MERDEKA! Struggle and survival in West Papua

International, Ben Hillier, 29 January 2015

Simon Degei sat amid the ground cover, a gaping hole in his right shoulder obscured by a bloodied tank-top, and his face covered in dirt. It is difficult to tell from the picture precisely how long he had left. But Degei is looking to the sky and his gaze is distant; these are his last moments. The 18 year old reportedly bled to death somewhere near the Enarotali airport, Paniai regency, in West Paua’s central highlands.

It was 8 December last year. Indonesian security forces had opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at Karel Bonay football field, near the local police station. They were protesting against army violence. Four other teenagers died from gunshot wounds at the scene. A sixth victim died in hospital two days later. At least 17 others, including five primary school children, were wounded, according to reports.

A number of inquiries have been announced, but the 1997 Law on Military Courts blocks civilian investigators from interviewing military personnel. According to Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, there also is a “climate of fear … [that] inhibits local people from publicly discussing security force abuses”.

Indonesia maintains strict control over reporting from West Papua. Foreign journalists are banned; local reporters face intimidation. Yet the government can’t stop the flow of information about the atrocities being committed. Those with mobile phones now document events and distribute the images via social media to international solidarity campaigners and media outlets.

In January, there was another crackdown. More than 100 people were arrested, some tortured, and scores chased from their burning homes in Utikini village, in the Timika region south of Grasberg Mountain – the largest gold mine in the world. In another village, Banti, Indonesian soldiers burned down homes and chased locals into the nearby jungle.

The following day, a young man in Mapurujaya village (also Timika region) was attacked. “He was stabbed in the head with a sharp instrument and his cerebellum was pierced”, reported the Free West Papua campaign on 15 January. “He is now in a coma in hospital.” Survival International, an NGO that advocates for the rights of tribal people, has received reports that another man, Jekson Waker, was shot in the feet to “keep him still”.

The number of dead has mounted during Indonesia’s 50-year occupation. Sydney University researchers John Wing and Peter King estimate that at least 100,000 have been killed. Exiled independence leader Benny Wenda claims that the number is half a million. They are victims of what has been called slow-burn genocide.

Descriptions of the killing carry echoes of King Leopold’s Congo. When Australian journalist John Martinkus travelled to the region in 2002, Peter Tabuni, a resistance fighter who had spent decades in jungle camps, showed him a file recounting the Indonesian slaughter during the Baliem Valley insurgency in the late 1970s. “Pages of detailed gruesome information followed”, Martinkus wrote.

“They don’t just kill with a gun”, Tabuni told him. “One man I saw still alive they burnt his head and feet and they wire his hands together and they cook him over a fire and then they put a hot iron over his body. They cut the hand and ear of some and cook it on the fire and give it to them to eat.”

Added to the loss of life are torture and detention of activists, rape and mutilation of women, deliberate introduction of HIV into the population, land theft and crop destruction, cultural desecration, and denial of freedom of speech and assembly.

A colonial legacy

The situation today is a legacy not only of decades of Indonesian occupation, but of the battles Indonesians themselves waged to be free of colonial rule. The country’s four-year War of Independence officially ended when the Dutch relinquished sovereignty over the archipelago in late 1949. But millions of Indonesians continued campaigning against lingering colonial influence. In the mid- to late 1950s, workers occupied Dutch-owned companies, which were eventually nationalised, and the Indonesian government repudiated its debt to Holland.

However, the western half of the large island of New Guinea, directly to the north of Australia, remained administered by the Europeans. It was known to the Indonesians as West Irian, the latter word being an acronym of “Ikut Republik Indonesia Anti-Nederland” (follow Indonesia against the Netherlands). Later it would be renamed Irian Jaya, “Victorious Irian”. The new republic claimed it as part of the United States of Indonesia.

Sensing that their grip was loosening, the Dutch reasoned that the only way to maintain influence in the territory would be through a neo-colonial state – nominally under Papuan rule but in reality dominated by Dutch interests. They educated and trained a layer of Papuans, developed the administrative apparatus and built infrastructure to support it: airfields, ports, housing, roads, sanitation and communication. Mostly this was in the capital Hollandia (later renamed Jayapura – “Victory City”).

By the early 1960s, just 25 percent of the bureaucracy was staffed by Europeans. More than 15,000 Papuans were employed in administration and the private sector. Included in that number were more than 5,000 public servants, the vast bulk in lower ranking positions. Historian Peter Drooglever, who has meticulously researched Dutch rule in West Papua, estimates that, at the top, there were “little under a thousand individuals who at the end of the Dutch period formed the crystallising Papuan elite”.

Increasingly it was clear that Indonesia was going to take the territory. President Sukarno gave an incendiary speech at Jogjakarta in December 1961: “[T]he Dutch undertook to recognise sovereignty, independence, over the whole of that Indonesia, ‘irrevocable’ and ‘unconditional’ … This was a huge lie, a great deception … I have already given the order to the entire Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia … to get themselves ready so that at any moment I give you the command, you liberate West Irian from the stranglehold of Dutch imperialism.”

The words might now seem soaked with historical irony. Yet at the time, Indonesia was a beacon in the global anti-colonial movement. Indeed, a section of the Papuan elite were pro-integration. As historian Peter Savage has written, “Some saw through the Dutch ploy and were not content with ‘flag nationalism’. They turned their attention instead to the new-born Republic … seeing there a genuinely anti-(rather than neo-)colonial nationalism.” The Indonesian leaders thought similarly: Papuan nationalism was a Dutch ruse to maintain the remnants of empire. Certainly the colonists thought so, but where did that leave the Papuans? The overwhelming majority did not identify with either side. They were not Indonesian or European, but Melanesian (Pacific Islander).

When the New York Agreement was signed in August 1962, stipulating a transfer of administrative control, first to a UN Temporary Executive Authority, then to Indonesia in 1963, some Papuans began to argue for a unilateral declaration of independence. At the very least, reasoned others, a vote on self-determination should occur during the transition period so it could be carried out by the UN. They were right to be worried but wrong to place their faith in the “community of nations”.

The New York Agreement was a Cold War manoeuvre by the US to undermine Soviet influence. The Russians were providing arms to the Indonesian military and, adding to US nervousness, the Indonesian Communist Party was the largest in the world, outside of the nominally communist countries. The agreement instructed the Indonesian administration to “give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice … before the end of 1969”. But it left a great deal unclear and didn’t contain the words “referendum” or “plebiscite”, preferring the bureaucrat-speak of “consultations”. This was no accident.

As Indonesians took over the administration under the UN’s watch, restrictions on movement and assembly were instituted. The new regime cleared the decks. “Only a limited number of Papuans continued serving in the bodies that had existed before”, writes Drooglever.

Great changes were also taking place in Indonesia, where a bloody right wing military coup occurred in 1965. The left was liquidated as up to 1 million were slaughtered. Two years later, General Suharto’s government presided over Operation Tampas (“Destroy”) in Manokwari. There are varying reports of hundreds or up to 3,000 killed to suppress a resistance movement of some 10,000. Suharto also illegally granted Freeport Sulphur a mining concession covering 10,000 hectares around Ertsberg Mountain in the central highlands, where the company had earlier discovered “the largest above-ground outcrop of base metal ore in the world”.

The new Indonesian regime followed through with the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice in 1969. It was a farce. Papuans refer to it as the “Act of No Choice”. Prior to the vote, Suharto declared that the “return of West Irian into the fold of the motherland” could not be undone. Behind closed doors, the UN agreed. Thousands were killed as the military unleashed a wave of intimidation in the lead-up to the vote.

Just over 1,000 handpicked Papuans out of a population of more than 700,000 were allowed to participate. One recounted to a reporter for the documentary West Papua – the secret war in Asia in 2007: “The head of the Indonesian military unit spoke to each of us, one by one … ‘You have to choose Indonesia, not Papua.’ Then he put a gun to the head of each of us and threatened: ‘If you don’t choose Indonesia then I will kill you, all of you!’”

This act of betrayal has framed the narrative of the nationalist movement ever since.


In 1961 a national anthem, “Oh my land Papua”, was sung and a national flag, the Morning Star Flag, was raised at the first Papuan People’s Congress in Hollandia. Today, Papuans view the proceedings as a declaration of independence. At the time, however, the ceremony had limited impact. Richard Chauvel, a leading scholar on West Papua, writes: “Those involved … had been drawn primarily from a small elite that had been educated, politicised, and employed in the urban centres … From the perspective of today, they were the pioneers of Papuan nationalism … Most people thought not in terms of Papua, but in terms of locality and region.”

Hundreds of Indonesian paratroopers were soon landing in anticipation of the takeover. The Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka – OPM), the umbrella under which most of the independence movement would be organised, was formed several years later. After the Act of No Choice, resistance became widespread but remained localised. It would take time for a broad nationalist movement to crystallise.

Mass protests were put down in the heavily policed cities. The strength of the Indonesian military turned many to the guerrilla struggle – the interior of the country was largely inaccessible and the border region with Papua New Guinea provided a safe exit in the event of a major offensive. The downside to this strategy was the retreat from the centres of power.

In 1971, OPM leaders Seth Rumkorem and Jacob Prai unilaterally declared independence. It didn’t result in a territory-wide uprising. Indeed it seemed to come out of nowhere, with little consultation. It is nevertheless considered an important development. “With the declaration of independence it was apparent that the feelings of West Papuan nationalism that had manifested themselves in spontaneous uprisings against the government through the 1960s had evolved into a much more definite form”, Australian author Jim Elmslie wrote in Irian Jaya under the gun. “A semi-professional full time core of guerrilla soldiers was now operating against the Indonesian government under an agreed constitution … From being only an amorphous feeling of outrage, West Papuan nationalism had become a purposeful social, political and military movement.”

The nationalists still were weakly organised, and the guerrillas would never be in a position to challenge the power of the Indonesian state. Besides, the strategy was self-limiting: every act of resistance was met with military reprisals against local villages. Hundreds, even thousands, could be killed for every guerrilla transgression. Such a burden of responsibility meant that actions had to be calculated. Nevertheless, the resistance represented defiance and unbending determination; living proof that sovereignty was never ceded.

The OPM suffered a debilitating split in the 1970s. Vicious factional infighting between Rumkorem and Prai resulted in up to 10,000 deaths. Papuans were killing Papuans. “We had to forget the jungle strategy”, says Jacob Rumbiak, who at the time was a young nationalist leader. Today he is foreign minister of the Federal Republic of West Papua (FRWP), which was declared in 2011 at the third Papuan People’s Congress.

The FRWP is located in the homeland, but Rumbiak’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Trade is situated in Melbourne’s Docklands, a model of neoliberal development that has transformed a degraded port precinct into a corporate hub. It is a far cry from the camps from which, at age 11, he commanded a guerrilla unit in the 1960s. There were more experienced and older candidates for leadership, he says. But the OPM wanted to promote and train the youth.

Rumbiak gained a scholarship to study in Bandung, Java, in the mid-1970s. From 1982, he began educating Bandung-based Papuan students in West Papuan history. For a national movement to succeed, he reasoned, mass nationalist consciousness was required. “At the time our leaders, like Rumkorem and Prai, had groups. But information to the ground? Zero. The leader only [was informed]. I didn’t agree. I was told it’s too dangerous, why would you try and organise in Java? I said, ‘I’m a soccer player. I can play at home and I can play at my competitor’s home. This struggle is similar.’”

Rumbiak is matter of fact about the strategic choices. But underneath his jovial and welcoming exterior stands a man who endured torture for a decade in Indonesian prisons. Ironically, only when he later returned home to organise was he taken captive.

West Papua is home to hundreds of different languages, and cultural groups that often view each other with suspicion. Rumbiak’s idea was straightforward enough: secretly, he and others, including his soon to be executed cousin, the anthropologist and musician Arnold Ap, would select students from as wide a range of villages as possible. When the students went home for holidays, it would be their responsibility to raise the consciousness of their kin in West Papua and overcome local and regional divisions. “They had to look with both eyes, not just their tribe’s eye.” He was confident of this approach because, he says, regardless of the tribal differences, each shares a fundamental world outlook in which Spirit, land and culture are united. That, he believed, was the key to creating a unified movement of Melanesians for an independent West Papua.

The education project also was predicated on the experience of Indonesian brutality. Shared oppression fostered common identity. Today, writes Chauvel, “a Papuan national movement featuring a pan-Papuan identity and a commitment to an independent Papua has spread from the small, educated urban elite that gave birth to it to become a Papua-wide movement with roots in the villages. In addition, the educated elite that leads the movement is much more numerous, skilled, and politically experienced than it was when Indonesia assumed control in 1963.”

Nevertheless, regional identities and differences remain strong. Clan traditions reportedly continue to play a role in factional politics within the resistance. Competing organisational loyalties also are underwritten by differences in politics and strategy. There are many different factions, some armed, others committed to non-violence. The FRWP was proclaimed by a gathering of 5,000. Yet it is difficult to tell exactly how broad its social base is on the island, which is home to around two million Melanesians. The structure of the OPM and the number of guerrillas under arms similarly is difficult to discern, but there are a number of regional commands throughout West Papua.

In December a new umbrella organisation – the United Liberation Movement for West Papua – was formed in an attempt to present a common voice of these various factions within the independence movement.

The Indonesian vice

Despite heroic resistance and the development of a common movement, after more than 50 years Indonesia’s control over the territory has been strengthened. There were great expectations in the wake of the 1998 Indonesian protest movement, which ended Suharto’s dictatorship, and East Timor’s independence vote the following year. A Special Autonomy Law was negotiated in 2001, under president Abdurrahman Wahid, but wasn’t implemented after he was forced from office by an alliance between Megawati’s centre-right “nationalists” and the centre-right Islamic parties.

Indonesia’s grip remains vice-like for a number of reasons. One is that, for Indonesia’s military, West Papua is the last fiefdom. Since 1998, the military more and more has been pushed to the margins of national political life. It has lost its representation in parliament. It had to withdraw all its non-Acehnese forces from Aceh. It is no longer deployed against protesters or to enforce political bans. Papua is an exception, the area it has been able to hold against civilian rule.

Another relates to the state’s territorial integrity. There is little chance of the balkanisation of the archipelago today, but foreign minister Subandrio’s words to the UN Political Committee in 1957 retain a certain logic: “Self-determination with regard to West Irian would mean in fact that we should accept also the same concept with regard to the other islands or regions of Indonesia.”

Another is the economics of the region. West Papua is, quite literally, a gold mine. In 1991, Freeport’s lease was widened to 2.6 million hectares after a mammoth ore discovery at Grasberg Mountain – more than 30 times the size of the original find at Ertsberg. Freeport is one of the largest individual sources of revenue for the treasury. Grasberg also is one of the last gravy trains of the military. A New York Times investigation in 2005 found that, over the previous six years, “Freeport gave military and police generals, colonels, majors and captains, and military units, nearly $20 million. Individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars, in one case up to $150,000.”


West Papuans face more than just the violence and intransigence of the Indonesian state. The slogan of the nationalist movement is Merdeka, which also was the battle-cry of the Indonesian revolutionaries as they fought Dutch colonialism in the 1940s. Often it is translated as “independence”, yet Chauvel points out that “Papua has objectives in addition to that of political sovereignty. Some have argued that Merdeka … means not just political independence but freedom, and freedom has been defined variously as freedom from poverty, ignorance, political repression, and abuse of human rights.”

Max Lane, author of Unfinished nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto, says that the competing claims reflect a complex situation on the ground, which doesn’t necessarily afford broad support to a single political project. “Any manifestation of opposition gets widespread support, but the politics of the actual population is fractured”, he says, speaking over the phone in Melbourne. “Despite these fractures and contradictions, while the Indonesian state, through its military, treats Melanesian Papuans as an occupied people, they will increasingly feel foreign. Among the most politicised sector, university students, political nationalism is strong.”

Undoubtedly the overwhelming majority support a free West Papua. But the political and strategic differences, which partly underwrite the various organisational loyalties, are themselves informed by competing visions of Merdeka. What does the latter look like concretely? For many highlanders, it means an end to brutality and killing. Educated urbanites, however, may have different immediate concerns, such as an end to discrimination in government hiring.

Another complicating factor is the immigration of hundreds of thousands from around the archipelago. Non-Melanesians made up just 2.5 percent of the population in 1960. Elmslie, who also co-founded the West Papua Project at the Sydney University Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, estimates that the West Papuans are today likely a minority in their own land. Even if that is not yet the case, certainly in the cities – the centres of government – they have been marginalised, as Martinkus’s description of Jayapura in 2002 indicates: “Traders from Sulawesi, Java and Bali cram into the two main streets that run down to the harbour … There is barely a Papuan face to be seen among the crowds that loiter every night.”

His impression overstates reality – West Papuans make up at least a large minority in the capital. Reality nevertheless poses an immense dilemma: how to conceptualise, let alone achieve, Merdeka in a multi-ethnic territory with competing national allegiances? Has the moment for independence passed? Jacob Rumbiak insists that it has not. “Even if we are 10 percent of the population, we will achieve it. We will fight for two years, 100 years if necessary”. After 50 years of struggle, his conviction is as strong as ever. But if he is wrong, what road for a marginalised nation without a state of its own?

Papuans at a minimum deserve full freedom of speech and organisation, including the right to advocate independence, the withdrawal of the Indonesian military, the release of all political prisoners and an end to discrimination. Could these be realised within the framework of Indonesian rule? For many Papuans it is scarcely believable. That is precisely the appeal of the demand for independence through a direct vote to right the wrong that was perpetrated in 1969.

There is another, more audacious, path that may open in coming years.

The revolutionary republic of Indonesia adopted the motto “unity in diversity”. The vision would have been limited in practice by the political project of establishing a centre of capital accumulation outside of European rule; as it was, its content was totally emptied by military dictatorship, which crushed the movement that could have given life to the words. The price of national unity under Suharto was hundreds of thousands, or more, slaughtered.

Today, workers, farmers, students and oppressed groups continue to cop the repressive heel of the Indonesian state. But the workers’ movement in Java is being reborn. A student movement also has continued since the fall of Suharto. This underscores the potential of a broad alliance from Jayapura through Jakarta to Banda Aceh – multiple insurgencies in a united struggle for economic, social and political rights. The power of unity in the service of diverse and progressive claims would be immense.

The events of 1998 were only a glimpse of that potential. The vision of another Indonesian revolution is compelling precisely because of the precedents. Down that road lies Merdeka, not just for some two million West Papuans, but for several hundred million toilers across the archipelago.

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