Henry Hopwood-Phillips

West Papuans: The Forgotten People

May 9, 2021

At a time when the idea of colonists being anything but white has faded, the western half of New Guinea—the world’s largest island after Greenland—fails to register on the Western cultural radar, mainly because it falls behind the aegis of the south-east Asian state of Indonesia. This omission is compounded by the fact that Indonesia claims to be wedded to the multicultural notion of Pancasila encapsulated in its state motto “We are all different but we are one.”

The litany of violence West Papuans suffer, however, mocks the multicultural paradise moniker. By hook or by crook, Indonesians have a habit of trying to occupy Melanesian nations that only ever flirted with the cultural orbit of their premodern satellite states. A glance at East Timor’s annexation in 1975—which resisted 35,000 Indonesian troops until Portugal forced a referendum in 1999—proves as much.

At least East Timor was able to host an honest referendum. While Indonesia promised the Netherlands it would hold one within seven years of receiving the baton of power on 1 May 1963, the 1969 vote was a sham. Roughly one thousand West Papuans were frogmarched to ballots at gunpoint and told where to sign. In response, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement) or OPM was born. A mixed blessing to many West Papuans, its presence goaded incursions from the Indonesian military, which burned entire villages; as well as a colonisation programme.

The result was genocide in slow-motion. Punctuation marks included the Northern Biak “incident” of 1971, when 55 men were forced to dig their own graves; the 1973 massacre, when over 500 were killed in the Lereh district; the aerial bombings of Akimuga and the Baliem Valley in 1977-78 (the latter only forty years after it was discovered by Richard Archbold, who described it as ‘shangri la’); the sacking of villages such as the Madi slaughter of 2500 people, following the production of a Dutch film that showed villagers shouting anti-Indonesian slogans in 1981; the total destruction of groves and cult centres; the naval assaults on four large villages between 1984-86; the Amungme folk who had white hot wires thrust through their abdomens in 1985, and so on.

Attempts at colonisation involved the resettlement of over 5,000,000 Indonesians to parts of the archipelago where Jakarta’s rule was at its most fragile and tenuous—mainly West Papua, East Timor, Kalimantan, South Moluccas, Sulawesi and Sumatra. Such measures were deemed essential in New Guinea because it formed a treasure trove of mineral wealth. While the island had once traded in birds of paradise, nutmeg and cloves, it was gold—first found by Australian prospectors in 1933—that excited outside interest; advanced states who desired its gold, copper and timber.

Under these conditions, Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) economy fell into a mire of corruption in which cash was king and people’s patrimony was sold by folk who didn’t know its worth. Tragically, the West Papuans were robbed even of this dubious prospect. Instead they were ousted by soldiers and turned overnight into refugees or resistance fighters. Sometimes—if they were lucky— they were employed as labour by the mining or deforestation companies. All of these factors contributed to the Papuan poverty rate of 41% percent, compared to the Indonesian average of 18%.

At least West Papua’s neighbour (PNG) backed locals when they forcibly closed the giant Bougainville copper mine—a quarry that had generated over a billion metric tons of waste, and which continues to seep into the region’s water sources—in 1989. Indeed, in 2020 PNG also cancelled the lease on Porgera, one of the country’s biggest mines, as part of its attempt to “take back PNG”—in this case from Canadian Barrick Gold and Chinese Zijin Mining.

West Papuans are less fortunate. Taking advantage of the vacuum where a native government should be, the US mining company Freeport colluded with the Indonesian military to create what was essentially economic development by invasion: the kind of imperialism that scholars had confined to the history books (and which was repeated at Aceh, spawning an independence movement in 1976 to which it now owes a model of autonomy).

In short, the West Papuans found themselves colonised by Indonesians—a people who wore modest clothing, had a shame culture, loathed pigs, sago, taro and yam, and foisted bahasa Indonesia on the education system—while simultaneously being exploited by Western mining companies. And so they grasped at the only viable option left to them: migration. A mass exodus followed across the (largely theoretical) jungle border of Papua New Guinea in the eighties and nineties.

The sheer numbers involved meant repatriation was virtually impossible. Feeding and housing these refugees, however, also proved problematic. As many fell victim to malaria, tuberculosis, elephantiasis and chronic malnutrition, PNG’s parliament required a scapegoat and, fearing reprisals if it failed to kowtow to Jakarta’s “domestic” policies, lined the OPM in its crosshairs by claiming it had used women and children as human shields.

In the long run, however, pan-Melanesian instincts developed, and the West Papuan independence movement snowballed. The musician Arnold Ap played a key role in these formative years by carving out a liberation culture before he was imprisoned, tortured by special forces known as Kopassus, and shot—probably by the same group—in 1984.

Riots and peaceful protests are now common in West Papua, but they’re also easily removed by security forces on the pretext of protecting the Indonesian flag. Since 2002, waving the “Morning Star” of independence has only been permitted if the Sang Saka Merah-Putih looked down on it. Even today, dozens of West Papuans find themselves serving ten-year jail sentences for failing to adhere to this law.

Some West Papuans are brave enough to protest in Java, despite routine discrimination that includes slurs such as “monkeys, dogs and pigs.” Their most high-profile actions include, first, the circulation of a petition that called for a free vote on independence, which garnered the signatures of over 70% of the Papuan population (2017), before being presented to the UN’s decolonisation committee; second, the attempted arson of the local parliament in the provincial capital of Manokwari (2019).

The parliament had been bestowed upon the West Papuans in a raft of “special autonomy” measures, known as Otsus, granted in 2001. These may have looked impressive on paper, but they amounted to little more than a Potemkin village due to the fact their legal mechanisms were not joined to those of Jakarta’s central government—like a bike wheel, spinning unconnected to the chain.

Kalau kami monyet, jangan paksa monyet, kibarkan merah putih” (If we are monkeys, then don’t force monkeys to fly the red and white [Indonesian flag]) was just one of the placards held up by West Papuans protesting against racism after an Indonesian mob barricaded their compatriots into a student dormitory in Surabaya (East Java) in August, 2019. When West Papuans subsequently rioted, the Indonesian response was to send over a thousand extra police and three hundred troops.

These retaliations do little to suppress the further education of Western Papuans who, as they attend Indonesian universities, learn about hypocrisies (large and small) of the Indonesian state, including tragedies like the unresolved mass abduction and rapes of the ethnic Chinese in 1998, the absence of any justice for the murderer of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004, the destruction of Ahmadi homes, among others.

Indonesia remains an old fashioned hegemon. Overall, its pattern of violence has shifted from large-scale military operations to smaller, but no less persistent, human rights violations. Indeed, the genial “Jokowi” is not short of General Dyers (Amritsar, 1919). 2020, for example, saw West Papuans being filmed while getting kicked half to death by Indonesian soldiers, others getting shot for being guilty of nothing more than enquiring at a police station about money seized from their friend, hundreds arrested at protest—with many being charged with “rebellion” under Article 106 of the Criminal Code, which carries a maximum life sentence—and local journalists stabbed for reporting on Indonesian oppression.

For Indonesians, the role of torture is not so much a sordid Guantanamo-style secret than a spectacle pour encourager les autres. In one incident, footage was leaked that showed Indonesian soldiers burning the genitals of an elderly West Papuan (2010). In this murky world, the tape may even have been disseminated by the military, a predatory institution with a vested interest in perpetuating the violence because 70-80% of its budget comes from the TNI’s (Indonesian National Army) involvement in legal and illegal business, including the provision of security to transnational corporations.

Yet despite all this—and despite Western appeasement, no doubt in return for mining licences—West Papuan leaders recently declared a provisional government-in-waiting. The UN, too, has said it is “concerned by the escalating violence,” including the killing of teenagers and priests by “security forces.” Looking to the future, the independence movement has laid out a new constitution and nominated its exiled leader, Benny Wenda—who Indonesia once issued a red notice against, until Interpol removed it, having concluded the charge was politically motivated—as its interim president.

How successful any of this will be without Western support is debatable, but at least its current lukewarm popularity has the excuse that few outside its borders know about the cause. So much of the merdeka (freedom) movement in New Guinea remains unreported in the West thanks to a lack of access to outsiders, including the media. This even has a darkly comic cartographical dimension, in that Indonesia still refuses to sell up-to-date maps, forcing visitors to use outdated alternatives—among them, heroically incorrect Japanese ones from World War II.

Hopefully getting the issue on the Western news agenda might be a start, a spur to meaningful political pressure.


A regular contributor to Lapsus Lima, Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian, travel-guide hack(er) and book reviewer. Follow him on Twitter @byzantinepower or at Excvbitor (www.excvbitor.com) for jottings.