Thursday, August 26, 2010

Indonesia and the challenge of Papuan separatism

Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India]

If there are any symbols of Papuans’ continued quest and determination for sovereign independence1, it is their continued attachment to their flag, the Morning Star or Bintang Kejora (in Indonesian), their Anthem, Hai Tanahku Papua (in Indonesian) or Oh, My Land Papua, written by a Dutch missionary in the 1930s and the continued existence of the OPM, Papua Independence Movement since 1964. The Morning Star was first formally unveiled on 1 December 1961, symbolising the onset of the Republic of West Papua and flew till October 1962, when the former Dutch colony was transferred to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority through a deal brokered by the United States,

mainly to prevent Indonesia from joining the Soviet Camp during the Cold War. Indonesia took control of the territory in the following year and formally incorporated West Papua, renamed West Irian, into Indonesia in 1969, recognised by the United Nations. However, Papuans have continued to challenge the territory’s integration into Indonesia and a bloody struggle has ensued ever since, with supporters of Papuan independence claiming that more than 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian military. The violence has continued right to the present period and it remains illegal to fly the Bintang Kejora in Indonesia and many Papuans continue to be incarcerated for doing so.

Anatomy of Papua

Located on the easternmost part of Indonesia, geographically it constitutes one-fifth of the country but only has a population of 3 million (of which the natives constitute only 50 per cent). Indonesia, where 90 per cent of the people are Muslim, has a population of nearly 240 million. Papua is a largely Christian territory, where the Protestants constitute the majority, followed by the Catholics and then Muslims. However, tribalism is extremely dominant with more than 265 tribes representing the Putra Daerah or Sons of the Soil
(natives). Yet, the territory is extremely rich in natural resources, especially oil, gas, gold and copper. It is also geo-strategically important, bordering on land with Papua New Guinea and fronting the Pacific Ocean.

Explaining Papuans’ Desire for Independence

Even though Indonesia declared independence in August 1945 and had to fight the Dutch to gain complete sovereignty in December 1949, the Dutch only surrendered Papua in October 1962. This represents an important historical anomaly as Papua remained for another 12 years as a Dutch colony compared to the rest of Indonesia. This provided the Dutch ample time to develop a local Papuan elite that was committed to independence and hence the importance of the Morning Star, National Anthem, not to mention a rudimentary Parliament that was formed in Jayapura in 1961.

However, due to the Cold War, President Kennedy succeeded in pressurising the Dutch to surrender the territory in 1962 and Indonesia, with the support of the West, legitimately gained control of the territory by 1969. However, this was largely undertaken against the wishes of the Papuan elites and hence the continued struggle for Merdeka or independence ever since.

From the perspective of Papuans, there are a number of grievances that have provided a catalyst and triggered their demands for independence. First, the sense of historical injustice when Papua was handed over to Indonesia by the Dutch in 1962 without consulting Papuan elites and later, the fraudulent manner in which the referendum, called Act of Free Choice (but what the Papuans call Act of No Choice) was held in 1969. Thus, for the Papuans, Indonesia is an illegal colonizer and the territory’s status should be reviewed through a referendum. Second, gross unhappiness in the manner Jakarta has flooded the territory with non-Papuans, mostly Muslims, thereby creating what Papuans refer to as ‘demographic and cultural genocide’ and where they are fast becoming minorities in their own land. This has also intensified social-cultural conflicts between the natives (Putra Daerah) and the transmigrants (Pendatangs), the latter usually backed by officialdom. Third, demographically, Papuans feel discriminated against, with the majority Malay Indonesians looking down on the Melanesian Papuans (for their dress code, eating and drinking habits, etc) and worst still, most privileges being given to the former at the expense of the latter.

Fourth, there is the rising impoverisation of the Papuans. Despite the immense wealth of the territory, Papuans are among the poorest in Indonesia. Instead, the wealth is sucked out to benefit non-Papuans and foreigners, who in alliance with Jakarta, continue to benefit from Jakarta’s rule over the territory. The operation of Freeport McMoran, the world’s largest gold mine operator, is a case in point. Fifth, Papuans are also in rage as the territory’s environment has been pillaged and more important, the forest, which for the Papuans is not only a community property but also important religiously, being plundered. Finally, most blatant of all, has been the immense human rights violations undertaken continuously by almost every government in power in Jakarta since the days of Sukarno. Papuans have continued to suffer as Indonesia has continued to treat the territory as a colony and where any form of opposition, peaceful or otherwise, is dealt with brutally. Indonesians refer to this as the ‘security approach’ to development and Indonesia’s democratization in 1998 has not really altered much as far as Papua is concerned. Many Papuan leaders have been murdered by the Indonesian military, such as Theys Eluay in November 2001. The continued existence, despite weaknesses, of the Papua Independence Movement, is a testimony of Papuans’ willingness to take to arms to achieve their goal of independence. In short, injustice, intolerance, exploitation and violence are the main drivers that have motivated Papuans to seek an alternative future for themselves.

Why is Indonesia Unwilling to give in to Papuan Separatists?

Papua is not only strategically vital, being a land, air and maritime border zone, but probably more important is the immense wealth it posseses. Jakarta depends on Papua for the bulk of its revenue and Papua is probably Indonesia’s most important ‘golden goose’. It would be a strategic and economic disaster if the territory were to be lost. Also,Indonesians view Papua as an integral part of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia and any leader even contemplating giving independence to Papua would be viewed as a national traitor, a price President Habibie paid for East Timor’s independence. At the same time, despite Papuans’ unhappiness, the bulk of the international community continues to support Indonesia’s ownership of Papua given that Indonesia is much more important than Papua. Jakarta leaders have also argued that to give in to Papuans’ demand for independence would open the Pandora’s Box leading others to demand likewise, resulting in the break-up of Indonesia. In the final analysis, it is the simple issue of political, economic and military asymmetry, and where the Papuans are simply not in a position to challenge and dislodge Indonesia. As such, while Indonesia is unprepared to abandon the
territory and most Papuans are unhappy to remain in Indonesia, the impasse cannot be broken due to the paralysis both parties find themselves in.

Indonesia’s Peace Overtures

Following the collapse of Suharto’s New Order and the onset of democratic Indonesia, Jakarta has made peace with other separatists, be it in East Timor (through a referendum leading to independence) or with Aceh (leading to greater autonomy and local rule). In the same vein, Jakarta has peddled what is referred to as Autonomi Khusus or Special Autonomy in 2001, to meet half way Papuan grievances and demands, and rejected a referendum a la East Timor as was demanded by Papuan activists, fearing a break up Indonesia. While Papuans have gained much in terms of Special Autonomy funds (5 trillion Indonesia Rupiahs to date), the territory remains backward as the bulk of the money is used for administration and pilfered through corruption. At the same time, despite agreeing to a Special Autonomy status for Papua, Jakarta has continuously undermined it. First, without consulting the local administrative bodies, as was provided for in the Special Autonomy arrangements, Jakarta divided Papua into three administrative provinces even though later the Constitutional Court deemed this illegal but two provinces remain in operation today. Second, despite agreeing to permit Papuans to display their cultural attributes, Jakarta reneged on this, arguing that it was promoting separatism, especially with regard to the display of the Morning Star and singing of Hai Tanahku Papua. In short, Papuans continue to view Jakarta in bad faith and this is the main reason why the Cendrawasih (Bird of Paradise) symbolising Papua, continues to fear the Garuda, symbolising Indonesia.

Papuans Remain Unsatisfied and Suspicious

While some Papuan elites accepted the Special Autonomy proposal, eventually, most in Papua were unhappy as hardliners in Jakarta believed that too much had already been given to the Papuans and that if no ‘roll-back’ takes place it will only be a matter of time before Papuan independence becomes a reality. Also, most Papuans do not see any major improvement in their livelihood, especially the violence against them by the military, police and intelligence apparatus. Instead, many Papuans would prefer to internationalise their plight and seek a third party to settle the issue as they do not trust the Jakarta elites and Indonesians in general. Jakarta, instead, realising that the Papuans are being lost, has tried to launch various ‘peace talks’, organised by the Coordinating Ministry for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs, the Indonesian Intelligence Agency, Home Affairs and even Indonesian Resilience Agency (linked to the Defence Ministry) but with no success. Incumbent President Bambang Yudhoyono has tasked the Indonesian Institute of Sciences to draw up a ‘road map’ for Papua’s future, but again little progress has been made. All these Indonesian measures are aimed at circumventing internationalization of the Papuan issue, which most Papuan elites demand but which Jakarta has been unwilling to agree even though with regard to the Aceh settlement, a third party, with the support of the Norwegian Government, succeeded in making a breakthrough. Papuans are hoping for a similar opportunity so as to ensure that the agreement reached between Jakarta and themselves will be honoured.

In the meantime, as the deadlock continues, Papua continues to burn. Violence by the security apparatus against Papuans continues to be reported, with the military and police hunting the new separatist leader, Goliat Tabuni, who succeeded Kelly Kwalik, who was shot dead in December 2009 by security forces. With little or no hope of progress, with the abuses and violence continuing, the traditional separatist leaders are also losing their grip over their followers, with many of these leaders accused of being covert operatives for Jakarta. Amidst the continuing violence, Jakarta is rumoured to be thinking of creating additional provinces in the territory, in a traditional game of divide and rule, to weaken Papuan nationalism and quest for independence. This has, instead, led to the rise of new radical and hard-line younger leaders who are prepared to raise the stakes through greater violence, to make Jakarta pay more dearly, and more importantly bring the fight to Jakarta so that Indonesians and the world community will pay greater attention to their plight. In short, the HAMAS of Papua seems to be surfacing and if Jakarta continues to neglect Papuans’ demands, the struggle is likely to worsen, at great cost of life to both Papuans and Indonesians as a whole, and where the international community, with stakes in Papua and Indonesia, will also be affected. Not only will Indonesia’s democracy but more importantly the very idea of Indonesia as a unitary state will probably be under stress and test.

1. For deeper insights into the Papuan conundrum see Bilveer Singh, Papua: Geopolitics and the Quest for Nationhood (New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Press, 2008). Bilveer Singh


  1. Correction - to this otherwise excellent article, a credit to the IDSA.

    West Papua is a colony, legally it's still a Dutch colony. The US deal which the Netherlands was forced to sign in 1962 was contrary to the previous agreements of the parties under the UN charter, UN resolutions 1514 and 1541, and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like East Timor, this colony is entitled to human rights & the 1514 agreement that UN members will remove their "repressive measures of all kinds" from the colony so that an act of Self-determination can be conducted.


The US deal has delayed self-determination for 48 years, in it's place the US wanted Indonesia to conduct it's own "Act" after a seven year delay. For 48 sessions of the UN assembly our governments have failed to ask the ICJ for it's independent legal opinion about the US deal and whether West Papua is a colony.


Indonesia has purportedly 'asked' Vanuatu not to ask that question at the UN this year. Indonesia would have no choice but to allow self-determination in accord with the previous agreements. Both the Soviet Union & Indonesia stretched across two continents, it is time to end those empires; time to allow West Papua to have it's freedom.

  2. Hello Everybody,
    My name is Mrs Sharon Sim. I live in singapore and i am a happy woman today? and i told my self that any lender that rescue my family from our poor situation, i will refer any person that is looking for loan to him, he gave me happiness to me and my family, i was in need of a loan of S$250,000.00 to start my life all over as i am a single mother with 3 kids I met this honest and GOD fearing man loan lender that help me with a loan of S$250,000.00 SG. Dollar, he is a GOD fearing man, if you are in need of loan and you will pay back the loan please contact him tell him that is Mrs Sharon, that refer you to him. contact Dr Purva Pius,via email:( +918376918351 Thank you.