Why Indonesia’s Papua Insurgency Has Reached a Strategic Stalemate

The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) deployed an additional 1,000 troops to Papua after protests erupted across the region in August 2019. (Image Source: USAF/Richard Ebensberger)

On 30 March, separatist rebels opened fire on three employees of the Grasberg gold and copper mine near Puncak Jaya – the highest mountain in Indonesia’s remote easternmost province of Papua. One worker was killed and another two sustained gunshot wounds in the attack, which targeted an office and housing area of US-based firm Freeport-McMoRan. The company jointly owns the site – which is the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world – with the Indonesian government.

The mine sits at the heart of a volatile region. The Papua region, which encompasses the provinces of both Papua and West Papua, has been the site of a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s. Seven years after the end of Dutch colonial rule, the region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 via a disputed referendum, in which only 1,025 Papuans, carefully chosen by the Indonesian military, were permitted to cast a ballot. The poll remains a source of tension and drives separatism to this day.

While the conflict has persisted at a low level for decades, last year – the 50th anniversary of the vote – witnessed an uptick in violence. Protestors took to the streets across the two provinces last August, angered by an incident in Surabaya in which Papuan university students were arrested by police and suffered racial taunts from nationalists, over accusations they had desecrated an Indonesian flag. The ensuing street demonstrations soon turned violent, with deaths and injuries reported on both sides.

The recent shooting incident near Puncak Jaya was preceded by a series of clashes in the area between rebels and the Indonesian military, which prompted 917 residents to flee to the nearby city of Timika. Violence appears to be rising while the political campaign for Papuan independence stalls, leaving the status-quo intact and the future no-clearer for the region’s residents, who have long endured poverty and underdevelopment. As the stalemate persists, what makes the situation in Papua so intractable?

The roots of the independence movement

The origins of the dispute date to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia gained Independence in 1949, yet the Dutch retained control of Papua through the 1950s. As calls for independence grew, Papuan leaders held a Congress in 1961 and raised their own flag, the Morning Star. Violence erupted between Papuans, Indonesians and Dutch forces until a UN-sponsored treaty – the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement facilitated initial Indonesian control with the promise of a future referendum to decide the final status of the disputed territory.

The ballot, labelled the ‘Act of Free Choice’, was held in 1969. The Indonesian authorities selected just 1,025 Papuan representatives to vote, by raising of the hand, on behalf of the entire population of the region, which at the time had almost a million inhabitants. Voters unanimously backed staying under the rule of Jakarta; yet did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence. The result was controversially ratified by the UN, which voted by a majority 84-0, with 30 abstentions.

Widespread street protests last August were sparked by the arrest of Papuan students, alleged to have desecrated an Indonesian flag, in the city of Surabaya. (Image Source: Papua Glossary)

Angered by the perceived unfairness of the process, breakaway elements in the Papua region resorted to violence. An armed guerrilla group, the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) has carried-out attacks targeting security forces and multinational corporations since the 1970s. Other insurgent groups, such as the West Papua National Liberation Army or Tentera Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) also operate in the region. The latter group claimed responsibility for the attack in late-March on workers of the Grasberg mine, which it views as diverting profits abroad and harming the environment. The Indonesian military has also been accused of rights abuses and arbitrary arrests.

While the insurgency has persisted away from the scrutiny of the international media spotlight, 2019 marked a turning point in coverage. The protests which started last August, spread to cities including Timika, Fakfak, Sarong and regional capital Manokwari. Mobile phone footage was shared around the world on social media platforms and made it into mainstream news in the West. Indonesia promptly cut internet access to the region, claiming it would ‘accelerate the process of restoring security’. Yet Papuan independence activists and human rights organizations suspected the move was designed to limit global media coverage, cover-up abuses and prevent protestors from co-ordinating their actions.

Why is the Papuan situation so intractable?

The conflict is resistant to resolution given the diametrically opposed positions of both sides. From the perspective of Jakarta, the region came under its control in the 1960s via a legitimate vote, backed by the UN and supported by its neighbours and allies. Even today, regional powers such as Australia are reluctant to sympathize with Papuan separatists or criticize Indonesian military actions in the region. Indonesian politicians and military leaders are keen to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in its outermost regions; while as a resource-rich area, Papua is vital to the national economy.

Papuan independence activists, such as exiled figurehead of the movement, Benny Wenda, present a different reality. They view the 1969 vote as flawed and unrepresentative of the native population of Papua. Indonesian rule is seen as being illegitimate and constituting a form of modern-day colonialism. A set of additional grievances have added to the Papuan narrative of unjust domination by Jakarta. Of particular concern to independence activists is transmigration; a policy which has seen mostly-Muslim Javanese settle in Papua, displacing elements of the culture of mostly-Christian Melanesian Papuans.

Regional power Australia supports Indonesia’s control of Papua. Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is pictured here with Australian PM Scott Morrison. (Image Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta)

Economic grievances also feature highly on the list of concerns. Under Indonesian control, large multi-national companies have won contracts to extract Papua’s natural resources, diverting profits out of the region while much of the local population lives in poverty. Infrastructure also lags behind, leaving Papua underdeveloped and disconnected from more affluent sections of the Indonesian archipelago. Such companies also bring negative environmental impacts, such as pollution and the loss of forests. Many Papuans feel marginalized by the Jakarta elite and discriminated against by other ethnic groups.

An insurgency governed by stalemate

Indonesia shows little sign of budging from its long-term position on Papua, despite current President Joko Widodo pledging to listen to the concerns of Papuans after last year’s violent demonstrations. The Papuan independence movement – led primarily by Papuans exiled abroad – has made minimal progress amid internal divisions and a lack of coherence, despite the recent boost in global attention.

The UN – which ratified Indonesian control in the 1960s – is just as unlikely today to provide support for those intent on securing independence via political means. The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity remain the two cornerstones of international diplomacy, while regional allies with similar concerns about breakaway regions and separatist struggles at home are certain to back Jakarta. For major powers such as the US, China and Russia, Papua is of little wider geo-strategic significance.

It is hard to see how Papua will escape the current impasse. A cycle of insurgent attacks, alleged state oppression, protests and military deployments continue to dictate the region’s security architecture. Papuan separatist groups are no match for the strength of the Indonesian military; while in times of increased tension the authorities are able to suppress information, denting the organizational ability of rebels and their supporters. For as long as there is no meaningful political dialogue, the status-quo in Papua – of a conflict frozen in time and largely hidden from view – will prevail long into the future.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Indonesia unmoved by West Papua independence struggle

Indonesia has exercised sovereignty over West Papua since a disputed 1969 UN-backed referendum. President Joko Widodo’s position is supported by neighbouring Australia (Image Source: DFAT, Timothy Tobing)

In the Indonesian province of West Papua, a movement for independence has existed since the early 1960s. Located at the country’s easternmost point, West Papua came under Indonesian control in a disputed UN-backed referendum in 1969, sparking an independence struggle which has taken place far from the gaze of the outside world.

Over the past five decades this seemingly intractable conflict – and its competing narratives – have been largely forgotten by those outside the region. In recent years however, the dispute has gained greater international attention as a result of more organized efforts on the part of independence activists, alongside a growing network of concerned politicians around the globe.

Yet despite this upturn in media coverage, civil society action and political manoeuvring, the call for a new referendum on West Papua’s future remains unlikely to be granted.

The origins of the dispute date back to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial control. Indonesia became an independent state in 1949, yet West Papua remained under Dutch control throughout the 1950s. As calls for West Papua’s own independence grew throughout the decade, leaders in the area held a Congress in 1961 and for the first time raised their own flag – known as the ‘Morning Star’.

Conflict over the territory soon broke-out between Indonesia, West Papua and the Dutch colonisers, until a UN-sponsored treaty – known as the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement initially gave control of West Papua to the United Nations, before transferring control to Indonesia with the promise that a referendum would be held on the future of the territory.

When the ballot – known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’ – was finally held in 1969, it did not resemble a referendum as had been promised by the UN. The Indonesian military selected just over one-thousand West Papuan leaders to vote on behalf of the entire population. All of those eligible to take part voted in favour of the territory being incorporated into Indonesia – yet reportedly did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence.

In a much-criticized move, the decision was later authorized by the UN, and West Papua was officially incorporated into Indonesia. Local resentment against the decision was strong, with many labelling the referendum as an ‘Act of No Choice’. The perceived injustice following the referendum result gave rise to the independence movement which has spawned in the decades since, and this injustice remains a key motivating factor amongst those still seeking independence today.

West Papua is located in eastern Indonesia. It borders Papua New Guinea to the west, and is separated from northern Australia by the Arafura Sea (Image Source: US Library of Congress)

Resistance has taken several forms. An armed guerrilla group – called the OPM (Free Papua Movement) – was formed in 1970, and has carried out a number of attacks on Indonesian security forces and against multinational corporations operating in the area, particularly in the mining and resource sector. In recent decades, the independence movement has become more peaceful and political in nature, particularly since the fall of Indonesia’s former military dictator, General Suharto, in the late 1990s. In 2000, a public congress was held, and the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP) was formed in an attempt to gain recognition for the independence struggle; yet this project eventually failed after crackdowns by the Indonesian security forces and internal divisions within the group. More recently, several campaign groups have formed and have become better organized, holding demonstrations in the region and in other countries, to raise awareness of the situation.

Over the last five decades, information on the situation in West Papua has been difficult to obtain and verify, as foreign journalists and non-governmental organizations have largely been banned from the province. However, numerous human rights violations have reportedly been carried-out by the Indonesian security forces, including accusations of torture, murder, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. In addition, many people from other parts of Indonesia have been moved into the province, in what could be viewed as an attempt to lessen the influence of West Papuan culture.

The conflict long-ago reached a point of stalemate, with the dispute refusing to recede despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since the original referendum took place. There are multiple reasons why the dispute has become so intractable, not to mention the firmly-ingrained competing interpretations of the situation, which prevail on each side of the debate.

From the perspective of the West Papuan independence movement, the grievances felt in the 1960s have not subsided over time, and continue to drive the struggle today. First and foremost, the perceived historical injustice at the way the referendum was conducted remains strong. Other secondary factors have added to this feeling of injustice in the years since, including reports of human rights violations, cultural marginalization and economic disadvantages.

From the perspective of the Indonesian government, the territory was always rightfully obtained under a legal referendum, with the result sanctioned by the UN, thus resulting in legitimacy to govern and support from the international community. Many of Indonesia’s allies and closest neighbours – notably Australia – have long supported Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua. The province has come to occupy a central location in Indonesia’s national imagination, and is of huge economic importance due to its rich mineral resources. As a result, Indonesia has gone great lengths to secure control over the area, through maintaining a strong military presence and effectively closing the region off to international observers.

The campaign for West Papua’s independence has gathered pace in recent years, with an increasing number of demonstrations being held. (Image Source: Nichollas Harrison)

In recent years, Indonesia has been accused of carrying-out large-scale arrests of demonstrators and members of the independence movement, whilst the government has repeatedly urged other nations to respect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In this sense, the status-quo has undergone little change.

Yet last year, the independence campaign appeared to pick up pace, with a global conference on West Papua held in London in May 2016. Members of the ‘Free West Papua’ movement were in attendance, along with members of the ‘International Parliamentarians for West Papua’ (IPWP) group, including the current UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the meeting, prominent pro-independence leader Benny Wenda urged the UN to initiate and supervise a new vote for independence in West Papua, to make up for the perceived failings of the 1969 UN-backed vote.

The reinvigorated pro-independence campaign serves as evidence that despite Indonesia’s tight control of the province, and despite doubts over whether West Papua would be able to survive as an independent nation, calls for a new referendum are unlikely to subside. In fact, the independence movement appears to be more resilient and better-organized than at any time in recent history.

The involved parties are aware that persuading Indonesia to hold a new referendum is an unlikely prospect. Yet irrespective of the campaign’s long-term success or failure in terms of achieving an independence vote, it serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the human rights situation faced by civilians in West Papua.

Since being elected in 2014, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has visited the region and shown greater interest in its development than his predecessors, raising hopes of an improved economic and human rights situation for the local population. If President Widodo is serious about his pledge to improve livelihoods and repair Indonesia’s damaged reputation in West Papua, then opening-up the region to foreign journalists and human rights organizations would be a positive first step.