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An Uprising in West Papua

After suffering under colonial oppression from Indonesia for decades, West Papuans recently rose up. Their struggle for independence deserves our solidarity.

Papuan activists shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 22, 2019. (Green Left Weekly)

Amid the loud yells celebrating freedom during the Indonesian Independence Day celebration last month, West Papuan students in Surabaya were attacked in their own residences by civilian groups as well as uniformed military. Apart from suffering physical wounds, the West Papuan students also endured verbal harassment, including being called “monkeys.”

Within days of the attack, West Papuans took to the streets in a mass protest against Indonesia’s ongoing racism toward West Papuans. The protest soon turned into a demand for a referendum for West Papuans to determine their own fate as a nation. The Indonesian government then sent troops to West Papua while at the same time shutting down communications access across the province.

In recent weeks, eight West Papuans have been reported dead and more than a dozen wounded in clashes with military personnel as well as pro-Indonesia militias. Today, West Papua is still relatively closed, with the Indonesian government declaring war against anyone who speaks in support of West Papua, through massive internet crackdowns in an effort to uncover those accused of “spreading hoax” about the recent situation in West Papua and “provoking conflicts” there. In reality, those accused of spreading hoax are those who report on the situation in the province and provide facts that contradict official statements released by the Indonesian government.

“The Act of No Choice”

For years, West Papua, formerly Netherlands New Guinea, formed the western half of the island in the eastern part of Indonesia, with the country Papua New Guinea in the eastern half. The area remained under Dutch colonial rule when Indonesia proclaimed its independence on August 17, 1945, declaring the former Dutch East Indies as the territory of the new sovereign nation. More than a decade later, preparations for West Papua to be independent from the Dutch started, and the West Papuan flag, the Morning Star, was raised on December 1, 1961.

It was a promising start for West Papua. But the following year saw the nation transferred to Indonesia under the New York Agreement, signed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Following this agreement, Indonesia launched Operation Trikora, in which the country seized control over West Papua and its people. In 1969, Indonesia held a referendum called “The Act of Free Choice.” In this process, West Papua was given the opportunity to determine whether or not they wanted to spend their future with Indonesia — with guns pointed at them, hence the critique that this was, in fact, “The Act of No Choice.”

West Papua “agreed” to remain an area under Indonesia. Following this forced referendum, West Papua declared its independence on July 1, 1971. Indonesia rejected this announcement and ever since has crushed any attempt for West Papuan independence, forcing many of its leaders to flee and spend their lives in exile, while others who fought in West Papua were imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

Papuan liberation fighters were labeled as unlawful, violent armed groups, and in their constant attempt to crush these groups, Indonesian military forces often wounded and killed civilians. West Papua is also a land rich with natural resources, including copper and gold, that brought the mining companies operating under the company Freeport-McMoRan to West Papua, exploiting the copper and gold for decades, to the point that what used to be a sacred mountain for indigenous West Papuans has now become a giant hole on the surface of planet earth, visible from space.

Against this historical background, nothing from the recent racist attack in Surabaya should be of any surprise, for attacks against West Papuans are a regular occurrence, both inside West Papua by the Indonesian police and military forces, and outside West Papua by Indonesian police and military forces as well as civilians. In this light, the attack on West Papuan students in Surabaya should be predictable.

Throughout West Papua, West Papuans are wounded and killed on a daily basis. One would need to follow West Papuan media outlets or social media to see this reality, as it is not an easy task for journalists to cover incidents in West Papua with the Indonesian government’s narrative dominating mainstream national media, and foreign journalists still banned from West Papua.

Denial of Constitutional Rights

In Indonesian cities outside of West Papua, West Papuans — students in particular — are familiar with their houses being ambushed by civilian groups and/or police and military forces disrupting any type of gathering: intellectual discussions, movie screenings, or social gatherings. Article 28E of the Indonesian Constitution explains that “[e]very person shall have the right to the freedom to associate, to assemble, and to express opinions.” This means the West Papuan students have the right to their gatherings as guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution, and this right should be protected by the Indonesian state.

In reality, the state often shut down or facilitated the shutting down of these gatherings. Here one could ask, if West Papua is — as the Indonesian state officially claims — part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia, why then are the West Papuans, as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia, denied their constitutional rights?

From the side of the Indonesian government, attacks on West Papuans are always justified. The West Papuan students in Surabaya were attacked because they desecrated the Indonesian flag during the celebration of Indonesian Independence Day, leaving it to crumble in the gutter by their student housing, when they were supposed to fly that flag high, as the flag represents the thousands of Indonesian fighters who lost their lives for freedom from Dutch colonial rule. This is ironic, considering the same flag was also used to justify the brutal killings of the many West Papuans fighting for their freedom from Indonesia.

To look at another incident from not so long ago, the military attack on Nduga, a regency in West Papua — resulting in continuous suffering for those who were and still are displaced — was also justified as the military’s response to the killing of Indonesian construction workers by a so-called armed group. On December 2–3, 2018, news broke that workers of an Indonesian construction company constructing a bridge in Yigi, a district of Nduga Regency, had been killed by an armed group.

Following this news, TPNPB-OPM, the military arm of the Free West Papua Movement, claimed responsibility for the killings of twenty-four construction workers who, according to the TPNPB-OPM, were Indonesian military personnel instead of civilians. In response to this incident, Indonesia launched military operations in Nduga, which included bombing areas of TPNPB, resulting in the deaths of civilians as well as people fleeing their villages. Some of those who fled died while in shelters, and many women died from hunger, cold, and resulting illnesses.

This raises an obvious question: if the Indonesian workers were indeed killed by armed groups, why retaliate toward civilians — the elderly, women, and children? As far as the government justification goes, West Papuans are responsible for their being attacked.

Colonialism and Racism

For every narrative provided by the Indonesian government on reasons behind attacks toward West Papuans, West Papuans themselves have their own narrative. Yet rarely do these narratives from the West Papuan side make it to the Indonesian mainstream media. Throughout the relatively young history of Indonesia as a nation-state, West Papua (just like the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 or East Timor until twenty years ago) has been constructed as a problem to be taken care of, not solved through talks and negotiations.

This is clear from the term used to describe the actions intended to silence any movements on the West Papuan side (the same term used toward the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965, and toward East Timor while under Indonesian occupation): tumpas. To crush. To annihilate. To erase from existence, and by any means necessary, through military actions as well as discourse.

The latter was probably the most destructive, as it has become so powerful that any opposing narrative would not be easily accepted by the Indonesian general public, and efforts to seek justice for West Papua remain ignored, if not silenced. Ever since it was annexed by Indonesia in the 1960s, West Papua’s land was highly priced and therefore seized to be exploited; its people, however, were deemed primitive, uneducated, half-human beings, a waste of time and money to be “developed.” They stood as an obstacle between the rich natural resources inside the mountains of West Papua and foreign investments. They were simply problems.

As problems, West Papuans were never seen as equal to their non-Papua Indonesian counterparts. West Papuans were never seen as a people, or as a nation capable of determining its own fate and managing its own land. This assumption was loud and clear throughout Operation Trikora, the Indonesian joint military operation to annex West Papua, supposedly undertaken to prevent the formation of Negara Boneka Papua (the Puppet State of Papua).

Newly independent Indonesia, under the leadership of President Sukarno, chose to believe that the Dutch intended to hand over independence to West Papuans, but still continue their control over West Papua. To prevent this, Indonesia, as a responsible neighbor, therefore must rush to the rescue of West Papua, to save both Indonesia and West Papua.

This act is both colonial and racist, for (1) “to save” people was a, if not the, rationale used by European colonizers to maintain their power for hundreds of years, and (2) claiming that West Papua, if independent, would be the puppet of the Dutch colonizers, contains the underlying assumptions that West Papuans have no capacity to govern on their own, and therefore can only be puppets. This idea, that West Papuans have no capacity to govern on their own and therefore need saving, has been the underlying principle of the relationship between Indonesia(ns) and West Papua(ns) ever since.

In the case of Indonesia and West Papua, racism is not merely the recent attack on West Papuan students in Surabaya, Malang, and/or other Indonesian cities, nor about using the word “monkey” to describe West Papuans as less than human. Racism toward West Papuans manifests in many ways: from the absence of teachers and health care professionals in remote and not so remote areas in West Papua, to development of roads and bridges to the benefit of Indonesian settlers as well as foreign investments rather than indigenous West Papuans; from portraying Indonesian military personnel as humanitarian workers instead of armed fighters, to portraying West Papuans as dangerous rebels who brought suffering to their own people.

Many Indonesians, as well as international onlookers, blindly follow the racist narrative provided by Indonesian officials and deny West Papuans their own voice by labeling their stories as hoaxes and/or provocation. Racism also manifested itself in Indonesians’ and international communities’ attitudes toward West Papuans, which are oftentimes based on pity rather than solidarity.

Military Crackdown of Protesters

In the aftermath of the Surabaya attack, West Papuans took to social media, taking the term monkey and turning its derogatory, dehumanizing purpose to serve as a call for action. On August 19, West Papuans took to the streets of Jayapura and Manokwari, among other cities, to resist their dehumanization and call Indonesia out on its continuous, blatant racism. This seemed to be sufficient pressure to force an apology out of Khofifah Indar Parawansa, the governor of East Java, for the racist attack in Surabaya.

This apology, instead of being the first step toward a long road to challenge prejudice toward West Papuans and to dismantle racism, was followed by a military crackdown of the protesters. Today, more than two weeks after the Surabaya incident, West Papuans protesting in various cities and districts of West Papua, as well as in Jakarta, are met with violence from the side of the Indonesian state.

As predicted, Indonesia came down hard on West Papua: troops were sent, while at the same time internet access was completely cut off. The reason for shutting down internet access in West Papua, as provided by the Indonesian government, was ostensibly to prevent provoking violence in West Papua. This view from the side of the Indonesian state was spread in the past weeks as the protests against Indonesia’s racist oppression have taken a turn to a second call for a referendum, around the time East Timor is preparing to commemorate its twenty years being a nation independent from Indonesia on August 30.

Indonesia has gone as far as arresting Surya Anta, the spokesperson for People’s Front for West Papua, on charges of treason (makar), the first time to be used after the fall of the New Order regime in 1998. Following this arrest, Indonesia has also named Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who has been actively updating the public on the recent situation in West Papua, as a suspect for spreading hoaxes. Apart from these, Veronica Koman and Febriana Firdaus, an Indonesian journalist whose articles on the recent situation in West Papua were published in international media outlets, have been painted as provocateurs and traitors throughout social media. Indonesia has also put social media under mass surveillance to watch for those accused of spreading what is deemed as hoaxes by the Indonesian government — which is, in fact, any news that is opposing government statements on West Papua.

The Role of Other Nations

Looking at the ongoing violence employed in West Papua, it is easy to point a finger at Indonesia as the obvious and direct perpetrator in this racist, colonial violence toward West Papua. But other countries have also played a central role.

The Dutch, as the former colonizers of West Papua, betrayed West Papuans when they walked back on their promises and allowed Indonesia to take over West Papua, as if it was a piece of colonial property to be transferred from one colonial power to another. Christian missionaries in West Papua were also complicit in this colonial transfer. And the United Nations bears responsibility for condoning the 1969 Act of Free Choice that, in fact, was conducted at gunpoint.

Beyond national actors, West Papua has seen decades of exploitation and destruction by mining companies like Freeport-McMoRan and the benefits that trickled down to the rest of our so-called international communities, in addition to the fact that Freeport-McMoRan’s activities also contributed to the increase of Indonesia’s military presence in West Papua. The Indonesian military was also supported by powerful countries like the United States through military collaboration with Kopassus, the Indonesian special force unit, for joint trainings.

Racism was at the heart of colonial oppression, and West Papua’s struggle for independence from Indonesia bears an eerie resemblance to Indonesia’s own struggle of independence from the Dutch. Indonesia’s racist and colonial treatment of West Papua is, in a way, a learned behavior that is difficult to unlearn when it is still generally exercised globally for the benefit of the powerful at the expense of the damned.

Yet despite all this, West Papuans have spoken. The “monkeys” have reclaimed their power. West Papuans don’t need saving. What they need is solidarity, for Indonesians and international communities to allow West Papuans to determine their own fate. West Papuans have suffered for too long under the watch of wealthy countries who, for economic gains, have chosen to silently watch as Indonesia continues its atrocities in West Papua, instead of holding Indonesia accountable for the crimes against humanity committed toward West Papuans. It is time powerful countries around the world stand up to prevent West Papuans from being wiped out.

For if there is anything here that needs to be crushed, annihilated, and erased, it is the colonialism West Papuans are suffering under.