sky News. He is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His latest book is Debates in Peace Journalism, published by Sydney University Press.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jake Lynch

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Jake Lynch
Article Tools
Comment 3 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy