West Papua conflict escalates

Indonesian forces suppress protests against new devolution act that ignores self-determination demands · Fears for life of imprisoned pro-independence activist · Army and Papuan armed group clash, several killed

Papuan pro-independence demonstration.
Papuan pro-independence demonstration. Author: Free West Papua Campaign
The detention conditions of a pro-independence activist who risks dying in prison are the tip of the iceberg of a recent escalation in West Papua’s conflict. Papuans are protesting the undermining of a devolution package that they already considered to be insufficient, Indonesian forces continue to suppress demonstrations —with racist abuse making the picture even worse—, while clashes pitting the army against an armed pro-independence organisation have claimed the lives of several fighters.

UN rapporteur on the rights of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor warned last week that pro-independence activist Victor Yeimo is at risk of death after Indonesian authorities have been for months restricting his access to adequate medical treatment. The man has been imprisoned since May on charges of treason and incitement to violence, after he took part in demonstrations for West Papua’s right to self-determination in 2019.

Yeimo is the spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), one of several organisations set up in West Papua in recent years to denounce the Indonesian occupation, the plundering of natural resources, the violation of human rights, institutional racism, and the denial of the right to self-determination.

Former Dutch colony West Papua was ceded by the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1962, which occupied it the following year. In 1969, Indonesia organised a referendum in which only 1,026 people, picked up by the army, were allowed to vote. The result was unanimous for annexation.

Since then, an armed conflict between the Indonesian army and Papuan groups has resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands in West Papua. Some of those killings have taken place in massacres committed by the Indonesian army against Papuan populations that are still being documented and quantified.

Papuan movements —in the past from exile but increasingly organised within West Papua itself, such as the KNPB— are demanding West Papua’s right to self-determination, which they claim was denied to them in 1962.

But the Indonesian government argues that the Netherlands had illegally retained West Papua in 1949 when Indonesia gained independence, and that Indonesia had therefore the right to regain the territory once the colonial power withdrew.

Jakarta has so far only accepted to grant limited autonomy to West Papua, in 2001.

Autonomy curtailed, institutional racism entrenched

Autonomy has been implemented slowly and incompletely, without prior consultation with West Papuan organisations. Tempers in Papua flared further on 15 July after the Indonesian parliament approved the extension of the autonomy law for another 20 years. Besides the fact that it ignores self-determination, West Papuans also complain that the new law recentralises powers to Jakarta and opens the door to further dividing West Papua into different administrative regions —they are two for the time being.

On the contrary, the Indonesian government claims that the law will contribute to improving living standards in West Papua.

Yeimo’s situation and the extension of the autonomy law are two of the factors galvanising Papuans to take to the streets to protest against occupation. And the Indonesian forces are responding as usual: with brutality, beating demonstrators, and showing their racism against Papuans, as denounced by local organisations and Amnesty International, which has published a report critical of police actions during July and August protests in West Papuan cities and in Jakarta. The human rights organisation documents that Indonesian forces fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters, beat them with batons, and racially abused several arrested people by calling them “monkeys”. Melanesian Papuans have a darker skin than Indonesians, and are often the target of such racist insults.

The armed way

At the same time, a protracted armed conflict between the Indonesian army and the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNBP) group is leaving an unknown number of people killed in clashes this year, often in jungle and mountain regions. One of the most widely reported has been an attack by the TPNBP on 2 September on an army military position in Maybrat, in the island’s far west, resulting in the killing of four soldiers.

In a statement, the Papuan armed organisation said that the attacks will continue as long as Indonesia retains West Papua. The TPNBP has very limited military capacity, albeit sufficient to stage ambushes or quick assaults in isolated places, usually targetting military personnel, but occasionally also civilian personnel in the service of the Indonesian state.

As a result, the Indonesian government declared the OPM —the TPNBP’s parent organisation— a “terrorist group” earlier in 2021. According to Indonesian human rights organisation KontraS, such designation suggests that the Indonesian government could be seeking a military end to the conflict. The group fears that the designation could be used to persecute peaceful Papuan activists on generic terrorism charges.

Such clashes take their toll on local populations. The Maybrat incident, for example, has led to the displacement of several thousands.

Exiled group sees dark strategy

Benny Wenda, leader of main exiled Papuan organisation ULMWP, says from London that these kind of armed incidents are provoked by the Indonesian army in order to have pretexts to increase Papua’s militarisation and deepen the displacement of tens of thousands of people. According to the ULMWP, Indonesia’s aim is to set conditions for the exploitation of Papua’s natural resources. The organisation claims that “deep links” exist between the army’s special forces, retired generals, and several resource extraction projects.

These projects include mining and plantation industry ones. Greenpeace released a detailed report in 2021 in which it denounces the collusion between government sectors and private companies in obtaining exploitation permits with “abundant irregularities” under a system where Papuan peoples are “marginalised” and dispossessed.

In conjunction with this, the Indonesian government continues to build hundreds of kilometres of roads on the island under the logics of “economic development” and of “opening up” Papua to the Indonesian economy. Jakarta claims that this is the fastest way to improve living conditions in the territory.

But according Benny Wenda, “this is not about ‘development’, about how many bridges and roads are built. This is about our sovereignty, our right to self-determination, our survival.”