The conflict between West Papua and Indonesia started when Indonesia became the successor state of the Netherlands New Guinea in 1962, under the New York Agreement, after the withdrawal of the Dutch colonizers. West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, fell under the complete control of Indonesia in 1963. The annexation and occupation of this former Dutch colony by Indonesia, through its military forces, intensified the tensions between independence activists (the Free Papua Movement) and the Indonesian government.
During this extreme duress, under the New York agreement, a plebiscite was held in 1969. The plebiscite was known as the “Act of Free Choice” which ascertained the population’s view. It decided whether the West Papua territory would be an independent state or join Indonesia as its province. Unfortunately, this plebiscite turned out to be nothing more than a pretense.
It was carried out under the supervision of the Indonesian military forces and a few handpicked people, less than 1% of the Papuans, were brought in to vote in favor of Indonesia. Hence, the plebiscite resulted in the territory’s integration into Indonesia.
The legitimacy of the votes has been disputed by separatists and independence activists since then and the conflict is blaring to date. During the time of the plebiscite, as the Cold War was also at its peak, Indonesia was also assisted by western powers in terms of arms, military support, and World Bank funding.
Separatists and the Indonesian Government
It’s been almost 50 years, yet, the Papuan separatist leaders have still not accepted the political integration of the West Papuan province. The separatist leaders believe that the Dutch prepared the colony to be an independent state after their withdrawal because of its different ethnic identity. It is this ideology of independence that makes the Indonesian government feel insecure. Thus, to neutralize these separatist groups, the Indonesian government heavily relies upon its armed forces and military operations to make sure that the West Papua territory remains part of the Indonesian republic.
Due to the persistent human rights violations in the province of West Papua by the Indonesian government from 1973 until 1975, an impetus had been provided to the activities of the Papuan separatist groups. Consequently, many dispossessed people joined the Free Papua Movement (OPM), or the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, which is the militant wing of the resistance. Their past traumatic experiences also made the Papuan independence activists believe that the only solution to their grievances and suffering is freedom and an independent state. These experiences further drove people to join OPM.
In response to the increasing dominance of separatists/OPM in the region, the Indonesian military forces launched a violent campaign against the movement. Many villages were destroyed while searching for the members of the movement but as expected, the villagers came out in support of the activists against the invading forces.
Later on, the Indonesian government called for the transmigration plan in 1984 when large swaths of West Papua province were seized through military operations and actions. Consequently, the program drove about 10,000 Papuans across the border and into the Papua New Guinea territory. Apart from this, about 5 million people were relocated from Java, Madura, and Bali during 1984-1989 to areas in West Papua that continued to resist in the face of the military occupation.
To cover up all the atrocities of the Indonesian authorities in the West Papua province, Indonesia deliberately tried to turn the faces of the international community from this issue. The intense secrecy of this region has long been an obscured fact ignored by many for various inhumane reasons. There has been very little access to West Papua in order to make sure that state-sponsored terrorism remains unnoticed.
Battle over Resources
For West Papua, it has been both a blessing and a curse to be rich in natural resources. The region’s resource wealth had certainly aggravated the tensions between the separatists and the Indonesian government. The resource-rich part of West Papua was also promised to the overcrowded Java province, and the separatists feel that the Indonesian government is doing this to benefit from the West Papua region’s reserves.
Moreover, rather than the local community, the domestic and foreign investors gained more from West Papua’s wealth, especially in mining fields, forestry, and plantation (palm oil). Poor management of the region’s natural resources resulted in environmental deterioration and unequal economic distribution. This, in return, became a major source of violence and conflict over natural resources, worsening the situation between the Indonesian government and the local communities. Now, it is imperative that the government adopts a more inclusive approach, in which all stakeholders gain equally from natural resources.
Conflict over Infrastructural Development
In West Papua, the Indonesian government has built infrastructures such as the Trans-Papua highway—which is one of the best in the world—airports, and seaports. Moreover, educational institutions, clinics, ambulances, medical staff, medicines, and digital networking have also been part of the development.
However, putting everything together has both positive and negative consequences. More so than the local population of West Papua, the greater interconnectedness of the cities favors migrants from various regions of Indonesia, allowing them to take advantage of the opportunities generated by the improved interconnectivity.
Nevertheless, the independence activists have some other views concerning infrastructural developments. Due to their lack of trust in the government, they think that these developments have nothing to do with their grievances. Given the complicated scenario between separatists seeking independence from Indonesian authorities and the government, there is a massive communication gap that is putting both the independence activists and the administration in an untenable position.
For West Papua, there is no real simple way out as there are enormous possibilities. There must be an opportunity to discuss and examine critical perspectives in order to comprehend the region’s history. With the current dynamics, it’s possible that things may change for the better. Since 2001, there have been some triumphs in West Papua but there are still many unresolved issues, such as human rights breaches and the perpetual violence deteriorating the region.
To prevent more people from becoming victims of the conflict, the Indonesian government must develop a gentler approach to engaging with the local communities, as dealing with people is a difficult undertaking. If the administration wants to win the hearts and minds of the Papuans, this is a mandatory task.
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