Since the subject of West Papua is such a complex story with many interlinked components, any collection of information is bound to be quite extensive. In order to maintain a manageable length, this page consists of a general outline of the essential information.
Eager to discover more? Take a look at the list of relevant information like documentaries, archive material, and books at the end. Please use the index on the left to quickly navigate between different collections.
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The native land of the Papuans, the island of New Guinea, is the second-largest island in the world, located just north of Australia. With its tropical climate and a vast variety of landscapes, it has become an unusual hotspot for biodiversity to thrive. Its rainforest is the third-largest in the world after the Amazone and the Congo. It houses a staggering amount of endemic species like birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, carnivorous mice, giant pigeons, and many more.
With the island being excluded from any other landmass the indigenous population has developed into an extreme ethnic diversity. Linguistic research shows that in West Papua alone, 274 living languages are found with most of them having less than 3000 speakers each. The reason for this uncommon diversity is the geography of the landscape, which is full of natural barriers, causing tribes to evolve with almost no interaction with others. Tribe wars were also an inherent part of life on the island, making them even more isolated.
But it’s bio- and ethnic diversity is not the only thing that makes New Guinea a very valuable island. The land is rich in natural resources, like timber, gold, silver, and copper. The exploitation of these resources is carving a new sort of landscape which, sadly, is destroying the flora and fauna step by step. Half of the 22 million hectares of forests are classified as ‘production forest’ which makes it susceptible to deforestation. The Grasberg mine, which is located in West Papua, holds the largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine in the world.
It is important to note that not only Papuans are facing contemporary challenges like modernization, commercial developments, lack of secure rights to land, and migration. As Western civilizations started discovering every corner of the world, coming in contact with many indigenous cultures in the process, they laid the foundation for its eradication as they tried to modernize the native tribes. Native Papuans, Americans, Hawaiians, Aboriginals, Alaskans, Maori, and many more share one similarity, the thread of extension. But why should we prioritize the preservation of their cultures over modernization?
Even though indigenous cultures only are 5% of the global population they safeguard 80% of the world's biodiversity, which has, along with their cultures, never declined faster than at any other period in human history. They play a crucial role in the preservation of ecosystems as living in harmony with nature is a fundamental part of their way of life. It is no surprise that the biodiversity is declining less rapidly on the lands managed by them.
The effects of climate change are becoming more noticeable every year with new drought and heat records almost being a guarantee. A lot is done to develop solutions for our own countries but climate change doesn’t recognize national borders, and neither should we. The knowledge of native tribes plays an essential role in the rescue of the world’s biggest natural anti-venom against climate change, our rainforests. Save the rainforests in New Guinea, the Amazon, and the Congo but don’t forget those who have lived in them, in respect and balance with nature, since the dawn of mankind.
The island of New Guinea has been home to one of the very first civilizations with excavations finding evidence dating back as far as 50,000 years old. The island remained undiscovered until the start of the age of exploration with Inigo Ortiz de Retes, a Spanish explorer, being the first to report sighting of the island. He named the area Nueva Guinea as the inhabitants of the land reminded him of Guinea in West Africa. The valuable spices of Java, Molucca, and Papua would make the islands a great interest for the Dutch VOC as they made huge profits from trading them. There is even an Indonesian saying about the spice hunt of the colonizers: ‘Banyak gula, banyak semut’ meaning where there is a lot of sugar, ants will come. The Dutch reign over the area lasted for over 300 years until the Japanese invasion started in 1941.
Dutch New Guinea
As the area had been liberated from their colonizer the Indonesian independence movement saw and took their opportunity, declaring their own independence on the 17th of August in 1945. When the Japanese left the area the Dutch still claimed right to the land. This caused a conflict between the two nations that could result in another war. Through international pressure, the two nations were forced to sit down during the ‘Round Table Conference’. During these discussions, Indonesia argued that the whole of the Dutch East Indies, including Dutch New Guinea belonged to Indonesia. The Dutch, in turn, argued that the Papuans were Melanesian and ethnically and culturally completely different from the Asian Indonesians. They also stated that the population was heavily underdeveloped and wanted to prepare them for eventually choosing their own fate: To become an independent nation or to become a part of the Republic of Indonesia. This laid the foundation for future confrontations from 1950 till 1962. Eventually, the Dutch recognized the Indonesian independence in 1949 while Papua became the final frontier of Dutch colonialism.
West Papua as a sovereign nation
During the 1950s the Dutch started the process of decolonization by investing in the development of the nation’s prospect sovereignty and promoting Papuan nationalism. Schools and colleges were built with the goal to reach independence in the 1970s.
On the other side of the world, a new president was elected as of January 1961, John F. Kennedy. Along with him came new employees that advocated a different policy. Their previous stance on completely supporting the Dutch on the New Guinea issue would completely change. As the US didn’t want the West to face Asia, they hoped to resolve any confrontation peacefully. They knew that the Soviet Union exploited the conflict between the two nations as they supplied Indonesia with weapons, hoping to enforce their influence in Asia.
Both the Dutch and Indonesia were invited to the White House to discuss the issue but sadly without result. Surprisingly the Dutch Prince, Bernhard van Lippe-Biesterfeld, visited a day later. Bernhard, who had close ties with large businesses, had several secret talks with the US where he stressed that the Dutch hoped for a way out and ending their responsibility for the area. He illegally blindsided the Dutch government with, for example, the ‘P.B. Proposal’, in order to make deals with American NGOs for the natural resources of Papua. His activities were later exposed by Elseviers weekly which caused a significant discussion in the Royal family.
As the nations were not able to come to an agreement president Sukarno from Indonesia had called on the population by radio to prepare for a massive attack on New Guinea, causing the US to kindly force the Dutch into an agreement. This agreement, called ‘Plan Bunker’, named after the American diplomat Ellsworth Bunker that led the negotiations, eventually led to the signing of ‘The New York Agreement’ which described that New Guinea was to be transferred to the temporary UN power UNTEA until ‘The Act of Free Choice’ referendum was conducted and completed. When the UN-appointed Ambassador Fernando Ortiz Sanz arrived in Jakarta the negotiations with Indonesia began on how to orchestrate the referendum. A confidential from the US Embassy had been appointed to report on the process and in June 1969, just before the referendum, a telegram was sent back to the US stating:
“The Act of Free Choice in West Irian (West Papua) is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the GOI (Government of Indonesia), cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it.”
1026 handpicked tribal leaders, out of 800,000 Papuans, were chosen and formed a council that was forced to vote for a pro-Indonesian outcome, sealing the fate of the Papuans and their independence. They still this day describe this referendum as an ‘Act of No Choice’ with the UN only ‘taking note’ of the undemocratic process. When Papuan Councillors got wind of the Dutch plans to hand over the country to the UN they elected a National Committee, which produced and choose a manifesto, flag, state seal, and a national anthem. While the fate of the country was already sealed, the Morningstar flag was raised beside the Dutch flag in Papua on the 1st of December in 1961, a day which is still celebrated as their independence day and would become an important part of their identity. (Listen to the story of Nancy Jouwe to discover more about the New Guinea council).
When the Suharto regime fell in 1998, respect for the aspirations of Papuans seemed possible. East Timor gained its independence in 1999 but this also caused concern for the fragmentation of the Indonesian Republic. In order to mediate and dampen the Papuan wishes for independence, they were granted special autonomy in 2002. However many of the improvements and reforms that were planned never happened which is why the commitment of the Indonesian government is also increasingly questioned by Papuans.
2019 was a year which shows how Papuans are still viewed as less human by most Indonesians. 43 Papuan students were arrested in their university dormitory when police broke into the building with teargas as they allegedly disrespected the Indonesian flag by throwing it in a ditch during the Indonesian independence day. During their arrested the officers shouted racial slurs like ‘monkey’ and ‘pigs’. They were released around midnight while on social media news of the disrespected flag grew quickly. A large crowd gathered outside the building while chanting “Kick out, kick out Papua! Kick out Papua right now!”. This in turn led to major protests across Papua against racism which eventually got out of hand with raiding, the burning of government buildings, and an internet lockdown for the Papuan provinces issued by the Indonesian government.
The military operation in the Nduga region
When Indonesia invaded and forcefully incorporated Papua into the republic small rebel groups like the West Papua Liberation Organization and OPM were formed. Multiple shootings between the rebels and Indonesian forces have occurred through the years, resulting in many deaths. But on the 1st of December in 2018, 25 workers from Istaka Karya, an Indonesian construction company, were taken hostage by West Papua Liberation Army after they allegedly took photos of them celebrating their independence day. On the second day, they were taken to a hill where 19 workers were shot dead, 2 are still missing and 4 escaped by pretending to be dead. In response to this massacre, Indonesian president Joko Widodo send military forces to the Nduga region in order to investigate and arrest those responsible for the attack. As there is no international supervision on this military operation they’ve used the massacre as an excuse to commit humans rights violations. The Nduga Solidarity Civil Society Coalition reported that as a result of the burning and destruction of villages by the military forces, around 39,000 to 52,000 civilians were forced to flee into the forest. Already 243 have died in the refugee camps due to poor health and the absence of basic supplies. (Listen to the story of Ignasius Dicky Takndare to discover how he helped the kids in the refugee camps.)
Human rights violations
Papuans are denied the right to celebrate their identity and wish for independence as the Indonesian government made it illegal, labeling it as separatism, with a 15-year jail sentence as punishment. Peaceful protests are often stopped by unproportioned violence of the military, leaving the families of the victims without closure as many times the shooters are not prosecuted.
Since the UN or any other foreign media is not allowed into the country there is close to none international supervision on the disproportionate violence. Because of this, Papuans have taken the responsibility to their own to find out what has happened to the many innocent victims, usually without or difficult cooperation of the police. An example of a citizen-driven initiative is Theo Hesegem from Frontline Defenders. He carries out advocacy work in which he has given paralegal assistance to victims of human rights violations in the Jayawijaya Regency in Papua.
In 2018 Amnesty International released the “Don’t bother, just let him die” report on the unlawful killings that happened from 1950 till 2018. They recorded 69 cases of suspected unlawful killings by security forces in Papua between January 2010 and February 2018, with 95 victims. In these 69 cases they found several patterns. 41 of the cases happened during events that were unrelated to calls for independence or a referendum. These killings are a result of military forces using excessive force to break up peaceful protests. 28 of the cases were related to killings during calls for independence or referendum. This usually happens during protests, flag raisings, or religious meetings on special dates.
“Firing without warning and firing indiscriminately at a crowd without distinction as to who presents an imminent threat to themselves or another person and who does not, is clearly a violation of international human rights law as well as domestic legislation.”
Despite the danger, every year, on the 1st of December, hundreds of Papuans still go out and proudly remember the day on which they were officially recognized as a nation, resulting in many arrests.
There are also several examples of how the Indonesian government has also actively been looking for ways to further push out and modernize native tribes. Take Operasi Koteka. A Koteka, or penis gourd, is worn by native males, mainly in the highlands in order to cover their genitals. As each tribe has its own way of producing and decorating them, it can be used to identify the tribe to which the wearer belongs to.
As it was seen as uncivilized and un-western, Operasi Koteka was launched by the Indonesian government in order to speed the rapid development of the highlands of West Papua. The operation, under control of the military, forced people to wear Western clothing. But this ‘improvement’ turned out to be a failure as the people were not familiar with how to use and care for the clothes. The unwashed clothes eventually caused skin diseases and were later turned into hats or carrying bags. This case of modernization is an example of how applying the Western norm to foreign situations often neglects the needs of those who it’s applied to. (Listen to the story Esther Haluk to discover how Operasi Koteka has traumatized Papuans.)
Another example is the transmigration program, which started as an initiative by the Dutch colonial government, was continued by the Indonesian government in order to help the region by moving people from densely populated areas to Papua. By doing so they hoped to reduce poverty and overpopulation in areas like Java and to provide the Papuan region with a better workforce to exploit its natural wealth.
This, however, turned out to cause many conflicts with the native population as cultures clashed immensely on different subjects like religion, nudity, food, and sex. They viewed it as an invasion and feared to become outnumbered. Over the years more than 2.5 million people have moved under the program which is why there are now more foreigners than actual Papuans living in West Papua. Papuan identity is slowly being diluted to the point where they’ve become strangers in their own country.
Not only offline but also on the internet they have found ways to suppress any pro-Papuan independence information. Bellingcat reported on how Indonesia uses a Twitter bot network to spread misinformation and pro-Indonesia propaganda. The bots spam on Twitter and the content is shared onto other social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube using hashtags like #FreeWestPapua, #WestPapuaGenocide, #WestPapua, and #fwpc so that other users are flooded by the propaganda.
Slow motion genocide
Still to this day the military uses the rebel organizations as an excuse to murder civilians. Within three days, three young Papuans were shot dead in two separate shootings by the Indonesian military. On the 10th of April Melki Joani (16) was killed on the Trans-Timika road. On the 13th of April Eden Armando Bebari (20) and Roni Wandik (23) were killed while spearfishing in a local river near Kwamki Lama. The military claims that all of the victims are part of rebel groups but the family and community contradict this.
When we look back at the history of West Papua, we see that it is made up out of colonialism, exploitation, human rights violations, and oppression. The estimated death toll is hard to put into concrete numbers since there are close to none official reports but several human rights groups, churches, and NGOs estimated between 100,000 and 300,000 Papuans have lost their lives due to the Indonesian occupation. The report A slow-motion genocide: Indonesian rule in West Papua is one of the few reports that were published on this matter. Other researchers, for example, Dr. John Ondawame and Dr. Peter King, estimated that one-third of the population or around 500,000 Papuans have ‘disappeared’ or been killed. Yet most of the Western countries refuse to speak out against Indonesia, with the US and the British still supplying the weapons used in this genocide.
Het einde van Nieuw-Guinea: een prins in de wereldpolitiek - Andere Tijden
Inside Indonesia's Secret War for West Papua - Foreign Correspondent
Forgotten Bird of Paradise - Dominic Brown
Land of the Morning Star - Mark Worth
Selling Out West Papua - 101 East