West Papua: Can Independence Deliver?

24-12-2017 – To the casual observer it appears to be an open and shut case. An indigenous people are occupied by a superior military power, which attempts to forcibly integrate the inhabitants within the larger and more powerful state, denying national and cultural rights that all people should enjoy. The oppressing power installs settlers in the occupied region, who, over time, come to overwhelm the original inhabitants. This power enjoys the backing of the “advanced” First World powers, which supply it with political and diplomatic support, along with state of the art military hardware. In response, the international left backs a movement for independence, linking with the domestic leaders, while applying political pressure to “their own” wealthy but rapacious governments. It all sounds straightforward. But in the case of the independence movement for West Papua, as in many things political, issues are not all what they seem.

Parallels with East Timor?

Progressive minded folk might object – but isn’t it a re-run of the situation of East Timor, where we have an obligation to back an independence movement? In fact, while not ignoring some similiarities, there are several reasons why the situation of West Papua differs significantly. Firstly, East Timor was militarily invaded by Indonesia in December 1975, days after a declaration of independence was made following the withdrawal of the former colonial power Portugal. The Indonesian military occupied East Timor from 1975 until 1999, when a United Nations (UN) sponsored referendum resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of independence. Pro-Indonesian militias then embarked on a rampage, slaughtering around 1400 people, and pushing hundreds of thousands into West Timor as refugees. A UN badged INTERFET (International Force for East Timor) Force was sent in, which had the effect of preventing further violence. Although the exact role of the UN and the Australian military forces in East Timor at the time was dubious, East Timor was recognised as an independent nation in 2002.[1]

This military invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975 was not recognised by the UN, not backed internationally, and in reality only the Australian government openly sided with Indonesia. In the case of West Papua, there was no overt military invasion, though Indonesian rule in West Papua came about in deceitful circumstances. The western part of Papua New Guinea was once a Dutch colony, but the Netherlands prepared for withdrawal during the 1950s. In 1961, West Papuans first raised the “morning star” flag, and sentiment for independence began.

However, Indonesia soon asserted what it believed to be its sovereign rights over the area, and a conflict broke out with the Dutch and indigenous West Papuans. In 1962, a UN sponsored treaty known as the “New York Agreement” was drawn up, which appointed Indonesia the temporary administrator. The agreement included a clause of which the intent was that all West Papuans would be able to vote in a referendum on independence. Unfortunately, when this referendum was held, the Indonesian military held 1026 West Papuans at gunpoint, and threatened themselves and their families with elimination if they voted for independence. This so-called “Act of Free Choice” was approved by the UN, despite the circumstances, and this remained in place for decades afterwards. West Papuans dub it the “Act of No Choice”, and it forms one of the planks of independence sentiment today.


There are also significant differences between East Timor and West Papua in relation to Indonesia’s long running transmigration program. The Indonesian government claims that transmigration is a necessity to alleviate population pressures on the densely populated islands such as Java, Bali and Madura, and assisting the development of outer areas such as Kalimantan, Timor and West Papua. There seems to be credence in critiques of transmigration from some groups, which claim that transmigration in Indonesia has barely alleviated the population pressures at all, and has led to significant environmental damage through forest and land clearing. Despite this, it has had the financial backing of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank throughout the 80s and 90s.[2]

Many West Papuans see the Indonesian government’s transmigration program as an attempt to outnumber them over time, to make them a minority in their own land. There is some justification in this view, as there are many reports of the Indonesian government backing transmigrants that identify their traditional lands as suitable for settlement, clear the forests, and then give indigenous West Papuans the “choice” to live in a transmigration settlement area as a minority.[3] This understandably fuels antagonism towards the Indonesian government and the transmigrants themselves, and fosters further sentiment for independence.

The sheer numbers are vastly different though, between West Papua and East Timor. A research paper by Dr Jim Elmslie, a specialist in West Papua studies at the University of Sydney, estimates that the current non-Papuan population in West Papua now comprises 51.27%, or around 1.8 million, whereas the Papuan component comprises 48.73%, or around 1.7 million. This is incomparable to the situation four decades ago, where Papuans made up 96.09% of the total population.[4]  This is the “slow motion genocide” West Papuan independence supporters refer to.

The transmigration issue for East Timor, on the other hand, was not in the same league. While there was transmigration into East Timor, it was at a significantly lower rate, and by no means ever attained a majority. On the contrary, it is estimated that between 1970 and 1990, the non-Timorese population in Timor (mainly comprising Indonesian, Chinese and Portuguese descendants) rose from 1.6% to 8.5%.[5] Thus, at the time of the UN sponsored referendum on independence in East Timor in 1999, the non-Timorese population in East Timor would presumably have not exceeded even 10% of the total. This 10% was excluded from the vote in 1999, where over 80% of the people of East Timor voted for independence.

UN petition

In August this year, West Papuan independence activists delivered a petition to the United Nations in Geneva, symbolically swimming across Lake Geneva to present it. Exiled West Papuan independence identity Benny Wenda stated that the petition had been signed by 1 804 421 people, which was comprised of 1 708 167 indigenous Papuans and 96 254 Indonesian settlers. Dr Jim Elmslie estimates that this represents 70.88% of the indigenous Papuan population.[6] Reportedly, hard copies of the petition were smuggled from area to area in West Papua after the Indonesian government blocked its distribution online.

The petition and its dramatic submission certainly attracted worldwide attention, but it also raises a potential problem for the West Papuan independence movement. What way would the other half of the population of West Papua vote, if given the opportunity? Moreover, given that almost all of this part of the population are non-Papuans, what incentive would they have for voting for independence? The cultural and ethnic divide between the Melanesian Papuans and the Austronesian Indonesians is one that can create animosity, given that the Austronesian transmigrants appear to be backed by the Indonesian government at the expense of the indigenous Melanesians. The strategy of large parts of the West Papuan independence movement seems to rely upon calling for a UN overseen referendum on independence. Yet if this was to come about, there seems little guarantee that the vote in favour of independence would be overwhelming, given that a little over half of the population  are non-Papuan. This is not to deny the fact that elementary justice should allow some form of fair ballot to take place, to replace the discredited “Act of No-Choice”.

Religious divide

In addition to the ethnic division, there is also the religious aspect. The Austronesian transmigrants are overwhelmingly Islamic in religion, and it seems some of them are more strident in defending this than others. The Melanesian Papuans, apparently due to large scale missionary work, appear to be overwhelmingly Christian, which appears to co-exist with their tribal ties. There can be a perception, therefore, that the West Papuan independence movement is backing a Christian West Papua against a Muslim Indonesia. This potentially sets up an unhealthy dynamic in a world political environment where US imperialism has been guilty of deliberately whipping up extreme Islamophobia to generate support for its regime change wars, most recently in Syria.

There was an instance where a “Free West Papua Party” turned up to speak at a rally organised by the ultra-racist far-right group Reclaim Australia in Perth. Reportedly, some West Papua independence supporters also turned out to a Reclaim Australia event in Cairns. To its credit, large parts of the Free West Papua movement in Australia issued a statement expressly disassociating itself from the “Free West Papua Party” and from Reclaim Australia. The statement, signed by around 40 representatives of various West Papua independence supporters, rejected the use of racism or religious exclusion entirely, and especially in the case of the struggle for West Papua’s rights.[7] The statement did acknowledge some tension between Christianity and Islam in West Papua, but claimed that this tension has not yet generated into a religious conflict which has broken out in other parts of Indonesia. In our view, the Free West Papua movement needs to be more forthright in declaring that their movement does not attempt to exclude anyone on a religious, cultural or ethnic basis.

Development divide

As in so many class struggles throughout history, the religious aspect is often a cover for very real class struggles bubbling away. This is reflected in the West Papuan divide between the relatively developed coastal cities and towns, and the overwhelmingly rural interior. Austronesian transmigrants predominate in the coastal cities, especially the capital Jayapura, and are the most prevalent in the jobs in the private sector, and those connected with commercial activity. These areas attract higher educated Indonesians, who also dominate in manufacturing, and an estimated 90% of jobs connected with trade.[8] As more transmigrants arrive in the West Papuan cities, they naturally form connections with “their own”, which affords them more job opportunities, which unfortunately crowds out indigenous Papuans.

Indigenous Papuans are then often forced back into economic activity such as subsistence farming, which is obviously not as lucrative, and which has little connection to the modern, cash and international economy. This, along with a lack of development in such areas, contributes to a justifiable resentment towards transmigrants, and towards Indonesia in general. While the Indonesian government is spending large amounts of money on West Papua, very little of it reaches the rural interior, overwhelmingly inhabited by indigenous Papuans. This leads to issues such as poorer education outcomes, where apparently 56% of Papuans have less than primary education, and 24% have remained illiterate. The lack of development indicators are stark, as in many rural Papuan interior areas, 80% of villages have no electricity, 90% have no telephone, and 83.5% have no access to banking or credit facilities.[9] Combine this with the fact that around half of Papuan villages are accessible only by dirt road, and one can see how many Papuans might follow the offered “solution” of independence.

Infrastructure spending by Indonesian government

Perhaps in an effort to divert West Papuans from taking the path of demanding all out independence, the Indonesian government of President Joko Widodo (also known as “Jokowi”) has pledged to accelerate infrastructure development. Last February, the Indonesian government announced it was spending US $371 million on infrastructure and housing in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, including a trans-West Papua highway.[10]  The Indonesian government has also prioritised the improvement of facilities at the regional airports at Saigun, Weror Tambrauw, Marinda and Fakfak.[11] Plans for the building and running of a railway in West Papua are also well in the pipeline, with the proposal to run a railway line from the city of Sorong in the West through to Manokwari in the East, passing through South Sorong, Maybrak, Teluk Bintuni, South Manokwari and Manokwari.[12]

Electricity infrastructure is also receiving Indonesian government investment. Joko Widodo announced the building of six new electricity infrastructure projects on his fifth visit in October 2016, including 4 hydro-electric power plants, and around 200 kilometres of power lines.[13] Much more would be needed to electrify all of West Papua, but it would seem the Indonesian government is keenly aware of the need for this infrastructure, and the need for it to be NOT seen as only benefiting Jakarta.

Military and political repression

Of course, all of the infrastructure development in the world is unlikely to completely offset other Papuan grievances, such as the military and political repression that it accompanies. The Indonesian military regard the raising of the West Papuan morning star flag as high treason, and often those who attempt to raise it risk long jail terms if caught. It is also claimed that 500 000 Papuans have perished in skirmishes with the Indonesian military. For their part, the Indonesian military claim they are only responding to an armed insurgency. The Indonesian military are accused of slaughtering pro-independence Papuan fighters, and, in turn, the Indonesian military accuse the Papuan militias of taking non-Papuans hostage.

There is also little doubt that the Australian government backs the Indonesian government’s position, and “respects the territorial integrity” of the Indonesian archipelago. After the experience of East Timor, however, many Indonesians simply do not believe such Australian government assertions. Nevertheless, there appears to be strong evidence that Indonesia’s Detachment 88 is trained and supplied by the Australian Federal Police.[14] Detachment 88 are suspected to have been behind the gunning down and murder of Mako Tabuni, who was at the time the deputy chairperson of the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB). In fact, it is not only the Australian Federal Police who “train” and “advise” the Indonesian police, but the police of the United Kingdom, Denmark and Canada.[15]

Independence with which politics?

In the case of East Timor in the early 1970s, the Indonesian government and its backers in Australia and the US appeared to be concerned, with some justification, that an independent East Timor would be a communist outpost, a Cuba in the Pacific. The political leadership of the various East Timorese pro-independence groups was certainly left-leaning. However, so far it appears that the politics of the various West Papuan independence groups are not so left wing. Many on the left perhaps understandably believe that an indigenous people fighting for their rights will automatically adopt progressive, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics. This is not usually the case, and in fact, in the absence of a strong trade union movement, or strong left-wing workers’ parties, the politics can often tend towards liberalism – which is a component pillar of capitalism.

The Indonesian government is doing what it is doing to West Papua not because it is Indonesian, or because it is predominantly Islamic. The problem is capitalism in Indonesia, including West Papua, and of course including the United States, Australia and New Zealand. This is one reason why independence for West Papua – if this means the setting up of a small capitalist state in the Indonesian archipelago – will scarcely solve the problems that capitalism in the region is responsible for in West Papua – poverty, unemployment and under-development. East Timor is now discovering this, even as we can acknowledge that the Timorese are of course in a better situation without the presence of the Indonesian military.

From this distance, it appears that the politics of the various pro-independence West Papuan groups has not developed in an anti-capitalist, much less a socialist direction. Some leftists will point to Lenin’s support for the right of nations to self-determination as justification for endorsing the West Papuan independence movement wholesale. Yet Lenin also always stressed that the interests of socialism and the interests of the socialist revolution take priority over a struggle for national self-determination. That is, working people cannot discount a genuine desire for national self-determination, especially that of a former colonial country. At the same time, nationalism has its own logic. If you wage a campaign on strongly nationalist terms, it often directly leads to recognising the nationalism of all nations – even the huge imperialist powers, which are responsible for your oppression in the first place. The nationalism of a small nation, thus often becomes dependent on larger and stronger patrons. Hence the West Papuan independence movement, as much as it criticises Australian and British government backing of the Indonesian government, at the same time appeals to Australian and British parliamentarians to raise and fight for West Papuan independence within their “corridors of power”. The independence movement, in fact, becomes dependent on the large states it inveigles us to campaign against.

Under world capitalism, a small state can barely survive unless it has the backing of very large states. This is why an alternative for West Papua should be a perspective of uniting the working class of all of Papua – non-Papuan and Papuan alike – in a struggle to overthrow capitalism in Papua, Indonesia, and throughout the Asia-Pacific, not the least in Australia and New Zealand. Independence gained in this way would have the potential to address the issues of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment in West Papua, concern over which is currently being directed towards a movement for (capitalist) independence. This requires the building of Marxist vanguard parties in Papua and Indonesia in the struggle for a socialist Asia-Pacific.

As far away as this perspective may appear, nationalism ultimately offers very little for the working people of Papua. It also does not advance the class struggle in neighbouring Australia, where solidarity can end up being an exercise to lobby for concessions from the Australian government – rather than working to delegitimise the ruling class in the eyes of the workers.  Nevertheless, it can be recognised that the West Papuan people should have the right to determine their own affairs, if indeed this is what they choose, up to and including the right to secede to form their own state. Such a binding referendum, however, would have to include the entire 3.5 million people who inhabit West Papua, indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

Working people internationally should also demand the Indonesian government allow all political activity in West Papua, including that which agitates for independence, to proceed without interference. The flying of the morning star flag should not attract any punishment, let alone jail terms. At the same time, working people should urge the West Papuan independence movement to link with non-Papuans in Papua and Indonesia in a joint struggle against Indonesian capitalism – which is underwritten by its imperialist sponsors.  A socialist West Papua as part of an Indonesian workers’ republic would vastly advance the interests of the workers of West Papua, and spur on class struggle throughout the Asia-Pacific. This would be a movement worth fighting for.


E: workersleague@redfireonline.com


A feature demand of the West Papuan independence movement is the call for a UN sponsored referendum. Image from http://www.bennywenda.org

PO  Box  66   NUNDAH  QLD  4012

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_East_Timor (26-12-2017)

[2] http://www.downtoearth-indonesia.org/old-site/ctrans.htm (26-12-2017)

[3] http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/issues/1990/10/marr.html (26-12-2017)

[4] https://sydney.edu.au/arts/peace_conflict/docs/working_papers/West_Papuan_Demographics_in_2010_Census.pdf (26-12-2017)

[5] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/east-timor-old-migration-challenges-worlds-newest-country (26-12-2017)

[6] http://humanrightspapua.org/news/23-2017/273-papua-independence-petition-delivered-to-the-united-nations (27-12-2017)

[7] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B27n3cmOkqI4OUQ3WTZyc0syU28/view (27-12-2017)

[8] http://apjjf.org/2011/9/37/David-Adam-Stott/3597/article.html (28-12-2017)

[9] http://apjjf.org/2011/9/37/David-Adam-Stott/3597/article.html (28-12-2017)

[10] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/02/15/government-invests-rp-7-6t-in-infrastructure-in-papua-w-papua.html (28-12-2017)

[11] https://en.antaranews.com/news/106427/president-prioritizes-infrastructure-development-in-west-papua (28-12-2017)

[12] http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/321489/indonesia-steps-up-plans-for-west-papua-railway (28-12-2017)

[13] http://papuanews.org/jokowi-inaugurate-6-electricity-infrastructures-in-west-papua/ (28-12-2017)

[14] http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2012-08-28/papuans-claim-australian-link-to-death-squad/4228710 (29-12-2017)

[15] https://www.jclec.org/stakeholders (29-12-2017)

West Papua: Can Independence Deliver?

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