West Papua, Indonesia (Irian Jaya)

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West Papua, Indonesia (Irian Jaya)

New Guinea, the largest tropical island in the world, is divided roughly in half. To the east is Papua New Guinea (PNG), independent since 1975. To the west is Papua (163,000 square miles), which comprises approximately one-fourth of the total area of the Indonesian archipelago. Papua is often called West Papua (WP) to distinguish it from PNG. The two halves of the island are divided along a 500-mile north–south colonial boundary that, in places, runs directly through the middle of villages. Until 1962, WP was a colonial possession of the Dutch.

In 1961 WP was on the verge of independence, although both Indonesia and the Netherlands made claims of sovereignty to the territory. Cold war tensions had been injected into the WP sovereignty dispute and, in addition, between the Dutch colonial power and the oil companies in WP; rivalry over WP's rich oil and gold deposits further added to the complexity of the situation. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was preparing to reject both Indonesian and Dutch claims to sovereignty of Papua in favor of granting independence to the West Papuans themselves. However, Hammarskjold's plan ended abruptly with his death in a midnight plane crash near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia. All matters relating to WP, even under the auspices of the United Nations, subsequently became embroiled in the cold war.

From a Western perspective, the tragic disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 cast a further pall on the subject of Papuan self-determination. The Rockefeller family had been associated with Standard Oil for most of the previous century, and this company was conducting oil exploration in West Papua when Michael visited in 1961. As Michael and a Dutch anthropologist, Rene Wassing, were crossing the fifteenmile wide mouth of the Eilanden River on the southern coastline, their boat overturned. It drifted out to sea, the two men clinging to its sides.

The following day, when the boat was twenty miles from shore (according to Wassing, who was interviewed by the author), Michael Rockefeller attempted to swim ashore. "We could see no land anywhere," explained Wassing, who was later rescued. The world media attributed the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller to cannibalism, an intangible influence on the UN reversal of support for Papuan self-determination.

In August 1962, the UN reached the New York Agreement, which abrogated Dutch sovereignty in favor of Indonesian control until 1969. According to the agreement, the Papuan people would then be permitted to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to remain under Indonesian rule. The quest to control Irian Jaya (as WP was called when it was no longer Netherlands New Guinea) was in the hands of Major-General (later president) Suharto in the early 1960s. This same army under his command was credited by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with perpetrating one of the worst massacres of the twentieth century in Java and Bali during the years 1965 and 1966.

The task of "ascertaining the freely expressed will of the population" (in the words of the agreement) should not have been done under Indonesian oversight, yet it was, and all Papuan aspirations of independence met with Indonesian rejection. Papuans, who had voted under Dutch rule, were not allowed to do so freely under Indonesia's control. Only a small portion of the population was permitted to vote, and then only under extreme duress.

In the years leading up to the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice in 1969, the Indonesian army engaged in widespread killing to quell Papuan resistance. In the latter half of the 1960s, thousands of Papuans were massacred, such as in the Kebar Valley and the Paniai uprising, showing that Indonesia would stop at nothing to retain the territory. Papuan resistance only intensified, however. Remnants of the 3,000-strong Papuan Battalion, which had been formed by the Dutch, became guerrilla units that were collectively known as the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement; OPM). The OPM became the bane of the Indonesian occupation army, attracting a cross-section of the Papuan population. By 1967, the OPM was powerful enough to take over the former Dutch capital, Manokwari. They held it for several days, until the city was bombed and strafed, then retaken by Indonesian paratroopers.

For the historically momentous vote in 1969, the army carefully chose "representatives" who would conform to Indonesian directives. Many who wanted a pro-Papua outcome were massacred. Whole villages—men, women, and children alike—were forced to dig their own burial pits before being killed by the Indonesian army. The 100 or so villagers living in Iapo, on the shore of Lake Sentani, were but one example of this village-wide approach to killing. The smoke from their burning bodies served to warn thirty other nearby villages how the army dealt with independence sympathizers. Similar crimes against humanity were perpetrated in many areas of West Papua before the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice. By a show of 1,025 hands (983 males, 42 females) the "vote" was considered unanimous: all favored Indonesian rule. In Jayapura, the new capital, the army used tanks and machine-guns to clear the streets of 5,000 Papuans who protested the injustice. None of the handful of UN observers present raised an objection to the gross infringements of human rights that the Indonesian army committed in order to secure an outcome favorable to Indonesia. Officially, the UN "took note" of the outcome, tacitly acknowledging the vote. Anything less would have been tantamount to criticism of President Suharto's "New Order" and its anti-communist credentials which, in the height of the cold war era, were considered overwhelmingly important to Western interests.

Papua became a "military operations area" during Suharto's presidency, and was placed under the control of Indonesian security forces. In addition, the vast territory, with some of the richest gold deposits and the purest oil in the world, was transformed into a multi-billion dollar source of revenue for U.S. mining and oil interests.

The Indonesian Army, too, had business interests that extended throughout Indonesia as a corollary of the territorial command structure, reaching from Jakarta to remote villages in WP. Thus, the ousting of Suharto from government in 1998 made no difference locally, for the army remained in place. According to the WP-based human rights group, Elsham, when the Indonesian economy suffered a downturn in the late 1990s, the army intensified its exploitation of WP, particularly through illegal logging schemes. In addition to the army, Indonesian security forces in WP included also police, air force and navy personnel. Among these, a special unit of the police known as mobile brigade (BriMob) is noted for being particularly ready to resort to brutality. The most notorious, however, has been the army special unit known as Kopassus (the Special Forces Command), which also operates as an intelligence service.

In 1977, when Indonesian armed forces moved into the highlands, the most densely populated area of WP, many villages in the mountain valleys were strafed and bombed by Vietnam surplus OV-10 "Bronco" aircraft. According to W. H. Vriend of the Government Hospital, author of the 2003 book Smoky Fires, there were American advisers for the Indonesian pilots, deployed on the tarmac at the main airport in the Papuan highlands at Wamena. An estimated 70 percent of the Tagi people of the Western Dani valley were killed in such raids. Papuans themselves say seventeen thousand people died. Kopassus officers directly from Jakarta selected many Papuan leaders and articulate individuals for slaughter. Extrajudicial killings have occurred throughout the decades since WP fell under Indonesian rule.

In 1997, along the southern foothills of the central range, Major-General Prabowo Subianto (Suharto's son-in-law and head of Kopassus) was responsible for bombing and strafing of villages, and causing widespread starvation by laying waste to all gardens and farm-animals.

In the early twenty-first century, the population of PNG was estimated at 5.5 million inhabitants. By contrast, the indigenous population of WP is only 1.8 million, with an additional 1.7 million "transmigrants" mainly from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sulawesi. Had the indigenous population of WP grown at the same rate as PNG, it should have achieved a total of approximately 3.4 million. The explanation for the Papuan population deficit can be found in the policies pursued by the Indonesian army and police stationed in Papua. The deliberacy of their violence, and the intent underlying their actions, predicates the accusation of genocide.

The indigenous peoples of WP have more recently faced a new threat to their survival, according to medical workers in three regions of the territory who allege that the Indonesian army is deliberately using Javanese prostitutes known to be infected with HIV-AIDS. One of these medical officers produced a detailed report, listing not only the names of sixteen prostitutes brought from Surabaya to Papua, but also the names of those who had become infected from those sixteen, and those who had died.

Today, WP has the highest incidence of HIV-AIDS in Indonesia, more than twice that of PNG. Poisoning of water and food supplies by army personnel has also been alleged, such as in the February 2004 case reported in the Courier-Mail in which seventeen Papuans died in Ilaga Hospital.

Far from arriving in WP to liberate the indigenous peoples from Dutch colonial rule, the Indonesian military since the 1960s has simply replaced the Dutch as colonial overlords with a prison-guard mentality. To the occupying forces, Papuan ethnicity has been treated as the equivalent of a crime. The activities of the Indonesian army in this once-ignored half-island is steadily attracting more Western attention, yet the Kopassus strategy of dealing with Papuan aspirations for independence remains what it has always been: to eliminate it at the source.

SEE ALSO Indonesia


Brundige, Elizabeth, Winter King, Priyneha Vahali, Stephen Vladeck, and Xiang Yuan (2003). Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control. Available from www.law.yale.edu/outside/html/Public_Affairs/426/westpapuarights.pdf.

Lagerberg, Kees (1979). West Irian and Jakarta Imperialism. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Poulgrain, Greg (1984). West Papua: The Obliteration of a People. London: Tapol.

Vriend, W. H. (2003). Smoky Fires: The Merits of Development Co-Operation for Inculturation of Health Improvements. Amsterdam: Vrije Universteit.

Greg Poulgrain

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West Papua, Indonesia (Irian Jaya)

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