As Indonesia moves to “incorporate” West Papua, thousands of Papuans are fleeing for their lives.
Between February and July 1984, 10,000 to 12,000 West Papuans sought refuge in Papua New Guinea. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), many of the recent arrivals are from the West Papuan capital of Jayapura where increased resistance to Indonesian occupation has resulted in open conflict. These refugees, the HCR claims, are primarily fishermen from around the capital or people who migrated to the city during the past twenty years.
Reports from the region, however, insist that the refugees are, for the most part, tribal villagers who fled Indonesian military operations all along the Papua New Guinean border. These reports claim that most refugees moved into highland areas of Papua New Guinea without receiving any official notice, let alone assistance. Some escaped on foot, taking up to a week to reach safety, while others escaped by boat along the coast. Indonesian reports indicate that in some areas more than half of the population has abandoned their traditional lands.
All reports indicate that a large, although undetermined, number of West Papuans died while trying to reach safety in Papua New Guinea. The Indonesian military is believed to be responsible for these deaths. Hundreds of bodies have been found along the border or washed ashore in Papua New Guinea. There is growing concern that even more people have been killed within West Papua and that their bodies will never be discovered.
The Struggle for Self-Determination in West Papua
New Guinea was divided in the 19th century. Netherlands retained half while Germany and England have controlled the other half. After World War II, under a UN mandate, Australia came to control the eastern half.
The Netherlands ceded West Papua to the UN in 1962, as part of the post-World War II decolonization process. In 1963, the UN passed West Papua to Indonesia on the condition that in 1969 a plebicite would be held to allow the West Papuans to choose their own future. The 1969 Act of Free Choice, as the vote was called, was considered by most to be a farce. Only 1025 carefully selected Papuans were allowed to vote. Their unanimous vote to join Indonesia was promptly ratified by the UN. No one questioned why hundreds of thousands of West Papuans were not allowed to choose between independence or Indonesian domination.
Since 1963, the Free Papua Movement (OPM), though banned in that year by Indonesia, has resisted Indonesian domination of West Papua, claiming that Indonesia plans to colonize the territory and destroy the Melanesian culture of its people. As Indonesia has stepped up programs of social, political and economic integration of West Papua, resistance has increased and OPM support has grown. One report speculates that as a result of this resistance and the violent, often indiscriminate response of the Indonesian army, as many as 100,000 Papuans have died under Indonesian occupation. This represents 8-10% of the region’s population.
Last year the OPM, with a guerrilla force of 5000, launched a renewed campaign to liberate certain areas from Indonesian control with the intent of eventually liberating all of West Papua from Indonesia. From all reports, however, the OPM is not well armed or organized. To date, their main asset has been an intimate knowledge of the rugged countryside. As they attempt to expand to other areas, they will lose this advantage. Indonesia has begun to use helicopter gunships, as well as other aircraft, to destroy villages and erode the support of the OPM.
Since February, the OPM claims to have inflicted more than 140 casualties on the Indonesian army. The army’s 30,000 troops in the area have responded with an indiscriminate campaign of terror. Villages have been bombed and burned with the use of US-supplied aircraft. Curfews have been imposed in towns and free fire zones have been reported for highland areas which, although used by guerrillas, are also the sites of long established social and economic networks between distant villages. Indonesian army officers in the area admit that such policies allow them to shoot on sight anyone seen on certain trails, particularly those that traverse the area’s central mountain range and those near the border with Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia appears not to have limited its operations to West Papua. Papua New Guinea claims that Indonesia has violated its territory. Officials say that the Indonesian army has forced thousands of villagers to flee across the border only to accuse Papua New Guinea of harboring OPM rebels.
There is talk of bringing the situation in West Papua before the UN. Indonesia, still embarrassed after the UN condemnation of its invasion of East Timor in 1975, would not welcome such a move, seeking, instead, international silence or accommodation of what it would rather see as an internal matter.
Papua New Guinea, independent only since 1975, is a Pacific nation. It sees Indonesia as an expansionist state that mistreats fellow Melanesians. Papua New Guinea officials admit that border crossings are a way of life for Papuans, but they insist that the number of Papuans seeking refuge since February is unprecedented.
Yet Papua New Guinea is not likely to blow the whistle on Indonesia without support from the international community. Australia, a southern neighbor, would be a likely supporter. However, because of Australia’s negotiations with Indonesia over off-shore oil rights, that country’s government has recently proposed to stop supporting East Timor’s right to self-rule. It is unlikely that West Papua can expect support from this quarter. Likewise, the US has its own strategic interests with Indonesia. Without considerable publicity of the situation, it is difficult to foresee the US cutting the military support to Indonesia that is being used against the OPM, let alone condemning Indonesia for its treatment of West Papuans.
Background to the Problem
Papuans have little in common with Indonesians, They are religiously, culturally, and racially distinct. According to those who have travelled to West Papua recently, Indonesians show open contempt for the darker-skinned Papuans.
Since the mid 1960s, Indonesia has begun to develop plans for exploiting West Papua. Initially, Indonesia appeared to have ignored West Papua, but in fact a number of policies were put into effect long before the 1969 Act of Free Choice vote occurred. Publicly, the government appears to have been biding its time.
There were considerable internal problems to occupy the Indonesian government, those of the international community interested in the area. The change in power in Indonesia triggered by the 10 October 1965 coup resulted in the killing of an estimated 500,000 people. Many others were jailed. The booming oil economy and later the invasion of East Timor shifted attention from West Papua. Slowly, however. West Papua was being groomed for what is happening today.
In the 1960s missionaries were encouraged to work in West Papuan villages along the PNG border and in or near known mineral deposits. In the early 1960s exploration of West Papua’s known mineral deposits began. By 1967, the infrastructure for the largest copper mine in the world at Tenbagapora, West Papua began. The Freeport-Indonesia Inc. mine began to produce high grade ore in 1981.
Indonesian officials plan to resettle 750,000 Javanese and Sumatrans in West Papua over the next five years. Unofficially, many have mentioned the number of people to be relocated as two million. With the population of West Papua just over one million, such colonization would swamp the indigenous population.
Indonesian officials insist, however, that West Papua is unsettled, contains vast mineral and timber resources – not to mention 20% of Indonesia’s claimed land area, and that the area must be developed to relieve population pressure in other parts of the country.
“Development” is precisely what worries the indigenous inhabitants as well as outside observers. The Indonesian government has used the activities of the missionaries to “pacify” villages, to prepare them for contact with outsiders. The Papuan villages along the border and in resource-rich regions are now being relocated. The government wants to create an Indonesian “fence” of loyal colonists in these strategic areas. In some cases villages have been attacked directly; Indonesian soldiers proudly display the ears of “rebels” they have killed. In other instance, the residents have been forcibly relocated to the lowlands. As Indonesian military officers candidly remark, “mosquito bites are cheaper than bullets,” referring to a deliberate policy to relocate highland villagers to known malarial lowland areas where they die of disease and the constant heat.
Indonesia may soon be receiving international assistance for its resettlement program in West Papua. A UNDP team, reportedly composed of Canadians, is already working on resettlement in West Papua. In addition, the World Bank is reviewing a project proposal from the Indonesian government to finance the transmigration program in West Papua. The proposed budget not only includes money to relocate Sumatrans and Javanese to West Papua, it also includes a sizable budget for relocating Papuans. It is not known if the colonists are being brought into the areas that the Papuans are being forced to leave, but it is clear that the Papuans are not being compensated for their lands. Financing this project could well be in violation of the World Bank’s policy to respect the land, cultural and social rights of tribal peoples in areas affected by World Bank projects.
The transmigration program is not the only clue to the type of development intended for West Papua. The Tenbagapora copper mine is located in the central western highlands of West Papua at the headwaters of the Wa River. Some 3500 people are employed at the mine. They include 1500 Indonesians, 1000 expatriates and 500 Filipinos (hired to undertake the particularly hazardous operations). Papuans have not been compensated for the loss of their lands, or the pollution of their water. The mine itself has already destroyed a mountain of religious significance.
Papuans are not allowed to be trained for any jobs at the mine. About 200 Amungme are employed to sweep the area and to work in the garbage and sewage treatment plants. Amungme are not allowed to live within the mine compound – even those who work there – or to shop in the stores. No Papuan children are allowed to go to the schools. Even the surplus food Freeport Mines gives for distribution among the region’s severely malnourished population is sold by Indonesian officials.
The mining compound, through copper processing and human waste, so pollutes the Wa River that villagers living along it must now walk for hours to get drinking water from alternate sources. All fish in the river have long since died. The pollution is reportedly so bad that it can be seen for a hundred or more miles out in the ocean.
Indonesia’s intent seems clear. West Papua is destined to become an integral part of Indonesia and to be inhabited by Indonesians. Although the Papuan population has already reportedly been decimated, the government is beginning to step up operations, both its military and developmental. Without international pressure the peoples of West Papua, the most linguistically and culturally diverse island in the world, will be destroyed.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.