Dr Mark Busse and Sophie Faber examine West Papua’s history to see what’s at stake politically and economically in the current unrest
West Papua has been in the media more than usual over the last six months, with stories about indigenous protests against racism and repression, demands for independence, brutal Indonesian police and military crackdowns, and the banning of foreign journalists.
And yet, many people know little about West Papua, a territory larger than Germany with a population of 3.5 million. In this article, we provide a brief introduction to West Papua, focusing on the historical background to the present situation and what is at stake politically and economically in the current unrest.
The name “West Papua” can itself be confusing, and how this name is used is a political act. The name refers to the western half of the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. The eastern half of the island is part of Papua New Guinea, which became independent from Australia in 1975. The western half of New Guinea, currently part of Indonesia, has had various names over the last 125 years—Netherlands New Guinea, West New Guinea, West Irian, Irian Jaya, and Papua. Since 2007, West Papua has been two separate provinces—Papua (most of the western half of New Guinea) and West Papua (the westernmost tip of the island). Independence activists and their supporters, however, refer to the entire western half of the island as “West Papua”, and that is how we will use the name in this article.
A quick look at a map of the island shows the arbitrariness of many political boundaries, reflecting the colonial histories of New Guinea. Many of these are straight lines; drawn by Europeans who knew little to nothing about the areas they were dividing, and which have nothing to do with terrain or the interests of the people who live along those boundaries. This arbitrariness is especially true of the 820km international border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
People have lived in New Guinea for approximately 50,000 years. While Western popular images of New Guinea are of primitiveness and isolation, the people of New Guinea have long histories of innovation and have been connected with other parts of the world for a long time. The Highlands region of what is now Papua New Guinea was one of the first places in the world where people practiced agriculture, beginning about 9,000 years ago. Sugar cane was first domesticated in lowland New Guinea approximately 8,000 years ago, and bird of paradise feathers from New Guinea were used in China as long as 2,000 years ago.
European colonisation of West Papua began in earnest in 1828 when the Dutch claimed sovereignty over New Guinea west of 141° east longitude. This claim was made prior to any Dutch, or other European, person visiting the interior of New Guinea, and was made in the absence of any Western knowledge concerning the people who lived on, or near, the 141st meridian.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dutch maintained a few outposts on the coasts of West Papua. Later, between 1928 and 1942, Dutch colonial authorities imprisoned about 1,000 Indonesian nationalists near the headwaters of the Digul River, a remote area of West Papua largely cut off from the outside world and notorious for endemic malaria. As a result, this prison camp, and West Papua more generally, became part of the Indonesian independence narrative.
Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945, but it took four years of armed conflict before the Netherlands recognised Indonesia’s independence. As part of its struggle, Indonesia asserted a political claim to West Papua, which the Netherlands rejected. In 1950, a committee of Indonesian and Dutch officials, but no West Papuans, met to determine West Papua’s fate. Indonesia argued that all Dutch colonial territory was historically part of greater Indonesia, a claim the Dutch rejected. They argued that West Papuans were racially distinct and had a right to self-determination. While many countries agreed with the Dutch, the United States, concerned to keep Indonesia on their side in the Cold War, pressed the Dutch to acquiesce to Indonesia’s demands.
In 1961, after ten years of inconclusive negotiations, the New Guinea Council, made up of West Papuans, declared independence and adopted the Morning Star flag, which was first raised on December 1, 1961. This flag has become a powerful symbol for West Papuans, many of whom have been attacked or imprisoned over the years for raising it. In response to the declaration of independence, Indonesia mounted an unsuccessful military campaign to “regain” West Papua from the Dutch in 1962. The same year, the Dutch agreed to UN administration of West Papua with the understanding that a referendum on West Papua’s future would be held before the end of 1969.
On August 2,1969, an “Act of Free Choice” was organised by the Indonesian military under UN supervision. Rather than a referendum of West Papuan people, which was what the UN planned, consultations were held with 1025 West Papuan leaders who were, under the watchful eye of the Indonesian military, forced at gunpoint and through a show of hands to unanimously agree to their country’s integration with Indonesia. Despite arguments by Ghana and other African countries for a new referendum, the UN General Assembly endorsed the incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia, ironically in the name of decolonisation and regional stability.
From 1969 until today there has been ongoing armed resistance by groups seeking independence, and it is estimated that 100,000 West Papuans have been killed in the ensuing violence. Indonesia has been accused of human rights abuses, including military attacks on civilians advocating for independence or expressing sympathy toward rebels. People who raise the Morning Star flag are jailed for treason. Indonesia governs West Papua as a police state, including banning international journalists. As of 2010, 13,500 West Papuan refugees live in exile in Papua New Guinea.
What is at stake in these struggles over West Papua? Why is Indonesia unwilling to allow West Papuans to exercise their right of self-determination? Much of the answer has to do with West Papua’s huge economic and land resources.
When the Dutch claimed sovereignty in 1828, they knew little about the economic potential of West Papua. Over the last century, however, the enormous resources of West Papua have become clearer. Access to resources has been a major factor driving Dutch, Indonesian, and American interests in West Papua since 1945. Those resources include some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits, large oil and gas deposits, vast forests, and the land itself.
The Grasberg mine, jointly owned by the Indonesian government and the US mining company Freeport-McMoRan, has the world’s largest gold reserves and the world’s second largest copper reserves. West Papua’s large oil and gas deposits are being exploited by British, Chinese, and Japanese companies. West Papua has more than 10 million hectares of tropical rainforest for which Indonesia has granted logging concessions. After the forests are removed, the land is used to grow food and export cash crops, especially oil palm.
In addition to industrial agriculture, land in West Papua is valuable for resettling people from other densely-populated parts of Indonesia. In 1970, indigenous West Papuans were 90 percent of the population. By 2010, they were less than half of the population. As lucrative as the natural resources are, it is the availability of land for resettlement that provides one of the biggest motivations for Indonesia’s opposition to West Papuan self-determination. With 20 percent of Indonesia’s landmass, West Papua has less than two percent of Indonesia’s population, and Indonesia sees this as critical to solving its population problem.
The recent violent events in West Papua are a continuation of a long struggle against racism and colonialism. Few profits from natural resources have gone to West Papuans. Instead, West Papuans have been evicted from their lands, subjected to brutal racism, and treated like foreigners in their own lands. The tragedy is that Indonesia, which has its own experience of rebellion and revolt against Dutch colonialism, cannot identify with the current and ongoing anti-colonial struggles of West Papuans.