Formerly known as Irian Jaya, it was annexed by Indonesia in 1963, a move formalised six years later with a widely discredited vote known as the Act of Free Choice, which was supervised by the United Nations (UN).
Only 1,063 people voted, most of whom were selected by the military and compelled to vote in favour of Indonesian annexation.
Over the decades, widespread criticism of the Indonesian government’s human rights record in the Papua region has become commonplace.
Pro-independence activists have been tortured, murdered, or have gone missing, with no arrests or prosecutions carried out.
Added to this imbroglio is the experience of conflict that local separatists face with the Indonesian authorities. In fact, Jakarta’s military has been accused of atrocities amounting to genocide against the Papuan population.
Reports have surfaced about the prosecution of dissidents who have been accused of supporting West Papua’s fight for independence.
This includes the jailing of activists for raising the ‘Morning Star’ flag, a strong symbol of hope and freedom for the people of West Papua.
Such a situation has led many to think that Indonesia views West Papua as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
It is ironic that West Papua is one of the most financially backward provinces in Indonesia despite being one of the most mineral-laden locations in the world.
A fundamental contention among West Papuans with regards to Indonesian rule is that they are not recognised as being indigenous to the land they live on.
This ruling renders the people of West Papua utterly helpless in the face of forced development and transmigration policies.
With this status quo, Jakarta is absolved of any obligations under international instruments and mechanisms.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) is an organisation that aims to remove the shackles of Indonesian rule from the people of West Papua; striving for the liberation of the west half of greater New Guinea Island.
“I think the Indonesian government will increase its efforts to block the ULMWP,” said Jakarta-based Human Rights Watch researcher, Andreas Harsono. He added that Indonesia could even go to the extent of boycotting businesses which support West Papua.
In September of 2017, the leader of the ULMWP, Benny Wenda organised the collection of signatures as part of the West Papuan People’s Petition to be presented to the UN – a move that was banned by the Indonesian government. However, the petition was smuggled out of Papua. This was seen as a concerted effort to gain independence from Indonesia.
Much to the frustration of the signatories, Wenda’s efforts in securing a seat on the UN Decolonisation Committee came to naught as the move only won support from eight countries, all of which are small Caribbean and Pacific island states.
Wenda, who was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003, is adamant in his claims that for decades, the people of West Papua have been denied their fundamental right to self-determination. As such, the signing of the aforementioned petition was a true expression of the (West) Papuan’s desire for freedom.
“In the West Papuan people’s Petition we hand over the bones of the people of West Papua to the United Nations and the world,” exiled independence leader Benny Wenda exclaimed to the UN when the petition was handed over.
In a related incident, Yanto Awerkion, Deputy Chairman of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) in Timika was arrested on 30 May, 2017 for speaking at a local gathering in which he announced that an incredible number of signatures were collected for the West Papuan People’s Petition. His detention is indicative of Indonesia’s stranglehold on matters at hand, clinging on to a province that wants to break away from its oppressive rule.
As the incessant struggle for West Papuan independence intensifies, there is a collective need to look at the issue objectively. It is imperative that representatives from both sides – Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and leaders from the tumultuous province – come to the negotiating table and stop the unnecessary bloodshed that has become the hallmark of the relationship between Jakarta and West Papua.
* Arief Subhan is a Research Assistant for the Political Futures Experts Group (PFEG) based at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC)
**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.