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Analysis, Politics

West Papua and its troubled history with Indonesia

Recent riots and protests are just symptoms of long simmering ethnic tensions.


Written by

Updated: August 23, 2019

Protests have broken out in the Indonesian province of West Papua with a local parliament being set alight and buildings torched in Sorong, the province’s largest city.

The protests, involving hundreds of people, occurred throughout the province on Wednesday with buildings set on fire, including a prison where 250 inmates escaped, and rocks and projectiles thrown at security forces.

The protests erupted, in part, because of the detention of ethnic Papuan students in the Indonesian city of Surabaya over accusations that they had desecrated the Indonesian flag on its national day.

But long running ethnic tensions between the native West Papuans and the Indonesian central government have plagued the province since it was incorporated into Indonesia in the 1960s.

A colonial legacy

After the Second World War, the area once known as the Dutch East Indies fought for independence from the Netherlands and the right to self-determination.

A bloody war for Independence was fought for four years before Indonesia finally gained independence in 1949 and the newly formed country claimed all the areas of the former Dutch colony as her own.

West Papua New Guinea, however, remained in the hands of the Netherlands until the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed with Indonesia for the region to be transferred to Jakarta provided that the people of West Papua were granted an independent referendum by the end of the decade.

The vote was marred with controversy and only 1,000 people, all government-selected, were allowed to vote in the referendum which unanimously backed staying as a part of Indonesia.

The province was renamed Irian Jaya by the central government (reverting to West Papua in 1999) and an armed resistance to Indonesian rule erupted overnight.

Accusations of genocide

Papuan nationalists, under the Free Papua Movement, have carried out a guerrilla campaign against the central government and security forces for decades.

The Indonesians have responded with programs to instill Indonesian culture and language in West Papuan schools and arbitrary crackdowns which have sparked accusations of human rights abuse. Such claims are hard to verify however as the region has been closed off to journalists for decades.

According to a paper published by the Yale University Law Centre,

“Indonesian authorities have also been responsible for numerous extrajudicial killings, including torture killings of detained prisoners, assassinations of West Papuan political, cultural, and village leaders, and brutal killings of civilian men, women, and children. This pattern of massacres and killings falls squarely within the first category of act identified by the Genocide Convention.”

Dissent has been met with arbitrary arrest and torture.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner released the following statement as recently as February 2019.

“Prompt and impartial investigations must be carried out into numerous cases of alleged killings, unlawful arrests, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of indigenous Papuans by the Indonesian police and military in West Papua and Papua provinces.”

Indonesians also granted a US owned mining company permission to construct the world’s largest gold mine in the province and gave the company sweeping political rights over indigenous people that it continues to enjoy till today.

A BBC report on the region found that although the province was extremely rich in resources, local indigenous people remain malnourished and stuck below the poverty line.

In recent years, the Indonesian President has made efforts to reach out to the Papuan population. He has visited the province more than six times since his election in 2014.

Widodo has said that funds will be made available to develop the region and create jobs. But progress is slow and sectarian violence will continue to be around the corner until the situation improves.



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About the Author: ANN’s current Chairman is Mr Warren Fernandez, who is also Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, Singapore. He is the current President of the World Editors Forum.

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