The construction workers were shot dead by separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Papua province, marking the region’s deadliest bout of violence in years.
Every December 1, West Papuan separatists pay homage to what they call their ‘independence day’.
Many Papuans consider this date the anniversary of their independence from the Dutch — the commemoration of which has been banned by Indonesia which controls West Papua as a semi-autonomous territory.
The Papuans raise the Morning Star flag, their symbol of independence, which has also been banned by Indonesia.
However, this year’s banned independence parade was photographed by construction workers from an Indonesian state-owned contractor. Witnesses said the action by the workers angered the separatists.
Gunmen — allegedly rebels — stormed the government construction site in response a day later, killing 31 construction workers and a soldier.
The rebels have led a decades-long insurgency against Jakarta’s rule.
These events come as more than 500 Papuan activists were arrested in a nationwide police crackdown that coincided with rallies on December 1.
How did this start?
It began, as many conflicts do, with colonisation.
West Papua was under Dutch control until 1961 when it temporarily ceded the island to Indonesia.
Under a US-brokered agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands in 1963, the region would be under Indonesian administration until a plebiscite was held under which West Papuans could carry out their own process of self-determination.
From 1963 onwards, life under Indonesian rule was brutal for some.
“Indonesian administration consisted of imprisonment, torture, killing and the theft of everything on which officials and soldiers could lay hands,” George Monbiot wrote for The Guardian.
“As the US embassy noted, around 95 percent of the people of West Papua supported independence. To encourage them to change their minds they were bombed, shelled and strafed, bayoneted and beaten to death,” he said.
The plebiscite called the Act of Free Choice was eventually held in 1969 but was widely seen as anything but free.
According to Human Rights Watch: “Some 1,022 Papuan representatives, reportedly hand-picked by Jakarta, were convened under Indonesian military supervision, and asked to choose whether or not they wanted integration with Indonesia.
“The result was unanimously in favor of integration.”
Reports say Indonesian forces bribed these hand-picked representatives and then threatened to kill them and their families if they voted contrary to Indonesia’s interests.
Most West Papuans were not happy with this — they call it The Act of No choice instead.
The results of the independence vote remain contested today however, the international community recognises West Papua as part of Indonesian territory, a province. The region was granted special autonomy by Indonesia in 2001, but West Papuans are still displeased with the status quo.
Indonesia, is accused of taking the results and running with them. The use of the Morning Star flag — a flag that was created when awaiting independence from the Dutch — was banned, along with any attempt to commemorate West Papua’s independence, placing punitive measures for these acts under the umbrella of treason.
There is a heavy security presence in the region that acts to stamp out protest.
How has this impacted West Papuans?
The conflict in Indonesia is the country’s deadliest; violence in the province occurs on a frequent basis, according to the International Crisis Group. It is estimated that over the last fifty years, 500,000 West Papuans have died at the hands of Indonesian forces.
West Papuans are now subject to high-level surveillance and intimidation at the hands of Indonesian forces while many languish in prison where they are subject to torture.
An independence movement and low-level insurgency have been simmering ever since the disputed 1969 vote and efforts to quash them by Indonesian forces have only strengthened opposition. West Papuans see it as the colonisation of their lands and Indonesia’s various development projects as a way to exert more control over the region.
“A common sequence of events in Indonesia is a fight or traffic accident, mob anger against the person responsible, and inappropriate responses from badly-trained police or soldiers. In other parts of Indonesia, this can lead to attacks on police stations or military posts,” said the International Crisis Group.
“In Papua, it reinforces the image of the military and police (and many Papuans do not distinguish between the two) as oppressors and contributes to support for the independence movement.”
However, most West Papuans campaign through peaceful means. They press for independence on social media and at mass rallies — mainly through the umbrella group Free Papua Movement.
What does Indonesia say?
Indonesia argues that the region is part of its territorial integrity but West Papua is home to natural resources that bring money to the Southeast Asian archipelago.
In fact, some of the violence has been centred on protests against the Freeport McMoRan mine — a frequent flashpoint in the local struggle for independence and a bigger share of the region’s rich resources.
Many in the national government also see the situation in West Papua as an affront to their territorial integrity.
Indonesia’s government, for decades, has a policy of sending Javanese and other Indonesians to settle in Papua,
In the past few years, President Joko Widodo has amped up development projects centred around better infrastructure and connectivity with the aim of reducing isolation in the region.
As these infrastructure projects continue to develop they also increase dependency on the Indonesian government — something West Papuans may not necessarily want.
“We don’t need road construction from Indonesia. When we become independent we can make our own roads that are as good as the ones in developed countries,” Free Papua Movement spokesman Sebby Sambon told Reuters.
Widodo also visits West Papua a few times a year, but as one activist put it, this approach by Jakarta is akin to “chasing away the smoke but not trying to put out the fire”