A Papuan student, with his body and face painted with the colors of the banned separatist “Morning Star” flag, pauses during a rally in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.
Credit: AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara
The Papuan provinces, or West Papua, the easternmost part of Indonesia’s territory, have been wracked with conflict for decades. Indonesia annexed them through controversial means, including but not limited to the 1962 New York Agreement, and the ironically named “Act of Free Choice” of 1969. Western countries like the United States facilitated Indonesia’s takeover of the region from the Netherlands due to larger Cold War considerations. As a result, Indonesia essentially replaced the Netherlands as a colonizer, failing to integrate West Papua into the country in a holistic manner.
The annexation sparked a resistance, with a pro-independence movement organizing under the banner of Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or the Free Papua Organization. The conflict has been simmering for decades, and recent developments show how the avenues for reconciliation are decreasing.
Over the course of the decades following annexation, Indonesian rule over Papua has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses committed by Indonesian forces. These allegations continue to this day, and have been documented over the years. Some perspectives label Indonesia’s actions as genocidal.
There are high levels of racism against Papuans, who are often referred to as monyet or monkeys. This racism is not only at the state level but also at a grassroots level among a wide swathe of Indonesian society. The state over the years also continued and accelerated the Dutch program of transmigrasi, or transmigration. Indonesians, mainly from the populous island of Java, were moved across the country, especially to the Papuan provinces. The Papuan identity is categorically different from the various ethnic groups that make up the rest of Indonesia. Papuans are also Christians, while most Indonesians are Muslims. Transmigrasi diluted this identity, and has contributed to deep-seated tensions.
Underpinning all of this, as is the case for most conflict across the world, is resources. West Papua is resource rich, yet it remains among Indonesia’s least-developed provinces. It has gold, silver, copper, natural gas, and timber, among other resources, and Indonesia and Western companies such as the U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan have reaped considerable profits from West Papua. This has contributed to allegations of resource exploitation and appropriation, as Papuans have not seen much benefit. The government of Indonesia officially gained the majority stake in the Freeport-run Grasberg Mine in 2018. Papuans still demand the closure of the mine, with protests occurring from time to time.
Meanwhile, the OPM continues to mount a low-level insurgency to combat Indonesian forces. Some high-profile incidents took place, such as the 1996 Mapenduma hostage crisis. However, clashes and attacks were sporadic, with periods of heightened activity and periods of lulls in violence.
The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) has emerged in the last few years, bringing with it an escalation of conflict. Indonesian media and others sometimes refer to the TPNPB and the older iteration of the OPM as one and the same, yet that is not the case. The TPNPB is a new breed of separatist fighters, with disparate intentions, also organized under the banner of Papuan independence. The TPNPB, like the Papuan people, is not a homogenous and centralized entity. It is younger, more violent, and more of a threat to Indonesia. Since the 2018 Nduga attack, violence has escalated in the Papuan provinces.
The TPNPB has issued threats against Freeport, and it killed a foreign contractor in March 2020 in a very notable attack. The theater of conflict has expanded, with unrest occurring in multiple regencies of the Papuan provinces. The TPNPB has issued warnings against non-Papuans living or working across West Papua; it has frequently targeted workers employed for President Joko Widodo’s flagship Trans-Papua Highway project. The TPNPB attacks more frequently than the OPM, and the TPNPB attacks are also more deadly. Security forces have killed prominent TPNPB leaders, but they are quickly replaced and the TPNPB continues operations.
The government’s approach has been one of zero tolerance. It frequently arrests Papuan activists and jails them for treason, over perceived politically motivated charges. Security forces usually crack down harshly on protests in Papua. Following the killing of a general of the State Intelligence Agency, the highest ranking Indonesian victim of the conflict, Indonesia designated the separatist groups as “terrorists.” Jakarta’s approach is all stick and no carrot.
Given these dynamics, with a more violent armed separatist organization being active, and Jakarta’s reticence to win hearts and minds, conflict is increasing. Historical tensions, a lack of development, environmental concerns, and the suppression of the Papuan identity has led to increased polarization between Papua and Jakarta. Indonesia will never agree to separatists’ demands, while pro-independence elements are hardening their positions. The avenues for dialogue and a potential resolution are shrinking, with the possibility of peace in the Papuan provinces in the next few decades growing increasingly dimmer.