John Ondawame greatly admired the independence struggle in East Timor, especially its ability to win active support from people in Europe, the United States and Australia. But the exiled former fighter, activist and spokesman for West Papuans also longed for the world to take notice of the plight of his people and to see the shared contours of the two conflicts—two ethnically distinct regions of Indonesia longing to break free. Ondawame did not live to see his dream of West Papua’s independence fulfilled; he died in 2014. But it is more difficult than ever for the Indonesian government to keep the problems of its most restive province out of sight.
Long mismanaged by successive administrations in Jakarta, West Papua is pushing harder to have its case for independence heard. Now possibly a minority in the province after decades of inward migration from other parts of Indonesia, ethnic Papuans increasingly worry that even a plebiscite, if secured, may not result in a decision in favor of independence. Further delays on a vote only add to their worries. For its part, the Indonesian government is unlikely to ever agree to independence for the resource-rich province, which along with Papua forms the western half of the island of New Guinea in eastern Indonesia.
The immense Grasberg mine in the central Papuan highlands is the main reason why. It is estimated to hold the world’s largest supply of gold and its third-largest supply of copper. Freeport-McMoRan, the American mining company that owns and operates the mine, has long been Indonesia’s single largest taxpayer. A deal transferring majority ownership of the Grasberg mine to the state-owned PT Indonesia Asahan Aluminium is nearing conclusion. The agreement will extend Freeport-McMoRan’s rights to mine at the site until 2041 and see new phases of underground mining, as Grasberg’s massive open pit is nearly exhausted.
While militarily insignificant, armed pro-Papuan independence guerrillas have responded to the Grasberg deal by stepping up their campaigns in communities around the mine, declaring themselves at war with all the key actors involved with the mine and its protection: the police, military and Freeport. The mine has become a flashpoint against foreign exploitation of West Papuan resources and the Indonesian state’s complicity. For the security forces that have long acted with impunity in West Papua, adding layers of grievance to Papuan discontent, increased violence is more an irritant than a serious threat to Indonesia’s hold over West Papua. And yet, if unrest leads to a security crackdown and the emergence of documented, visual proof of Indonesian state violence against guerrillas or civilians, it could quickly change the dynamic in West Papua.
Consider what happened in East Timor. In 1991, some 250 East Timorese demonstrators were killed by Indonesian troops in what became known as the Santa Cruz massacre. While it was but one of many instances of state violence in East Timor, it was caught on camera by Western journalists. The filming of the Santa Cruz massacre put the Indonesian government under international pressure from which it never fully recovered. It took the fall of Suharto and the capriciousness of his successor for an independence referendum to take place, but Santa Cruz was proof enough to the world at large that Indonesia’s rule in East Timor was toxic and violent. While it is extraordinarily difficult for journalists to gain access to and move freely around West Papua, the tensions around the Grasberg mine have nevertheless made international headlines and could attract more attention.
The dynamics in West Papua suggest something has to give, or there could be an unexpected spark that ignites a process of change.
Of greater concern to the Indonesian government is the increasing effectiveness of the political opposition to Indonesia’s continuing presence in West Papua. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua, or ULMWP, has had some success in welding together the notoriously divided and fractious elements of the independence movement, notably through its attempt to secure membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a body composed of the states of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Its membership bid failed in part because it was undercut by the Indonesian government’s own unsuccessful membership application, which explicitly aimed to block West Papua. In a determined attempt to demolish the ULMWP’s pro-independence argument that West Papua is ethnically distinctive from the rest of Indonesia, the Indonesian government insisted that there are other substantial Melanesian populations in five of its provinces and that they are suitably incorporated into the nation-state.
Internationalizing the campaign has also delivered some minor successes to West Papuan activists. In September, seven Pacific Island governments addressed the U.N. General Assembly to express their concerns about the Indonesian government’s policy in West Papua. Although the U.N.’s decolonization committee then rejected a petition allegedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans asking for West Papua’s case to be put back on the committee’s agenda, the petition alone attracted media interest. While there has been no significant breakthrough since then, the ability of West Papuan activists to make use of international networks and raise media awareness may be a sign of growing sophistication in their campaign. West Papuans have more prominent backers in the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party and a possible future prime minister, who is a founding member of the International Parliamentarians for West Papua. The group, which includes lawmakers from more than a dozen countries, is committed to “West Papua’s inalienable right to self-determination.”
The Indonesian government finds itself with difficult decisions to make about its handling of an increasingly able political opposition and a population more worried than ever about its very survival as a distinctive ethnic group. The long history of human rights abuses meted out by Indonesian security forces may have destroyed any prospect of restoring trust in the state among Papuans. How to manage a restive population that opposes clearly articulated plans for the extension of divisive mining operations is the kind of question that the Indonesian government has tended to answer in a heavy-handed and unimaginative way.
Despite efforts by President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, to improve the situation in West Papua, problems there are deeply entrenched. Political life has been poisoned by decades of abuses and local corruption. Policies of economic development have not, by and large, benefited the ethnic Papuan population, either. And the political opposition to Indonesian rule, for all its recent attention, is still too factionalized.
But the dynamics in West Papua suggest something has to give, or there could be an unexpected spark that ignites a process of change. Does Indonesia really want to go into its second half century of control of West Papua so burdened by its past activities and policies that a crisis there becomes inevitable?
Simon Philpott is a senior lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University.