The Struggle for Merdeka

In August 2020, seven West Papuan political prisoners, held in Jakarta for protesting outside the Indonesian Presidential Palace, were released early following an international campaign. They received a rapturous reception on their return. Thousands gathered to greet them – a demonstration of the widespread opposition to Indonesian rule in this province on the island of New Guinea. A year earlier, hundreds of thousands marched, rioted and burned down state buildings across the country during a month-long uprising. Emboldened by this resistance, in December the largest West Papuan independentist group declared a provisional government-in-waiting, ready to form the world’s newest nation state. Jakarta’s political and media elites promptly went into meltdown. A star line-up of Indonesian officials, from the head of the military to the security minister, clamoured to denounce the liberation movement and its leader, the newly appointed Interim President Benny Wenda, currently living in exile in the UK. A minor diplomatic crisis ensued when the British ambassador was summoned to explain his position on Wenda’s would-be government, and meekly affirmed Britain’s respect for ‘the territorial integrity of the Unitary State of Indonesia’.

The decades-long struggle of indigenous West Papuans for what they call merdeka – independence and liberation – has today matured into a popular anticolonial movement. During the era of decolonization, West Papuans were cheated of their right to form an independent state. As the Netherlands prepared to lower its flag in the early 1960s, Jakarta moved to seize the region, believing it should form part of the new Republic of Indonesia. President Sukarno enlisted the support of the Kennedy administration, which had been cultivating pro-Western elements in the Indonesian military in order to win a bloody showdown with the Indonesian Communist Party. The last thing the US needed was a war between Indonesia and the Dutch over West Papua, which would strengthen the Communists domestically and hence push the country further from the West’s orbit. Instead, Kennedy wanted Indonesian forces to swiftly seize West Papua before turning to its real task: the elimination of the left and the transformation of Indonesia into an economic vassal (duly achieved in the bloodbaths of the mid-1960s). The Dutch capitulated, and the UN stepped in to rubber-stamp a stage-managed ‘referendum’ on Indonesian control in 1969. The Suharto government then set about wrenching West Papua’s indigenous population out of an imagined ‘Stone Age’ – launching military operations to get the Papuans ‘down from the trees’, as one of Suharto’s foreign ministers put it.  

Since the 1960s, the different wings of the liberation struggle – civil resistance movements, armed guerrillas, diasporic diplomats and campaigners – have been working towards the common goal of an independence referendum with varying degrees of coordination. Within West Papua, three of the most significant independence factions came together in 2014 under the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), chaired by Benny Wenda. Representing a gamut of Papuan political opinion, from religious-nationalist to tribal-environmentalist, the ULMWP represents the most effective Papuan resistance group in the history of the struggle. It is complemented by a mass organization, the Komite National Papua Barat, which arranges regular demonstrations and petitions. The guerrilla groups, such as the umbrella West Papua Army, work in the forests and highland areas, harrying Indonesian military and police brigades; though, without the support of a well-resourced external state, these armed cadres are a thorn in the side of the Indonesian occupation rather than a genuine challenge. Due to the repression of the movement – one of the last unifying West Papuan leaders, Theys Eluay, was strangled to death by Indonesian special forces in 2002 – the West Papuan leadership tend to be in exile in Australia, the UK or the Netherlands. These figures coordinate with the movement on the ground while working to rally international solidarity. They have recently succeeded in pushing West Papua onto the agenda of the 18-state Pacific Islands Forum and the 79-member Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

Mainstream NGOs tend to focus on the violations of civil and political rights in West Papua, but the daily grind of settler colonialism – what one scholar describes as a ‘cold genocide’ similar to the early stages of dispossession in Australia and North America – is in many ways a more central concern for the independence movement. In 2019, one of the few international delegations to gain access to the territory described the ‘systemic marginalization … and discrimination against the indigenous Papuan population, and their exclusion from the development process’ – a situation ‘destructive both of the environment and traditional livelihoods’. Resistance to this takes a variety forms. Rural Papuans from the Nduga Regency, displaced in their tens of thousands by Indonesian military operations over the past two years, have rejected ‘aid’ offered by Indonesian troops and refused to return to their villages until the military withdraws; an indigenous trade union has several times paralysed production at the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine, operated by US company Freeport-McMoRan.

For the Indonesian state, West Papua is a key part of the Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development, drawn up under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2011. This blueprint sub-divides the Indonesian archipelago, assigning each region its own development plan, and instigating a national division of labour that is designed to propel the Indonesian economy forward. West Papua falls under the Program for the Rapid Development of Papua and West Papua, replete with a unit – essentially a government ministry – controlled largely by the military. The aim is to industrialize agriculture in West Papua, reducing the need for the labour of Papuans who employ small-scale farming techniques (roughly two-thirds of the entire population). In this vision, the territory will eventually become a ‘rice-bowl’ for the rest of Indonesia’s 250 million people, with additional benefits accruing from global export markets. It is not uncommon to find members of the Indonesian bourgeoisie, such as business tycoon Anindya Bakrie, gasping over the ‘great potential of West Papua’s natural and human resources’.

The industrialization plan typically involves the creation of vast mono-plantations, often in palm oil. Huge areas of the New Guinea rainforest – one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet – have been cleared to make way for plantations, often run by East and Southeast Asian companies (some of which supply leading Western corporations, including Kellogg’s and Nestlé). This clearing, in many cases achieved through illegal slash-and-burn techniques on land fraudulently acquired from Papuan communities, takes a tremendous toll on the indigenous people. Their natural environment is ripped up and replaced with ecologically catastrophic estates; villages are transformed into cash reserves for foreign companies, and local economies are forced to rely on their largesse. One researcher catalogued the effects of this process on the Malind Anim tribal group, whose access to their nearest river was blocked by a huge palm oil plantation. Its arrival meant that the land could no longer provide for them as before, leaving them reliant on compensation payments from the palm oil company to purchase food from local stores. This cycle of dispossession and dependency is common to many Papuan tribes. Large numbers of indigenous people have also been displaced by the new Trans-Papua Highway, a vast road which tears though forests and protected reserves, integrating West Papua into the Indonesian economy and allowing for the smooth transportation of agricultural goods out of the provinces. Papuans, left with little other option, have relocated to the edges of the road, hoping to eke out a living selling timber to Indonesian settlers. Such infrastructure projects have thereby facilitated the expansion of the market economy. Villagers who once hunted in the forest must now chop it down and sell it to survive.

Indigenous cultural traditions and social bonds are also being transformed. Palm oil companies divide communities against each other through patronage and bribery schemes, and have often hijacked local magic rituals to advance their financial interests. A prominent indigenous organization warned in 2017 that ‘the culture and tradition of the indigenous peoples … will slowly disappear’ if their ancestral lands are ‘taken over indiscriminately by corporations’. At the same time, Indonesian special forces – many trained by Western states – have suffused Papuan society with surveillance mechanisms and informers, fostering an atmosphere of paranoia. Indigenous beliefs about the underworld are manipulated by making assassinations look like the work of vampires or ninjas. One anthropologist found an Indonesian military training manual that set out ‘methods for using local cultural beliefs in psychological operations and campaigns of terror’. This epistemological assault intends to break West Papuans’ political resistance. The indigenous people are witnessing their civilisation collapse in tandem with their sense of self, just as the village of Umuofia decomposes under the influence of Christian missionaries in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

The Indonesian establishment partly owes its longevity to this perpetual raiding of West Papua. The military subsidises its budget with business interests in illegal logging, brothels and protection rackets for Western corporations like Freeport (and often stages attacks on these companies in order to justify its lucrative security arrangements). During Suharto’s New Order – which ran from 1966 to 1998 – roughly 40% of the national budget came from West Papuan sources, much of it from the Freeport mine. Small wonder, then, that when reformers in Jakarta promise to solve West Papuan grievances with the gift of development, the supposed beneficiaries turn their backs. As Benny Wenda often says, the people of West Papua are not asking for ‘development’ – they are asking for freedom. The 2019 uprising and formation of the provisional government have forced this demand onto the Indonesian national agenda, and garnered international attention after decades of near silence. Solidarity groups are coalescing, with non-Papuan Indonesians willing to face arrest and even imprisonment for challenging the colonial consensus. The mass protests inside Indonesia in 2019 signal a budding alliance between West Papuans and Indonesian workers, students and peasants, all of whom are suffering under the same plutocratic order. Whilst the odds are still stacked against the Papuans, all parties look to East Timor – an unlikely victor against the genocidal Indonesian occupation at the turn of the millennium – and wonder whether West Papua might one day follow suit.

Read on: Rohanna Kuddus on Indonesia’s ‘Ghosts of 1965’.