Indonesia might not be the first country to come up when we talk about conflict. However, this great power of Southeast Asia has been involved in an ongoing conflict with one of its official regions for more than 56 years as of October 2019: West Papua. While racism towards West Papuans is endemic across Indonesia, the root of the protests lie in the region’s long-standing and violent history of political colonisation, ethnic domination, and cultural assimilation under Indonesian rule.

Protests marking the anniversary of the “Act of Free Choice” – the main political act that formalised Indonesian control over West Papua – have been further escalated by racist harassment of Papuan students in Java and police violence against them for demonstrating. Hopes for peaceful resolution of what has been called the longest-running and most violent political conflict in the South Pacific grew in the mount-up to the election of Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) in 2014. Yet little has changed on the ground for most West Papuans since Jokowi’s election, and West Papuans continue to suffer violence and discrimination.

A Colonial Tale

In 1962, Indonesia took over West Papua, formerly known as West Iryan, from its Dutch colonisers. Seven years later, a UN referendum for independence was held for the indigenous West Papuans, with 1,000 leaders selected to vote for the entire population. However, the Indonesian military threatened to kill anyone who voted for independence. The vote was a formality, once again securing Indonesian power on the island. Many Papuans view the Indonesian takeover as an illegal annexation and the OPM (Free Papua Movement) has driven a low-level insurgency for years. This insurrection has long been the excuse for considerable Indonesian military involvement in West Papua.

West Papua is a territory that represents half of New Guinea island, which is divided in two: West Papua (an Indonesia incorporated province) and Papua New Guinea (which gained its independence from Australia in 1975). The exclusion of West Guinea (now West Papua) from the independence of Indonesia was in grand part caused by West Papuan opposition to being part of Indonesia.

A sort of referendum agreed between the United States, Netherlands, and Indonesia; the so-called “Act of Free Choice,” which consisted of a vote by 1,025 tribal leaders (less than one percent of the population) on whether West Papua should be part of Indonesia or become an independent country. All tribal leaders voted for joining Indonesia – unanimously. It has been proven that those tribal chiefs were threatened while the voting happened, sometimes at gunpoint. As many as 100,000 people have been assassinated in subsequent years, mostly civilians killed by the Indonesian military. Assimilationist policies promoted by the government perpetuate racial discrimination against West Papuans, which is, in turn, exacerbated by a growing population disparity between ethnic Papuans and non-Papuans across the region.

The main West Papuan resistance actor, the OPM, was founded in 1963 to advocate for the autonomy of the region when UN talks regarding its future were taking place. It became increasingly militant, intensifying into a low-intensity armed conflict, which continues to this day. Although the OPM is well-established throughout West Papua, it is very lightly armed.

It is important to mention the racial component of this low-intensity conflict. West Papuans are Melanesians – a category which includes most people living in the Southwest Pacific (Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and Fiji) – and are also mostly Christians. Indonesians are mostly Asian and Muslim. The element of race was present during the colonial Dutch regime to justify violence and alienation of the indigenous population. The Indonesian government has been no different, subjecting West Papuan civilians to systemic, widespread human rights abuses. Indonesian policies have also undermined the sociocultural and political foundations of West Papuans.

Human Rights Abuses, Killings and Transmigration

Even though the Indonesian government has legitimate security concerns in Papua coming from the OPM fighters attacks; the West Papuan insurgency “threat” does justify Indonesian armed forces deliberately targeting, torturing and killing civilians. Contemporary estimates state that up to 500,000 West Papuans have been killed as a result of Indonesian authorities’ actions. 

Maybe the most evident policy in this conflict was the Operation Clean Sweep, with the motto of “let the rats run into the jungle so that chickens can breed in the coop,” which translated into displacing West Papuans and intimidate possible sympathisers of the OPM. The operation involved raping, killing, beating, bombing, use of napalm and unlawful detentions, among other violent strategies. Operation Clean went hand-in-hand with a Five-Year Plan from the Indonesian government, announcing West Papua as the principally targetted area for transmigration. These schemes took away land from West Papuan traditional owners, who were forced to move and live with transmigrants. It required ethnically West Papuans to be dispersed, with one West Papuan family for every nine Indonesian ones – de facto making them a minority. West Papuans didn’t have access to the economic benefits of the new site, nor were they able to hold any important administrative post. Posters claiming that West Papuans had to “relinquish their inefficient and primitive ways for the superior lifestyle of the Indonesians” were hung. 

As horrible as this recount is, these are just a few of the crimes that have been reported against West Papua. Some scholars argue that the atrocities committed by the Indonesian government could be considered a “cold genocide,” since the Indonesian government and military have conducted a persistent campaign, subjecting the members of that group to torture, rape, sexual violence and forced disappearance, causing serious physical and mental damage. Destruction of villages, sites to guard food, transmigration programs and mandatory relocation have weakened traditional forms of subsistence, targeting a very specific ethnic group.

Media Access

As West Papuans continue to fight for their rights and against violence from Indonesian authorities, Indonesia tightens its grip on the island – continuing to deny using any violence while locking out media from the area.

From the very start of the protests, Jakarta has hardly granted any access to foreign journalists visiting Papuan areas. Those who managed to get access have been closely monitored and denied permits to travel beyond specific cities. Since the early 60s, the Indonesian government has been restricting entrance of foreign media to the region, under the suspicion of the motives of foreigners to cover the violence, environmental degradation, public frustration of the region and the pro-independence insurgency. These restrictions backfired for the Indonesian authorities, since they have done very little to prevent negative portrayals of Indonesia’s behaviour and role there, and continue to be ground for Indonesia’s critics.

Widodo declared publicly on May 2015 that Jakarta would lift the long-established access constraints on foreign media who looked for reporting from West Papua. However, while Jakarta seems to have eased restrictions, the process for foreign media to obtain official permits to Papua continues to be uncertain and opaque. Furthermore, aid and human rights agencies in Indonesia, like Human Rights Watch or the ICRC, have claimed that their work is being increasingly scrutinized due to Jakarta’s concern over the secessionist movement on the island.

“Don’t bother, just let him die”: Impunity & International Complicity

Melanesian in culture and language, West Papua’s strong Pacific link is why many island countries support their independence. Representatives from Nauru, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Palau, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands have joined calls for the United Nations to investigate allegations of mass human rights abuses in West Papua. The seven Pacific nations are alleging there have been extrajudicial killings, and beatings of activists campaigning for the region’s sovereignty as part of the “Free West Papua” movement.

However, Indonesia has proved to effectively assemble international backing effectively as well. It is swiftly moving to the Pacific to gather support, plying promises of strong links and aid – which is working in some cases. For example, Fiji, after Indonesia’s strong pressuring approach and diplomatic and political leveraging, went from pro-independence to pro-Indonesian. Furthermore, Indonesia is strategically pivotal to New Zealand and Australia, being a crucial trading partner for both countries. By ignoring Indonesian army killings in West Papua, the Western states and press are tacitly colluding in mass murder.

On the national level, nearly no criminal investigations have been carried out by an institution independent of the one whose constituents were alleged of killing. Sometimes there is no investigation at all, or the results are not made public. Most families don’t receive regular updates about the outcome of any official investigation about a family member’s death. As for prosecutions, according to Amnesty International members of the security forces who perpetrate illegal killings in West Papua have never been brought to an independent civilian court of law.

Sadly, and despite the massive human rights abuses that for years have been inflicted on West Papuans, this is not an issue of a so-called “international relevance.” It has just gained a bit of momentum in very specific contexts, such as the arrest and deportation threat of Australians who were involved in protests pro-West Papua, or the terrible killing of West Papuan students in Java.

A way forward

The West Papuan conflict has been, without a doubt, neglected by the international community and media for too long. Indonesia’s oppression of West Papuans may be based on supremacist perceptions towards peoples named “primitive” rather than hatred, but this oppression still constitutes a calculated attack on the sustainability of the group. Most West Papuans do not consider themselves Indonesians and are not considered as such by other Indonesians.

The next question is how the international community will react to the Indonesian oppression on the island, in compensation for good relations with Indonesia. Governments might be capable to excuse oppression, violence, and arguably crimes against humanity in such a way, but the example of East Timor demonstrated that the public eventually will not. And how will Indonesia react if the West Papuan case gathers more support and relevance, taking into account its previous occupation of East Timor?

In this age of the internet, the claims of genocide being made by West Papuan leaders are being heard and believed and gaining more and more relevance. This presents a considerable challenge for Indonesia in particular, and the Pacific region in general. Indonesia will face the difficult dilemma of either engaging in serious negotiations with the West Papuans and to try and devise a form of association that will address West Papuan grievances and aspirations and make them want to stay in the Indonesian Republic or to lose international support for their claims of sovereignty over West Papua.

Equally important is the need for further investigation and international focus on the grave situation in West Papua. As Amnesty International has noted, information on-the-ground is often difficult to obtain, given the non-access to West Papua by NGOs or independent observers, and the restrictions of free press in Indonesia, used to blocked international scrutiny. It is important to open up information streams, so the West Papuan community can be heard internationally. All of this will only happen if the island is demilitarised, and the harmful extractive and land-grabbing industries in West Papua cease.

Addressing West Papua’s brutal geopolitical past is vital to achieve a solution and address the human rights violations committed against West Papuans over the last fifty years. This process ought to include honest and inclusive dialogue about how West Papuans have been long treated as primitive and nearly sub-human between the Indonesian authorities, and West Papuan representatives from both rural and urban areas. Civil reconciliation will ask for Indonesia to acknowledge the very tangible cultural, historical and ethnic differences, that influence greatly the values and aims of West Papuans, as Melanesians and peoples of the Pacific. 

Last, but not least, it important to not ignore the demand for an independent referendum mediated internationally. More than 1.8 million West Papuans signed a petition for such a referendum, which was brought earlier this year to the UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet.

As the long history of resistance and resilience and the most recent protests have made crystal clear, the West Papuan cause is far from over. Instead, the most recent demonstrations have released a revived unified demand for justice and dignity, by a community that has historically been dehumanised, rooted in a discriminatory system of skin colour and economic marginalization.


  • Júlia Codina Sariols is an editor for the War and Conflict section. She is a second-year student of the MA in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at PSIA, with concentrations on Diplomacy and the Middle East. Originally from Barcelona and half Swedish, she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Political Science and International Relations. She interned for Amnesty International in Spain, as well as for UN-Habitat headquarters in Nairobi. She is now in Beirut working for UNRWA as Protection Assistant. Her main interests lie in war and armed conflicts, humanitarian aid, and human rights.