“Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left To Lose?” – West Papua Declares its Independence, Again

10. Nov 2011

Author: Henri Myrttinen[1]
e-mail: [email protected]


On October 19, 2011, in a sports field outside the Papuan provincial capital Jayapura, a solemn declaration was read, proclaiming the independence of West Papua, the restoration of its national symbols, the formation of a new government, the introduction of new national languages and of the Dutch New Guinea Guilder as the new currency.[2] The meeting, the Third Papuan Congress, was soon broken up by Indonesian security forces – with excessive violence. At the end of the afternoon three, possibly six Papuan civilians were dead, several dozen badly beaten, around 300 detained and the six leaders-to-be of the newly proclaimed state arrested, facing charges of treason. While the police remain adamant that they did no wrong and had to respond to an act of secession, the Indonesian government is under pressure from national and international human rights bodies to carry out credible investigations.

The proclamation and violent crackdown by the Indonesian security forces highlighted one of the key issues simmering beneath the surface in the two provinces which make up the western half of the world’s second largest island (the eastern half of the island being part of Papua New Guinea). It was, however, not the only issue keeping the territory in the spotlight. At the time of the Congress, one of the biggest and most sustained industrial actions in recent Indonesian history was into its fifth week at the world’s biggest gold and copper mine in Grasberg, several hundred kilometres away, with a death toll of eight people and no sign of abating.[3] Though not politically motivated, the strike has severely reduced the output at the mine, Indonesia’s largest taxpayer, and thus concentrated minds in the capital. The police, in the meantime, have been politically embarrassed by revelations of having received several million USD over the years in what the national police chief called ‘lunch money’ from PT Freeport Indonesia (PTFI), the company operating the Grasberg mine. PTFI has in the past admitted to paying the Indonesian armed forces for protection as well.

A few days later, the police chief in a restive Highlands district of Papua was shot dead in broad daylight, with a fringe group of the Free Papua Organisation (Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM) claiming responsibility. While the OPM, which has been waging a small-scale armed struggle for around 45 years, does not present a military threat to Indonesia, the high-profile killing was a stark reminder of the tenacity of this struggle and of the motivating factors behind it.

While these events have mostly not made the headlines in Europe, for the first time in a long time, the media and political elite in the Indonesian capital Jakarta have seriously awoken to the fact that the special autonomy packages passed a decade ago have not solved the conflicts in the two easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua.

West Papuan villagers in Matefa village in consultation with a local NGO. (Photo by the author).

Background to the conflict, 1965-2001

A good point in time to begin with looking at the political conflict in Tanah Papua, the Land of Papua as the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua are jointly know as, is exactly 50 years to the day before the Third Papuan Congress. Though views on the exact date differ as to when the demands were actually made, a declaration was passed by the First Papuan Congress on 19 October, 1961 demanding that the territory be renamed West Papua, its inhabitants be called Papuans and new national symbols be accepted alongside the Dutch ones.[4]

The demands were made to the colonial government of Netherlands West New Guinea. The Dutch had retained control of the western part of New Guinea after acceding to the independence of the rest of its colonies in what was then termed the East Indies. The newly formed Republic of Indonesia was adamant that the territory be incorporated into the republic while the Dutch government initially insisted on holding on to the colony. By 1961, however, the winds of decolonisation were blowing strong against any remaining Dutch hopes of permanently holding on to West New Guinea.

Regardless of whether it was actually the First Papuan Congress which made these demands and the exact point in time when they were made, by 1 December, 1961, the Dutch government had accepted the demands. The territory was renamed West Papua, the new ‘Morning Star’ (Bintang Kejora) flag was flown alongside the Dutch flag outside the building of the New Guinea Council and the new Papuan national hymn, Hai Tanahku Papua, was played after the Dutch Wilhelmus anthem. Though in popular Papuan political thought, this occasion has become re-cast as the declaration of independence, this is not strictly true – independence was to occur after 10-20 years of Dutch tutelage.

The reaction of the Indonesian government was swift: President Sukarno denounced the display of Papuan national symbols and the inauguration of the Nieuw-Guinea Raad as a Dutch colonial ploy that attempted to deny Indonesia’s claims to the territory. In his Trikora (Tri Komando Rakyat – The Three Commands of the People) speech, Sukarno made the incorporation of the territory into the Republic of Indonesia one of the paramount objectives of Indonesian policy.

Though officially this was to be an effort of ‘the people,’ in practice the initial efforts consisted of unsuccessful small-scale military incursions. Where the military failed, though, diplomacy triumphed. Fearing the growing influence of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI – Partai Komunis Indonesia), the US government pressured the Netherlands to agree to a transfer of sovereignty under the auspices of the United Nations to Indonesia.

The transfer, under the auspices of the United Nations, was a long and highly contentious one, with the first instances of armed Papuan resistance against Indonesian rule emerging in 1964, events which the still-active OPM sees as its founding moment. The seven-year transition ended in 1969 with a ‘plebiscite’ by 1 025 Papuan elders hand-picked by Indonesian administrators.[5] All voted in favour, sealing the integration of the territory, which was renamed Irian Jaya, into the Indonesian Republic.

As in other ‘backward’ parts of Indonesia, the newly-installed government of General Soeharto began an ambitious project of modernisation, urbanisation and development. Apart from the opening of the Freeport gold and copper mine, this also included agricultural projects such as palm oil plantations, for which tens of thousands of ‘transmigrants’ as labour came into the territory from other parts of Indonesia. According to the official line, the ‘backward’ Papuan brothers and sisters, free now from the shackles of Dutch colonial power, were being accommodated into the development project of Suharto’s New Order and brought into the fold of the prosperous Indonesian family. There were, admittedly, some misguided elements who resisted this, but they would be either convinced by the fruits of development – or crushed.

In stark contrast to official Indonesian narratives of Tanah Papua’s integration, most local narratives are strongly shaped by what Herniawan and van den Broek (2001) call the Papuan ‘memoria passionis,’ a memory of suffering. These narratives are characterised by memories and the re-telling of stories military oppression, of torture, of murder, of sexual exploitation, of fear, of racism, of disrespect, of socio-economic marginalisation by the influx of economically more successful non-Papuans and of what is often perceived by indigenous Papuans to be a systematic campaign of attempts by the central government to destroy the Papuan nation.[6] These fears are exacerbated by widespread Papuan disquiet over the impacts of increased migration from other parts of Indonesia. As many, though not all migrants are Muslims and most, though not all Papuans are Christians, there is often a thinly-veiled fear of ‘Islamisation’ in Papuan discussions of the impacts of migration.

The fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 raised Papuan hopes of a new deal, perhaps even of a Timor-Leste style referendum on the status of the territory. The initial reaction of the Indonesian security forces to such calls was harsh, and at least several dozen Papuan demonstrators were killed on the island of Biak in July 1998 following the raising of the Morning Star flag. With Abdurrahman Wahid, aka Gus Dur taking over the Indonesian presidency in 1999, however, the stance of the central government became more conciliatory. The Morning Star flag was approved as an official Papuan ‘cultural symbol’ to be used alongside the Indonesian flag, the province was renamed Papua and President Wahid even contributed personal funds for organising the Second Papuan Congress in 2000. In 2001, the Special Autonomy (Otonomi Khusus – or Otsus) package for Papua was passed, later extended to the province of West Papua after this was controversially split off by decree of Wahid’s successor, President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Special Autonomy and Discontent

In the roughly ten years since the passing of the Law on Special Autonomy, indigenous Papuan representation at all levels of the executive in the two provinces has increased, powers have been devolved from the central government and unprecedented sums of money have flowed to the two provinces. Nonetheless, it is often hard to find indigenous Papuans outside state administration who see Otsus as a success. Opposition to special autonomy has grown increasingly vocal and in 2010 a coalition of local civil society organisations symbolically ‘returned’ the law to the Indonesian government, deeming it a ‘total failure’ and demanding a thorough review. These calls were echoed by a wide coalition of Papuan churches in early 2011.

This discontent is fuelled by various widespread discourses: the increased influx of funds is generally seen to have only benefited a small local elite while large sections of the indigenous population continue to live in poverty; the central government has been seen as torpedoing Papuan efforts at self-governance; migration remains high stoking fears of marginalisation and key demands such as the use of Papuan symbols have been revoked. While some of the Papuan critique of Otsus is overblown (or, more precisely, often presented with rhetorical hyperbole), special autonomy has clearly not worked as well as for example in Aceh, with actors at all levels of state administration not living up to high expectations.

Criticism of the status quo has been dangerous in the past, especially in the Suharto years, when it could lead to being labelled as being separatist or subversive, a label which could mean imprisonment or death. Although the situation has improved greatly, the political atmosphere in Papua and West Papua nonetheless remains more stifling than in the rest of Indonesia. Public displays of the Morning Star flag or calls for ‘merdeka’ (freedom) often, though not always, can lead to lengthy prison sentences for subversion.[7] Intimidation of activists and journalists working on less controversial issues such as environmental degradation, land grabbing or corruption is not uncommon. Access for foreign researchers, NGOs or media is heavily curtailed.

The growing discontent over the political settlement has been flanked, especially since 2009, by a marked upturn in violence. This violence has had numerous causes, ranging from groups affiliated to the OPM battling the security forces, local tribal conflicts, localised political and economic power struggles to millenarian religious movements (see for example ICG, 2010 for a partial overview). Many of the most high profile cases such as a series of lethal shootings along the road to the Freeport mine have remained unsolved. Increasingly, many civil society representatives in Papua and West Papua also raise the fear of violent communal conflicts both between indigenous Papuans and migrants and amongst Papuans themselves. What is often striking is how differently representatives of the Indonesian state and most Papuans I have talked to see the violence. While the official Indonesian view tends to blame either the OPM or other presumed separatists, many Papuans are inclined to see more sinister forces at work, suspecting Indonesian security forces of staging incidents to justify their lucrative presence and a repression of Papuan political aspirations.

New palm oil plantations in Kebar, West Papua. Photo by the author.

Searching for solutions

While the discontent with the status quo has been steadily growing and the number of violent incidents have been on the rise, a twin initiative by a prominent Papuan theologian, Neles Tebay, and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, LIPI, has sought to find a way out of the impasse (see Tebay, 2009 and Widjojo, 2009).[8] The approach advocates a dialogue between ‘Jakarta’ and ‘Papua,’ i.e. the central government and Papuan representatives, based on a Road Map which advocates for addressing issues of socio-economic marginalisation, re-visiting the divergent views on the integration of Tanah Papua with Indonesia and accountability for past human rights violations. In spite of opposition from nationalists from both sides, the initiative has been slowly gaining traction. A Papua Peace Network has been conducting a series of public discussions in both provinces on the initiative and a peace conference in July 2011 brought together representatives of the central government and Papuan society.

What the declaration of independence and the resurgence of violence will mean for the delicate process of finding a negotiated solution to the multiple problems facing Tanah Papua remains to be seen. As with so many other issues, the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been slow to react to the challenges in the two easternmost provinces. If nothing else, the violent events of the past few weeks have at least added urgency to the process.


Drooglever, Pieter, 2005. Een Daad van Vrije Keuze: De Papoea’s van westelijk Nieuw-Guinea en de grenzen van het zelfbeschikkingsrecht, Amsterdam

Hernawan, Budi and van den Broek, Theo, 2001. Memoria Passionis Di Papua – Kondisi Sosial Politik dan Hak Asasi Manusia. Jayapura: SKP

ICG, 2010. Radicalisation and Dialogue in Papua, Asia Report Nº188. Brussels/Jakarta: International Crisis Group

Leith, Denise, 2003. The Politics of Power – Freeport n Suharto’s Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press

Saltford, John, 2002. The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969: Anatomy of a Betrayal. London: Routledge

Tebay, Neles, 2009. Dialog Jakarta-Papua. Sebuah Perspektif Papua, Jayapura: SKP

Widjojo, Muridan, 2009. Papua Road Map. Jakarta: LIPI

[1] The author is a post-doctoral stipend at NIAS and will be presenting a paper titled “By The Rivers Of Babylon …” – Israel, Merdeka and the Magic of the Promised Land in Papuan Political Thought at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists in Montreal in November 2011.

[2] There is a certain amount of potential confusion surrounding the names used to refer to the western part of the island of New Guinea. The area is divided into the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, which were previously the province of Irian Jaya, later renamed Papua. Somewhat confusingly, both in Papuan society and outside, both provinces are often lumped together either as ‘Papua’ or ‘West Papua’ (Papua Barat). In an effort to avoid confusion, I will use the terms West Papua and Papua to refer to the respective provinces and the adjective ‘Papuan’ as pertaining to social, political, economic, cultural, etc. dynamics within the indigenous community in both provinces. I will use the term Tanah Papua (Land of Papua) to refer to the area covered by the two provinces jointly. The discussion of what constitutes the indigenous Papuan community is a rather tricky one, though, but unfortunately one which will need to be discussed elsewhere

[3] The Grasberg mine is operated by the Indonesian subsidiary of the US-based mining company Freeport McMoRan and was opened after the neighbouring Ertsberg mine was depleted in the late 1980s. For a critical history of the mine during the Suharto years, see Leith (2003)

[4] While many refer to the 19 October, 1961, as being the date of the First Congress, others place this a few months later (December 1961) or in the case of Saltford (2003) even a year to 19 October, 1962.

[5] For detailed accounts of the Act of Free Choice, see Drooglever, 2005 and Saltford, 2003

[6] It is not unusual for Papuan activists to refer to a ‘genocide,’ a claim which solidarity activists abroad have also sought to prove. For an interesting comment on the pro’s and cons of the debate, see Richard Chauvel’s commentary in Inside Indonesia 97/2009 at http://www.insideindonesia.org/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1236&pop=1&page=0

[7] It should be noted, though, that while merdeka is often translated as meaning ‘freedom’ or ‘independence,’ local understandings are often far broader, ranging from freedom from want and fear to spiritual liberation in a religious sense, or even, amongst more eschatological Christians, linked to the Second Coming of Christ

[8] An abridged English language version of the Papua Road Map is available online at http://sydney.edu.au/arts/peace_conflict/docs/PAPUA_ROAD_MAP_Short_Eng.pdf