There are signs of an influx of West Papuans into Papua New Guinea amid a protracted conflict across the border.
Since 2018, there’s been a surge of violent exchanges between the West Papua Liberation Army and Indonesian security forces in Papua province.
Thousands of West Papuans have been displaced from the conflict’s epicentre in the Highlands regency of Nduga in the Indonesian-ruled province.
Some of the displaced have fled across the border to PNG’s West Sepik province, according to Vanimo landowner Dorothy Tekwie.
“The numbers in the camps on the PNG side have increased,” Ms Tekwie said.
“On my own particular land the number of young people, young men I’ve never seen before… there is an influx of people coming in, and they feel they are able to slide back in again.”
The main international border entry point at Wutung near Vanimo remains tightly guarded by Indonesian military forces. So too now are access points in Nduga and neighbouring Jayawija regency where many of the estimated 45,000 displaced Ndugans fled to last year when conflict intensified.
However, West Papuans are generally adept at moving and living in jungle, and across mountainous terrain. Long treks are made towards the international border, much of which is too porous for either Indonesia or PNG’s security forces to comprehensively monitor.
Some Papuans who slip across the border further inland end up along the north coast in Vanimo, where Ms Tekwie’s village is located, less than an hour’s drive from Wutung.
“I don’t know how they get through, but these are mountain people, they walk and live off the land; they know how to hunt; so if it’s getting too much on the other side, they just move over here,” she said.
“After all, this is just one island. There is no brick or cement border mark fencing from one end to another, it’s just open forest.”
West Papuans who end up in villages on the PNG side are generally able to blend in easily, being fellow Melanesians. However, those who are not registered as traditional border crossers, and therefore able to travel back and forth by law, are at risk of detection by Indonesian or PNG security forces.
“I try to control who is on the land because I don’t want people to get into trouble and cause trouble for me and other clan members.
“So, I try to know who is moving in and out of my place, but there are so many young men there that I don’t know who they are.”
Ms Tekwie said that West Papuans from the Highlands region were determined to resist Indonesian rule.
These recent protests build upon a long history of Papuan activism in response to Indonesian government repression, racism and denial of West Papuan desires for independence.
As early as the 1960s, West Papuan nationalists argued for their right to independence – under the UN’s 1960 Declaration on Decolonisation – following the renouncement of Dutch control over Indonesia. However, they ultimately failed.
My recently published paper argues this failure was in part due to international political dynamics, which sabotaged West Papuans’ attempts to ride the waves of decolonisation efforts by Asian and African countries throughout the 1940s to the 1960s.
Why West Papua failed in international forums
In the 1960s, West Papuan activists attempted to link their decolonisation campaign to earlier struggles for independence across Asia and Africa. Triggered by instability during the post-war era, colonial countries in Asia and Africa formed connections to end colonialism.
At the UN, West Papuan activists sought the support of African delegates who they believed were likely allies. They argued West Papua and Africa shared a history of racial oppression and a desire to see the end of colonialism in all its forms.
While African leaders were sympathetic to the cause of West Papuan activists, they were already committed to the Non-Aligned Movement led by Indonesia.
This bloc supported Afro-Asian solidarity and committed leaders not to interfere in the affairs of other nations. It protected them from intervention by their former European colonial powers and from the raging Cold War politics, as they didn’t take side between the US and the Soviet Union.
Indonesia, for example, made deals with the United States promising access to mine gold and copper in Papua. Indonesia turned down Soviet aid, while also using the Afro-Asian bloc at the UN to gain support for its control of West Papua.
The Cold War improved opportunities for nations already committed to power blocs. But for the West Papuans, newcomers to international politics, it was another barrier to entry into the international community.
Afro-Asian connections had begun to solidify in the 1950s and Indonesia’s prominence within the alliance prohibited Papuan involvement.
By the time Papuan activists entered the political arena in the 1960s, Indonesia had already developed its Cold War strategy.
Alone, isolated and continuously repressed
West Papuans were denied independence also because the UN system failed to heed their calls and instead placed appeasing Indonesia above its commitment to decolonisation and human rights.
At the UN General Assembly meeting to ratify the Act of Free Choice, many African representatives were unwilling to back it without debate as they believed it undermined the UN’s principles of decolonisation.
They highlighted the hypocrisy of establishing the Non-Aligned Movement with the explicit aim of opposing colonialism and then allowing Indonesia to set up colonial-style rule in West Papua.
Despite this debate, no delegate was willing to vote against Indonesia.
While the West Papuans had convinced African leaders of their desire for self-government and the unjust nature of Indonesia’s control, the African representatives were unwilling to openly vote against Indonesia and break their alliance in the Afro-Asian bloc.
To stand against Indonesia would endanger their political standing and protection in the international community. Delegates instead chose to abstain.
Will West Papua have another chance?
Several factors have changed in the international community since the 1960s.
However, they still need to win significant support from African and Asian delegates to tip the power balance in their favour.
As in 1969, world leaders would do well to listen to the voices of Papuan activists as choosing to ignore their calls will have dire consequences for West Papuans in Indonesia. In the words of the International Labour Organisation, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice.”
Emma Kluge, PhD Candidate, Department of History, University of Sydney