West Papua: Independence or Ethnic Conflict?
23-09-2020: One year ago, dangerous riots led by West Papuan supporters of “independence” spread across Indonesia. The trigger was said to be racist insults being hurled by Indonesian soldiers at Papuan students studying at a university in East Java. The governor of East Java apologised for the insults at the time, stating that these are not the views of the people in general. Even though racist insults are of course unacceptable, one can understand the Indonesian soldiers being incensed at a report on social media of a defaced Indonesian flag at the dormitories where the Papuan students were staying – at the very time of the marking of Indonesia’s Independence Day of August 17. This is especially the case if the Papuan students are studying at a Javan University courtesy of the Indonesian government.
In response Papuan independence supporters (who in reality are separatists) went on several rampages throughout the country. Parliament buildings were set ablaze, vehicles were set on fire, power poles were torn down, a market in FakFak was torched, an airport was vandalised and shops were looted. Following this violence, two months later armed Papuan separatist militia launched a vicious attack on the town of Wamena, in which 30 people perished, with 22 of them being Indonesian transmigrants. The armed Papuans targeted Indonesian transmigrant workers such as motorcycle taxi drivers and hospitality staff. Yet it appears that some Papuans who do not support separatist independence were also caught in the crossfire of the reckless intent of the homicidal Papuan militia. Others who wish to live in peace with their Indonesian counterparts tried to make it to the airport in an effort to flee for their lives.
Left parties fall for the three-card trick
As we have previously reported, almost all Australian and many international left parties sign up to the basic fraud of “Free West Papua”. Most left parties fall for a three-card trick. All they see is 1. An indigenous people. 2. Oppression/occupation by a colonial power, which means 3. A struggle for “freedom”. This is such a distortion of reality it is difficult to know where to start. For one thing, socialists should not automatically throw their weight behind a political movement comprised of an indigenous people just because they are the original inhabitants. Marxists always need to make a basic assessment of the aims, politics and tactics of any movement, and determine whether it is either a cause of elementary justice OR a progressive step forward for working people internationally, before beginning to champion it. Left parties should not simply jump on bandwagons when they hear someone agitating for “freedom”.
For example, while racism against African-Americans in the US is wrong, it does not follow that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organisation or movement in the US necessarily has progressive politics. In fact, the recent rioting, looting and intimidation which BLM has carried out ostensibly in response to police violence cannot be an effective answer, let alone lead to equality between Americans of whichever colour. The current iteration of BLM is being used, whether consciously or not, to bolster the Democratic party in the run-up to the Presidential election. It is being used in an attempt to prevent Donald Trump and the Republicans from being re-elected in November, but with politics that are in many ways more right-wing than the Trump presidency. Democratic party Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has a history of strongly backing segregation, and Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris is a former police prosecutor with a record of unjustly incarcerating African-Americans! BLM is also being used to further the “Covid-19” assault on working people, to say nothing of the fact that BLM is totally silent about the imperialist wars being waged on all kinds of people of colour by the Anglo/US/EU Empire. BLM is the ultimate example of how identity politics serves ends which are the opposite of those that it claims to stand for.
In a similar way, the separatist violence – often waged against innocent Indonesians – of the Papuan independence “fighters” is the culmination of what could be described as Papuan identity politics. They appear to be aware that such a movement could gain backing from major imperialist powers, with some Papuan separatists using the slogan “Papuan Lives Matter” following the response to the loss of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier this year. The Socialist Alliance, a left party which fuels Papuan separatism, interviewed Veronica Koman, who fled to Australia to avoid an arrest warrant being issued for her in Indonesia for inciting the race riots in 2019. She commented that the “uprising” contributed to increased Papuan “negritude” – a feeling of pride in being black, in their ethnicity and identity. This rather gives the game away – Papuan separatism is based on ethnic identity, and the armed Papuan separatists are more than prepared to use ethnic violence to achieve their ends.
Misapplication of Leninism
Needless to say, a movement which uses separatist ethnic violence as a key component CANNOT be backed by anyone on the left, let alone Marxists. In fact, intimidation and occasional murder is also used by armed Papuan militias even against other Papuans who prefer to live in peace with their Indonesian neighbours. So, in effect, Papuan separatism is not at all based on allegedly freeing Melanesians from the supposed repression of Austronesians (the majority ethnicity of Indonesia). Rather, it is about the promotion of a fraudulent narrative of discrimination against Papuans, combined with political lobbying of the ruling classes of actual colonial and imperialist powers (Australia, the United Kingdom, Holland etc., and its controlled United Nations), using any tactics up to and including the use of armed terrorism against anyone who does not agree with separatist independence. Again, this approach scarcely makes for a wholesome political movement.
The Bolshevik-Leninist group (BL) are a new left organisation in Australia and have taken some laudable pro-working class positions in the time they have been established. They correctly criticise other sections of the reformist left (such as the afore-mentioned Socialist Alliance) for positions such as endorsing the imperialist war on Syria. Yet they then join with these same organisations by chiming in with the call for “independence” for West Papua (and also on the false Coronavirus “deadly plague” deception – a topic best broached elsewhere). To do so, they misapply the position of Russian revolutionary leader VI Lenin on the issue of Marxist support for national liberation struggles. It should be noted that other petty-bourgeois and bourgeois national movements totally distort Lenin for their own ends, and unfortunately BL do likewise.
In an article posted in June this year, BL correctly state that Marxists are opposed to all forms of nationalism in the process of struggling for international socialism. They quote Lenin with his well-known statement that the national struggle of an oppressed nation against an oppressor nation has a general democratic content, and it is this content which Marxists “unconditionally support”. They go on to say that Marxists must recognise the right of nations to self-determination in its efforts to achieve the fullest possible equality between nations. Yet there is one small problem with this contention – “West Papua” is not a nation according to Marxist criteria.
The pamphlet “Marxism and the National Question” was written in 1913 by JV Stalin but was edited line by line by Lenin. The first lines of the first chapter clearly state that “a nation is not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.” In those times, the concept of ethnicity was not as prevalent as it is now. Yet it shows that any attempt to forge a West Papuan “nation” based on Papuan or Melanesian ethnicity, not to speak of Papuan or Melanesian tribes, directly contradicts the established Marxist position. And in practice the Marxist position on the national question is simply a means to work towards the ultimate surpassing of nations on the road to socialism.
Further, the pamphlet goes on to list the renowned four criteria for a nation to be recognised – to determine IF Marxists can in some circumstances, add their backing to a movement for self-determination. It lists: 1. A common language 2. A common territory 3. A common economic life or cohesion and 4. A common psychological make-up manifested as a common culture. It stresses that it is only when all four characteristics are present, a nation can be recognised. One or a couple of these characteristics is insufficient – they must have all four. And keep in mind that Marxists only recognise nations in order to take the national question off the agenda, so as to clear as many obstacles as possible to enable a working class struggle for socialism.
If we take West Papua, we see that not only does it not meet all four criteria for a nation – it does not even meet one! Take language. The whole island of Papua (including Papua New Guinea – PNG) is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world. It contains around 852 languages, although 12 of them have no known living speakers. Language is closely related to culture, and it is estimated that there are over 1000 different Papuan cultures. Even the Free West Papua campaign itself – which is not of course bound to socialism – openly states that “West Papua is home to over 250 diverse tribes, all speaking their own unique languages with unique cultures (emphasis added).” Is BL aware of this? In fact, to enable the members of over 250 tribes to converse with each other, the language they use is Bahasa Indonesian! This is where the movement for separatist independence enters into impracticality, if not farce. What would be the point of separating entirely from Indonesia (if that was possible or desirable), “liberating” oneself from the supposedly oppressive and tyrannical Indonesian colonisers, only to constitute a geographical boundary in which the lingua franca is Bahasa Indonesian?
With regard to a common territory, the entire island of Papua may be common, but for various historical reasons, the eastern half of Papua is now the nominally independent nation of Papua New Guinea. If the “Free West Papua” campaign was to achieve its objective of separatist independence, what would be the reason for maintaining two Papuas – West Papua and Papua New Guinea? If there was a successful movement (hypothetically) for West Papuan independence, wouldn’t there be a natural pressure to “liberate” Papua New Guinea – a “Papua for all Papuans” ?
Here is where the politics of “Free West Papua” are revealed. The Free West Papua campaign consciously appeals to imperialist governments directly, especially to Australia, but also via the UN. Despite PNG having attained independence from Australia in 1975, the reality of imperialism is that Australia is still the overseer. If the Papuan separatists aimed to also “free” PNG, it would meet with universal opposition from the Australian ruling class. So the Papuan separatists are not prepared to do this – they prefer to attempt a manoeuvre to lever Australian ruling class backing for West Papua against Indonesia, in a similar way to Australian government “backing” for East Timorese independence after 1999. As events later showed, Australian government “support” for East Timorese independence was also colonialist, with Australia literally stealing oil and gas reserves clearly belonging to the new nation, and being exposed as spying on East Timorese representatives during 2013 negotiations over the division of natural resources.
There is indeed a common economy in “West Papua”, but it is not the one of the allegedly oppressed nation. The only real economy operating in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua is, not surprisingly, the Indonesian economy. For better or worse, the Indonesian government and Indonesian businesses carry out the only real economic activity in all of West Papua. Granted, there is a tendency for the public and private sectors in West Papua to be largely staffed by Indonesian transmigrants. However, this is an unavoidable result of the fact that Indonesian transmigrants are generally the ones who have had the benefit of education and/or a history of skilled administration or commercial experience. This would only be a problem if it could be established – without a doubt – that Papuans were systematically and deliberately excluded from opportunities to work in such industries.
However, the Special Autonomy Law for West Papua enacted by the Indonesian government in 2001 contains sections which mandates priority employment for indigenous West Papuans in the regional civil service, as well as special quotas for the employment of indigenous West Papuans. The positions of Governor and Deputy Governor of Papua and West Papau are reserved for indigenous Papuans. Whether the special quotas for the employment of indigenous Papuans are always fulfilled in practice is a question to be investigated. Yet there cannot be a serious claim that Papuans are excluded or deliberately discouraged from public sector employment. On the contrary, there appear to be government efforts to create jobs for indigenous Papuans.
As Marxists BL would be aware of Lenin’s famous quip that socialism equals “Soviets plus electrification”. Of course, Soviets or workers’ councils are a fair way off, but how about the supply of electricity to West Papua? Electricity supply would, at least, begin to lead to a raising of living standards of West Papuans, not to speak of enabling a connection to commerce, and thus development. West Papua is largely divided between the coastal cities, where the overwhelming majority of economic activity takes place, and the rural interior, which largely operates on subsistence farming. In an attempt to address this imbalance, the Indonesian state owned electricity firm PLN last year announced its intention to connect 1123 West Papuan villages to the grid, as part of its aim to connect 100% of Indonesia by 2020. Amongst other things, this would enable some indigenous Papuans to access bank accounts for the first time. We doubt that BL would oppose the electrification of West Papua in the name of “independence”.
In Papua there is a saying “a different culture for every village”. The island of Papua, and the land referred to as West Papua is extraordinarily rich in cultures – but it is not a common culture. Common culture is the key as far as Marxist recognition of nationality is concerned. Yet West Papua is home to at least 250 different tribes, each with their own specific cultures, customs, languages and more. During Dutch colonialism, some of these tribes were relocated by force, and some of them are nomadic. BL should be aware that tribal cultures on their own, are notoriously difficult to unite into a common entity. Arguably one of the reasons for ongoing conflict and violence in Papua New Guinea is inter-tribal conflict. On the other hand, differing ethnic and national cultures can be reasonably integrated and united in a developed nation such as Australia or the USA. This is because the majority of people are working class, and the very process of working side by side someone requires co-operation and harmony. Without that base, divisions such as tribal conflict cannot be overcome.
To an extent, BL do recognise, and call for, the unity of West Papuan and Indonesian workers. They acknowledge that some Papuan nationalists are aggrieved at what they perceive to be the Indonesian government moving more Indonesian workers into Papua to solidify backing for Indonesian nationalism. They recognise that setting up Papuan workers against Indonesian workers is counter-productive, and that “closer collaboration” between the two should be the aim. We would agree. But the largest barrier to Indonesian and West Papuan working class unity is the pushing of separatist independence. What material interest do Indonesian workers have in supporting separatist independence for West Papua – if they are to be excluded? Not without reason, many Indonesian workers see West Papuan independence as being anti-Indonesian – especially if the violent tactics of the armed militia are anything to go by.
In their article, BL point to the 2011 strike at the Grasberg mine as an example of joint Indonesian and West Papuan worker co-operation in labour struggles. No doubt there are any number of labour issues at a mine operated by an overseas owned multi-national. However, even during this labour unrest, the question of separatism was right in the middle of it. Direct information is difficult to come by, but there are reports that during this unrest, separatist forces were intimidating Union leaders, even while they were conducting a strike for higher wages. What is more, there are other reports that work had to cease at the mine not due to the strike, but due to a pipeline being sabotaged by separatists. Workers striking for higher wages and salaries only would hardly sabotage the workplace which was the basis for their employment.
BL state that “Since Indonesian takeover, hundreds of thousands of Papuans have been killed in a brutal occupation.” BL repeat the claims of the “Free West Papua” movement that up to 500 000 Papuans have been killed by Indonesian armed forces over 50 years. This is the highest “genocide” figure claimed, and it is usually done on the context of demanding the presence of an international peacekeeping force – read: imperialist intervention. If this was the case, there may be a case for urgent action. There is one small problem though: the Papuan population of West Papua has doubled in the last 50 years. If this has taken place within just two and a half generations (if a generation is 20 years), no “genocide” has occurred at all.
According to a 1971 census, the Papuan population of what is now referred to by separatists as West Papua was approximately 900 000 in 1971. By the time of the 2010 census, the Papuan population was around 1.7 million, and is estimated to have now surpassed 1.8 million. There is room for debate on the exact numbers, the efficiency of census taking over different time periods and so on. Yet the trend is clear – Papuans have in fact thrived while being a part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Of course, there are many political issues that need to be addressed, such as poverty and relative underdevelopment – although some of this can be put down to the at times impenetrable jungle terrain of the Papuan highlands.
One reason why Papuans have in fact expanded their population is that the Indonesian government has, to at least some extent, recognised the development gap between West Papua and other regions of Indonesia and make some effort to overcome it. This is codified in the law which the Indonesian parliament passed in 2001, granting Special Autonomy to the Papuan provinces. In addition, Article 56 of this law enables all Papuan students to receive education up to High School at the “lowest possible cost to the community”. And Article 59 of this law stipulates that all Papuans shall be provided with health care services with the “lowest charge to the community”. No wonder their numbers are expanding. What is more, Australian working people do not even have this – their health care and education costs are rising as they are both being increasingly privatised! It is counter-intuitive to claim that the same government providing you with low-cost health care and education – for all residents, including Papuans – is also inflicting a “genocide”.
There is no “genocide in West Papua”. There is no “national liberation” struggle in West Papua either. There is a campaign of lies, deception and fraud which masquerades as a movement for “freedom”. A minority of Papuans seek to separate from Indonesia, no matter what the human or economic cost. A smaller minority of Papuans are prepared to take up arms and engage in ethnic conflict with other ethnicities which make up the state of Indonesia – up to and including violent terrorism. To interpret this scenario as something which is deserving of socialist support, not to speak of claiming the posthumous endorsement of Marx or Lenin for what is essentially ethnic conflict, is to expose oneself before facts and evidence. Genuine socialists do not seek to inflame ethnic tensions but seek to overcome them through joint struggle for a common class cause. The overall task is the forging of workers’ vanguard parties throughout Papua, Indonesia, Australia and internationally to help end ethnic and national tensions on the road to a socialist order.
PO Box 66 NUNDAH QLD 4012
 Ibid, 1.
 ibid, 7.
 ibid, 9.
 https://www.freewestpapua.org/info/about-west-papua/ (20-09-2020)
 ibid, 7.
 ibid, 7.