West Papua is a vast country consisting of the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half is the independent state of Papua-New Guinea), which belongs to the Republic of Indonesia. The pro-independence movement, based on the island's Indigenous population —the Papuan people—, demands the end of Indonesian occupation and of human rights violations, and the holding of a referendum on self-determination.
The Indonesian government rejects such a vote. As an alternative, Indonesia devolved some degree of autonomy to West Papua in 2001. The territory was subdivided into two autonomous provinces (Papua Barat and Papua) in 2003. The independence movement and a substantial part of the Papuan population regard the autonomy system as being illegitimate.
The West Papuan conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead —most of them, Papuan people killed by Indonesian forces— since the 1960s. Human rights organizations —both from West Papua and from abroad— report gross human rights violations and repression against press freedom.
All the territories that currently make up Indonesia, including West Papua, had been part of the Dutch colony of the East Indies until 1949. That year, Indonesia achieved independence from the Netherlands, but the former colonial masters managed to retain West Papua, which they turned into a new Dutch colony.
The Netherlands, however, finally withdrew from West Papua in 1962 without having carried out a proper decolonization process in which Papuans would have had a choice on independence.
The Indonesian military occupied West Papua, and Indonesian authorities subsequently organized a referendum in 1969 in which only 1,026 people, picked by the Indonesian army, were allowed to vote. The result was unanimous for annexation.
Indonesia, on the contrary, argues that the 1969 vote -labelled the "Act of free choice" by the Indonesian government- was perfectly legal, and calls on other countries to recognize its sovereignty over West Papua.
Politics and government
Since 2003, two semi-autonomous provinces under Indonesian sovereignty have governed West Papua: the province of Papua Barat and the province of Papua, each with its own assembly. The system was instituted by Indonesia without prior negotiation with the independence movement. Although it provided for broad legislative, executive, and fiscal self-government, its implementation has been slow and incomplete, and has not resolved central demands of the Papuan population, such as the right to self-determination, the clarification of the violence since 1960, and an end to repression by the security forces.
The pro-independence political movement, at the international stage, has united itself since 2014 under the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) umbrella, which has been recognized as a legitimate representative organization of the Papuan people by several countries in the region. The ULMWP announced in 2020 the creation of a Papuan provisional government in exile.
The ULMWP includes the West Papua National Parliament (WPNP), the Federal Republic of West Papua (Negara Republik Federal Papua Barat, NRFPB) and the National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), as well as the remnants of the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP).
Inside Papua, several pro-Papuan sovereignty organisations exist —suffering repression from the Indonesian state— such as trade union, women’s, religious, student, and youth movements. Among the latter, the National Committee of West Papua (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNBP) and the Alliance of Papua Students (Aliansa Mahasiswa Papua, AMP) have gained prominence in recent years.
Besides this, beginning in the mid-1960s, a part of the Papuan pro-independence movement organized itself into a militant group, the TPN or TPNBP, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM), which has waged an intermittent struggle against Indonesian forces. The TPN and the OPM have not joined the ULMWP.
(Last update: October 2021.)