For the first time ever, a coalition of West Papuan organisations has been recognised as a legitimate political entity. In June of last year, West Papua became an observer within the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). This intergovernmental organisation is comprised of a number of Pacific nations including Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The organisation meets regularly to discuss political issues common among its members. Whilst West Papua has been denied full membership for now, it is nonetheless an historic step for West Papuans.
The volatile region of West Papua has endured a long history of political conflict dating back to the 1950s when the region was involved in a 3-way war between Holland, the newly independent Republic of Indonesia and local Papuans. To end the territorial dispute, the UN sponsored the 1962 New York agreement, appointing Indonesia as temporary administrator of West Papua. While the West Papuans were not consulted on this agreement, part of the treaty allowed all West Papuans to vote in a referendum on independence that would be overseen by the UN. However, the ballot in 1969 did not have the intended results. The Indonesian military reportedly handpicked 1,026 leaders to vote on behalf of the population, threatening to kill whole families who voted, “the wrong way.” The outcome of this “Act of Free Choice,” was unanimous – Indonesia had officially taken West Papua. Today, virtually all indigenous Papuans reject this referendum, calling it the “act of no choice,” and many hope for a real vote on self-determination in the future.
The Papuans have been seeking independence now for half a century based on this historical injustice. However, there are many more underlying issues present that fuel the separatist movement. Indigenous West Papuans face daily marginalisation from Indonesian military and police; they are constantly enduring intimidation and the reality of perpetual surveillance. Many Papuans say they live in a state of constant fear. Since 1963, thousands have been killed, detained or tortured as a result of openly fighting for independence. Under the highly nationalistic Indonesian law, it is illegal to raise the West Papuan Morning Star flag and even peaceful acts of defiance can result in long jail sentences. This heavy-handed approach to prohibit separatist movements has resulted in multiple armed conflicts with deadly repercussions for both sides. Not too long ago, in October 2011, a civilian gathering addressing the idea of self-governance, the Third Papuan People’s Congress, was violently shut down by Indonesian forces, killing six people and injuring dozens more. The Free West Papua Campaign documents such events and has labelled the ongoing suppression of West Papuans as ‘genocide.’ The campaign, led by Benny Wenda, exists to draw attention to the recurring instances of violence in the region.
Although this social movement has gained traction in recent years, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the West Papuans without the help of its politically powerful neighbours. However, the Australian government has steadfastly supported Indonesia in its cause to preserve its territory. To Indonesia, the region has been historically part of the country since the New York agreement and it is now a matter of territorial integrity. They argue that since West Papua was originally part of the Dutch East Indies that became Indonesia, it should still be considered part of today’s republic.
Additionally, Indonesia has been facing overpopulation issues for decades. Major cities are reaching critical capacity levels with populations sky-rocketing beyond the 10 million mark in cities like Jakarta. For Indonesia to prosper, the population will need to expand out of these cities and the open, under-populated region of West Papua has become an attractive alternative. In fact, so many have moved to the region, that as of the 2010 census, the local West Papuans are now in the minority. The appeal of the region is not only the open space for spill-over Indonesians, but also access to the key resources needed for Indonesia’s expanding economy. The mineral rich jungles of the island host not only the potential for logging, but also access to the world’s largest gold and copper mines. West Papua is simply too important to Indonesia for the country to regain its sovereignty.
What does Australia have to say about this?
Indonesia’s rising economic and political power in the Asia Pacific Region has had repercussions for Australia’s political perspective. The government has had to become more focused on maintaining good relations with Indonesia. Many fear that any outward support of the West Papuans will be seen as an attack against Indonesia’s sovereignty and right to territory. In 1999, when violence broke out in East Timor over similar struggles, Australia held a leading role in liberating the people from Indonesia. However, Indonesian officials interpreted Australian actions as an attempt to embarrass their country and a way for Australia to gain strategic advantage in the Pacific. Now, Indonesia’s military is stronger than ever and having the country as an ally could greatly benefit Australia. Ever since West Papua was considered to be part of the Dutch East Indies, Australia has maintained a defence policy of neutrality between the two sides.
As political and economic power continues to shift in the Pacific, Australia will have to make some hard choices and, undoubtedly, the decision on how to handle the plight of the West Papuans will be a defining moment in Australian international relations. Will Australia’s commitment to protecting human rights prevail or must the government take a more conservative approach, focusing on maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with Indonesia? Regardless of Australia’s final decision in this conflict, the implications will weigh heavily on the future for both Australia and West Papua.