Four Decades of Strife and Resistance: A Deep Dive Into What’s Happening in West Papua

Briefly after a viral video of Indonesian soldiers torturing a Papuan native spread throughout the internet, New Bloom contributor Girard Lopez spoke to West Papuan human rights advocates in an online interview to ask about the on-ground situation in West Papua.

by Girard Mariano Lopez

IN EARLY MARCH 2024, the Indonesian internet and its online periphery would be rocked by a shocking video: a Papuan native seemingly detained in a bucket of water and being punched excessively by what appears to be Indonesian military. Then, another soldier is seen mercilessly slashing the Papuan’s back as the victim could do nothing but writhe in pain. By then, most may have closed the horrifying video and clamored online that the very stewards that promised to protect and uphold Pancasila, the founding philosophy of the 275.2 million ethnically diverse archipelago, would be capable of such violence.

The military made an unprecedented apology and detained 13 soldiers from the West Javan battalion that had tortured the Papuan native in Gome, Central Papua. However, such an apology would be for naught as the tortured man later on died. The man would only be one of dozens of civilian victims to military brutality in the central Papuan highlands as the Indonesian military intensified their raids against the West Papua National Liberation Army last February, as reported by Human Rights Monitor.

To West Papuans, however, this video comes as no surprise at all. Military violence has always been the status quo in the region ever since their battle for self-determination began in the 1960s as they were handed from one colonizer to another. Right after the Dutch left Western New Guinea in 1962, the Indonesian government insisted on control over the resource-abundant region. By 1969, the Indonesian military handpicked just over a thousand Papuans to participate in a controversial plebiscite determining their peoples’ future. Naturally, as in any military-controlled election, a unanimous vote was made approving of Indonesian control. Some Papuans who rejected such blatant disrespect of the will of their people were driven to take up arms and fight for their independence. Such is the root of the perennial violence that takes place until this day between Indonesian forces and Papuan rebel guerillas. Consequently, ordinary Papuans face regular discrimination against ‘pribumi’ Indonesians and violence from authorities.

“Until today, there is a stigma against Papuans that have curly hair and black skin. They have a mindset that we are dangerous. They do this military approach to repress our psychology so we don’t think about being free from Indonesia. These 60 years of racism come from people who have important positions in government,” Ambrosius, a Papuan human rights defender and former head of the Association of Papuan Central Highlands Students in Indonesia remarked.

As Indonesia is set to inaugurate a new president known for his controversial human rights record during the Suharto regime, Papuans are cautious and bracing for even further violence from the military.

“We saw him talking about Papua. It’s as though he doesn’t see Papuans at all, but only sees lands,” Defe, a Papuan human rights activist, says in an online interview talking about president-elect Prabowo, “He said that during the debate and told others that the Papuan problem is a military problem. So we are concerned that he will continue to use the military to oppress Papuans.”

Back in the 90s when Prabowo was still a military general, Ambros and Defe said torture of Papuan natives was widespread as the Suharto dictatorship launched various military operation regions versus the armed West Papua liberation movement. Defe says that such videos bring back haunted memories of such days, even though it is not as common as before. During the 1998 riots that spread throughout Indonesia targeting ethnic Chinese in light of the Asian Financial Crisis, it is widely believed that Prabowo also played a role in instigating such riots to divert public attention from Suharto. Prabowo himself admitted to Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that he was part of such operations, saying he had been following orders and that the kidnappings of activists then were legal.

“Every time candidates talk about Papuans, it’s always about land, investment, factories, plantations. It’s obvious they see the whole island as a commodity. They don’t care about the people living there nor ask the people if they agree with the project. They just command that they will bring this here and there. This is part of the national policy: the National Strategic Project,” Defe added.

Most Papuans originally had high hopes under the outgoing Widodo administration, with the vast majority voting for him.  Joko Widodo had promised that they would be listened to by the Indonesian government. In 2016, Human Rights Watch quoted Widodo saying, “I want to listen to the people’s voices, and I’m willing to open dialogue for a better Papua. The people of Papua don’t only need health care, education, the construction of roads and bridges, but they also need to be listened to.”

But such idealistic promises were, in fact, too good to be true as systemic abuse remained the status quo. In 2019, Papuans took to the streets as they became angered over police abuse against ethnic Papuan students who were accused of allegedly desecrating the Indonesian flag. The students denied such allegations, but this did not stop authorities from throwing tear gas to the dormitory rooms where the Papuan students were residing and subjecting them to racial abuse. On top of this, 35,000 Papuans were forcefully evacuated as the Indonesian military bombed their domiciles in an attempt to root out Papuan independence fighters.

In West Papua, even waving the West Papua independence morning star flag can land you in trouble with authorities. Ambrosius was jailed for 6 months in 2019 for treason because he painted his body in the design of the morning star flag. There have also been alleged cases of people sporting the Cuban flag who have been prosecuted as they were mistaken as West Papuan independence activists.

“There are still lots of (other) cases, but they are not recorded or viral because access of information towards Papua is guarded by the government. There is no litigation option. Even though we already report all cases to the Human Rights Commission in Indonesia, the government doesn’t acknowledge such cases,” Ambrosius said.

Despite the collective trauma Papuans have faced in the last six decades, Prabowo still won the majority in West Papua. Beyond the power of AI, Tiktok, and the whitewashing campaign launched by Prabowo’s camp that helped boost his image, Defe says a lot of Papuans thought that Prabowo’s promise to “continue Jokowi’s course” would be a good thing. The president-elect reportedly used Joko Widodo’s previous message and promises of ‘development’ about West Papua to win the area.

Human rights organizations have consistently made calls and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) and Indonesian government to help monitor the human rights situation in West Papua better. Ambrosius recalled that the UNHCR made 269 recommendations to the Indonesian government regarding human rights in the country, with 65 of such specific to West Papua only. The Indonesian government acknowledged a total of only 10 recommendations including freedom of expression, freedom to gather, freedom of the press. However, it denied recommendations such as self-determination through dialogue and independent investigation of West Papua by the UNHCR. Furthermore, they hope to bring the Indonesian government to the International Court of Justice to prosecute authorities for their long standing human rights violations and abusive practices in West Papua.

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