The crisis in West Papua is among the world’s worst. Making up only a fraction of the over 17,000 bodies of land under Indonesian control, the region and its conflict has gone under the mainstream radar. After decades of hardship, the land’s indigenous people find themselves in a truly harrowing predicament.
The majorly tribal region had been under Dutch colonial rule along with Indonesia, but when Indonesian independence was granted in 1949, West Papua was not included. Due to large ethnic and cultural differences to Indonesians, the Papuans sought to have a separate stake for sovereignty in which they would be independent of the wider region. This would come in 1961, to the dismay of Indonesia who immediately invaded the territory to lay claim for itself.
A war ensued, including the Dutch, Indonesians, and the indigenous Papuans. The conflict ended in a U.S. engineered treaty to put the territory under the supervision of the United Nations. The body gained control only to hand the keys over to Indonesia one year later, against the will of the Papuans.
One caveat to the treaty was that a referendum had to be held for the West Papuan people to self-determine, a right formally guaranteed by the U.N.
After 7 years of brutal Indonesian colonial rule in which thousands of natives were imprisoned, raped, tortured, and killed, a referendum took place. Coined ‘The act of free choice,’ the ensuing mandate was anything but.
Indonesia declared that Papuans were ‘too primitive’ for democracy, handpicking only 1,026 people to be eligible to vote out of the total population of a million. The Indonesian authorities blackmailed the selected few, and the subsequent result was a unanimous vote against independence.
The U.N. officially sanctioned this atrocious display of pseudo-democracy and Indonesia has maintained control over the territory ever since. An estimated 500,000 Papuan civilians have been killed since the beginning of the occupation, a number that constitutes nothing less than ethnic cleansing and genocide.
In 1971, 96% of the population was made up by native tribes that are now a rapidly plummeting minority group. In 2016, only 48% were recorded as being indigenous, but that same report predicted that number to drop to 20% by 2020; the statistic has not been updated since.
With this influx of foreign invaders also came the influx of foreign capital. The region of West Papua is home to the largest gold mine in the entire world. In 1967, the Indonesian government signed over the right to extract mineral wealth from the Grasberg mine site to the U.S. mining corporation Freeport McMoRan. This is where U.S. involvement in the U.N. plan starts to make much more sense.
The total mineral wealth of the Grasberg mine has been estimated at $40 billion, a staggering sum that the indigenous people see little-to-none of. The native miners are paid poverty wages and work under terrible conditions in which many have died.
British Petroleum also has a stake in the Papuan conflict, taking ownership of multibillion-dollar natural gas reserves via the Indonesian government. Both BP and Freeport have promised to invest back into the local communities, but their impact has proven to be quite the opposite.
This plundering of natural resources has thrown Papuan communities into disarray. Amongst their mining endeavours, Freeport McMoRan poisons local rivers with hundreds of thousands of tons of gold tailings per day, rendering it unusable for farmers and perilous for wildlife. West Papua has the highest rate of poverty in Indonesia as well as the highest rates of infant mortality and illiteracy despite the abundance of mineral wealth.
Since the beginning of the occupation, there has been a strong-willed resistance to this colonial oppression. The Free Papua Movement (OPM) is an armed guerilla group that seeks to protest the occupation through militant means. Since their founding in 1970, the OPM has used tactical offensives to push back against Indonesian and corporate rule. Although the presence of the OPM is vital, their effectiveness is limited due to the modern weapons and money backing their enemies.
Dissidents within the occupied area are made political prisoners, serving decades-long sentences for doing so much as hoisting the indigenous flag, let alone being in the OPM.
Amongst those prisoners was Benny Wenda, a leading political organiser and indigenous Papuan tribesman. Wenda was given a sham trial in the Indonesian court, resulting in a pending 25-year sentence for crimes he did not commit. In jail, Wenda was tortured and put in solitary confinement for months on end until he finally escaped with the help of fellow independence activists.
After Wenda’s escape, he was granted asylum in Britain, where he remains to this day. He is steadfast in his conviction for Papuan independence and leads the political charge from abroad. He heads the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) as well as the Free West Papua Campaign, which seeks to gain international attention for the cause.
These campaigns have made major strides toward gaining recognition. In 2016, global leaders, led by Wenda, met in Westminster to declare support for a new internationally-supervised referendum for Papuan independence. Among those in support was former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, where he declared that there need be, “an end to environmental degradation and destruction and the right of [the Papuan] people to be able to make their own choice on their own future.”
Although the Westminster Declaration sparked discourse surrounding the issue, international bodies did not take the necessary action and a referendum has not since taken place. Due to the pressing and ongoing nature of this genocidal assault, Papuans have taken matters into their own hands.
Just last month a new ‘West Papua Provisional Government’, led by Benny Wenda, was announced. The organization seeks to be the preemptive governing body of a new republic. The still-forming institution deems Indonesian rule illegitimate and rejects the proposed extension of West Papua’s ‘special autonomy’, a title that’s been in place for over 20 years without yielding any real results.
The Indonesian response to the announcement has been swift and harsh. With demonstrations being held rejecting the proposed pseudo-autonomy, thousands of police were sent to shut down protests and make scores of arrests. Amongst the chaos, Indonesia unveiled a plan for further ethnic cleansing of the region in 2021, potentially displacing up to 2 million natives.
After decades of colonial brutality, the conflict only seems to be further escalating. If action is not soon taken, extinction will be the fate of the oppressed peoples of West Papua.
The anti-colonial struggle is not one specific to West Papua. All over the world, we see the plundering of the developing world by imperialists and we advocate for the socialist solution. Only through the existence of private capital can the pursuit of profits surmount humanity in the grotesque fashion exhibited globally.
However, the nature of these circumstances requires urgent action. Pressure must be placed on existing bourgeois politicians and organizations to make possible a new referendum outside of Indonesia’s grasp.
Britain’s communists must stand in solidarity with the people of West Papua in their struggle against colonialism and educate ourselves further in the nuances of their plight.
Email your local MP, if you can: donate to the ‘Free West Papua’ campaign, but most importantly share the Papuan story. Only when injustice is heeded can it be terminated.
More information on the described events can be found on FreeWestPapua.org and ULMWP.org, including ways you can contribute to the independence movement and the latest news regarding West Papua.