West Papua: Separatists Incite Violence
04-09-2019 – The desecration of a national flag, destruction of shops, torching of government buildings. Are we talking about Hong Kong? Try West Papua. In the former, Western governments materially aid separatists, while in the latter Western governments diplomatically aid separatists – for now. Separatism in itself, under certain circumstances, may be the correct political move for an oppressed class or nation. Likewise, a movement for independence – up to, and including, the right to form a separate state, may, under specific conditions, resolve political issues in favour of working people. Independence, if achieved against the interests of domestic and international capital, may clear the way for an advance of a workers’ struggle for liberation. In West Papua today, however, a much different situation transpires.
Just before August 17 – Indonesia’s national day – a post on WhatsApp by a youth organisation displayed a defaced Indonesian flag lying in a gutter near a University dormitory in Java. In response, Indonesian soldiers descended on the University dormitory and accused Papuan students of disrespecting the national flag. During this incident, some soldiers apparently used racist insults, calling them “monkeys”. Reports of this incident triggered protests across Indonesia and throughout West Papua. While racist insults are of course unacceptable, a heated emotional response to the national flag being desecrated on the eve of the national day is understandable. After all, Indonesia’s national day marks the proclamation of Indonesian independence from Dutch colonialism (August 17, 1945), which had ruled Indonesia for 350 years. While nationalists exist in Indonesia as in other countries, animated reaction against Papuan students disrespecting the Indonesian national flag, while being hosted at a Javan University, was likely.
The separatist or independence protests that ensued as a result appeared to have a clear target – Indonesian government built infrastructure, government buildings, and Indonesian commercial activity. Despite the Papuan students using these services, alongside Indonesians themselves, the separatists displayed scant regard for them, or for the danger posed to human life in the process. Like Hong Kong, the protests were in effect violent riots. In Manokwari, the capital of the West Papua province, the local government building was torched and reduced to ashes. The separatists pulled down power poles and set fire to vehicles. A market in Fakfak was set ablaze, as was a prison in Sorong – leading to the escape of 250 prisoners. Also in Sorong, the airport was vandalised and many shops were looted.
The demand “Free West Papua!” sounds alluring and enticing, and is redolent of a struggle for justice and right. In reality, the slogan is devoid of political content, not to speak of class content. More than 200 years ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels railed against anarchist opposition in the First International, which called for “freedom” in the abstract, regardless of the development of society in an economic or political sense. “Freedom” in itself is a meaningless term in politics, unless it is referred to in concrete terms and to a certain class it seeks to liberate. West Papuan separatists appear to see “freedom” in terms of being released from integration with Indonesia, or specifically, from non-Papuan Indonesians. While there is some nationalism and racism directed against Papuans from ultra-nationalist groups within Indonesia, this is not reflective of Indonesia as a whole. At the same time, there are eerie elements of Papuan disapproval of Indonesians on the basis of their ethnicity. This does not endow the West Papuan independence struggle – under its current leadership – with wholesome aims.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated that he understood why Papuans were offended, and asked that both sides forgive each other as “fellow countrymen”. The governor of East Java, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, apologised for the behaviour of the Indonesian nationalist mobs, and said it does not “represent the…people of East Java”. These are scarcely the words of government leaders who are allegedly carrying out systemic discrimination against Papuans. The extent to which the Indonesian government always enacts fair treatment of Papuans is of course up for debate. However, the intent of the Indonesian government appears to be consistent – it is attempting to integrate Papuans into the whole of Indonesia. In 2001, the Indonesian government granted Papua a status of “Special Autonomy”. This may well be rejected by separatist Papuans, but “liberation” has to have a more positive political program than simply rejecting Indonesia.
A liberation movement also needs a basic honesty, so that all can clearly see that the cause is just. Yet in the hands of the current political leadership, a lack of honesty is the major drawback for the West Papuan independence movement. Time and again, the West Papuan separatist leaders have fabricated blatant untruths in their attempt to whip up false hysteria against “Indonesia”. In December last year, Papuan separatists made the fatuous claim that the Indonesian military used white phosphorus munitions against independence supporters. They allied themselves with reporters who openly sided with US imperialism against Syria, where the US government accused the Syrian government – without evidence – of using chemical weapons, while at the same time admitting they had themselves used white phosphorus munitions against civilians in Syria. Around April this year, Papuan separatists were backed by Western NGOs in claiming – without a shred of evidence – that 32 000 people had been displaced in the Nduga region in West Papua, and that 34 schools had been damaged by the Indonesian military. No verification was provided. But this doesn’t stop Papuan separatists from trying it on again.
Instigators of violence
Papuan independence supporters raised their hands in horror at the Indonesian government blocking the internet in response to the outbreaks of violence wrought by the crowds they had incited. The Indonesian government claimed that this move was made in order to stop Papuan separatists sharing fake videos to further incite more violence. There were some reports that the Papuan students were circulating a video allegedly showing a student being killed by Indonesian soldiers, which was entirely fake. Without offering the Indonesian government any political support, they appear to be telling the truth here. Why? Because the West Papuan separatists have a history of retailing bald faced lies to artificially pump up support for their movement. It is not beyond belief that the violent riots which occurred in the last week of August were fuelled by the separatists spreading a fake video online. Given that this then lead to a government building being burnt to the ground, an airport vandalised, shops looted, markets set on fire, power poles being felled and more – it is in turn not unreasonable for the Indonesian government to “throttle” or even block the internet in an attempt to prevent further violence.
The political violence instigated by the separatists only follows on from the instigation of military conflict by armed West Papuan militia. Time and again, the armed West Papuan groups provoke violent conflict with the Indonesian military only to claim “oppression” when the inevitable retaliation ensues. It is similar to the situation in Syria, where US/UK armed death squads would attack Syrian government positions, and then claim that the Syrian response to overt violence against them was evidence of an “oppressive regime”. In December last year, armed Papuan militia slaughtered 31 Indonesian road workers constructing the Trans Papua Highway through the Nduga region. Understandably, the Indonesian security forces had to move in to, at least, recover their bodies and secure the area. Hence, the Indonesian government claims that the military build up in parts of West Papua occurs only in response to the violent attacks from the separatists – are not without foundation.
At the time, Sebby Sambom of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) claimed that the group deliberately attacked the road workers building the Trans Papua Highway because they reject all infrastructure development programs in West Papua. ! This statement is revealing. The West Papuan separatists appear to be aware that the infrastructure development programs paid for and installed by the Indonesian government will benefit Papuans and non-Papuans alike, and will lead to increased economic activity, contributing to a higher standard of living for all. If this occurs, political support for separatist independence would be likely to dissipate. So to keep alive their aim of separatism, 31 innocent Indonesian workers had to die – and with no apology. Is it any wonder that the separatist Papuans do not attract sympathetic Indonesians to their cause?
The question of the economic and industrial development of West Papua is important. Without offering political support to the Indonesian government, the fact remains that the Indonesian government is ramping up its efforts to connect West Papua, parts of which are still inaccessible due to mountainous and jungle covered territory. The Trans Papua highway is a part of this, but there are also moves to extend electricity coverage to more areas of West Papua. In fact, the Indonesian state owned electricity company PLN recently signed a cooperation agreement with the Indonesian military and some Universities, where the aim is to provide electricity to 99% of the villages across West Papua in 2019. Is this the type of development which is rejected by the armed West Papuan groups – connecting villages to electricity, which have never seen it before? West Papuan independence advocates can arguably claim that the Trans Papua highway will only benefit Indonesians, as most Papuans do not own cars or commercial vehicles. However, it is not plausible to suggest that the electrification of nearly all of West Papua will not benefit Papuans, especially those from the highland areas which are currently in darkness.
The critical issue which is driving some Papuans towards nationalist and pro-independence views is the desire to end the transmigration of Austronesians to Papua from other parts of Indonesia. The transmigration is significant, with Austronesians now making up around 51% of the population to the approximately 49% Melanesian indigenous population. However, there remain huge regional variances within the Papuan provinces. While Austronesian and other transmigrants now outnumber Papuans in urban and coastal areas, Papuans are still the overwhelming majority in the highland interior. To some extent, fears of being pushed out of their own land MAY be understandable IF there was systematic and blatant exclusion of Papuans by the Indonesian government and those who tend to dominate commercial activity. However, it is apparent that the Indonesian government is attempting to integrate them into the “Unitary State” of Indonesia, through granting regional autonomy, spending vast sums on transport and electricity infrastructure, and, where possible, providing healthcare and education for all residents.
Doubtless, there may be many blemishes on the record of the Indonesian government while attempting to implement their aims. Despite this, the Indonesian government cannot stand by and allow armed Papuan groups to engage in wanton killings of non-Papuan residents. Nor can it stand by and allow Papuan separatists to engage in terroristic violence such as provoking gunfights with police and the military OR the incitement of crowds to commit riotous acts such as setting ablaze government buildings, markets, shops or transport facilities.
It is true that Marxists MAY sometimes give critical support to a movement for national liberation IF it is directed against imperialism. However, the current West Papuan “liberation” movement is oriented in the opposite direction. It aims to enlist imperialism to help achieve its aims, both because it knows it cannot defeat the Indonesian military on its own, and because it does not aim to convince Indonesians, let alone Indonesian workers, of the justness of its cause. So there are appeals to the United Nations, to British and Australian parliamentarians, and so on. The British ruling class has partially come to the party, by offering fugitive independence figure Benny Wenda “asylum” in London. The nationalism of a small state often means, in turn, recognising the nationalism of the largest states, as a quid-pro-quo. Working people, from Indonesia, Papua, the UK and Australia – on the other hand – have a material interest in politically combatting the nationalism of small and large states, in their combined struggle for liberation from capitalist imperialism. Papuan separatists, and their supporters, need to decide where they stand.
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 Ibid, 2.
 Ibid, 9.