2 August 2019 marked 50 years of West Papua's official incorporation to Indonesia via the UN-facilitated 'Act of Free Choice' referendum. For all these years, a West-Papuan independence movement existed, and is in the news once again.

Ironically, the trigger for the recent round of demonstrations for West-Papuan independence came when Indonesia was celebrating its 70th Independence Day. On 17 August, an Indonesian flag was reportedly found damaged outside a university hostel of West Papuan students in Surabaya, a city on the island of East Java. As soon as the reports of this incident circulated, a large crowd gathered outside the building along with the Indonesian authorities and started shouting racist slurs and Anti-West Papuan slogans. Using tear gas, the authorities raided the dormitory and arrested 43 West Papuan students who were later released without any charges.

The incident led to widespread protests from West Papuans against the Indonesian administration,in a spontaneous reflection of the institutional violence and racism that they have been subjected to over the last fifty years.

While on one hand, the recently re-elected President of Indonesia, Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, called for calm and ordered police to take "stern, legal action against acts of racial and ethnic discrimination," on the other, internet was cut-off in West Papua and over 1,000 Indonesian security personnel were deployed to the provinces of Papua and West Papua. This led to violent stand-offs between the demonstrators and security forces. Reportedly, a member of an unidentified Papuan separatist group was shot dead by Indonesian police during an exchange of fire.

The background

West Papua, which was originally populated by Melanesian people, was colonized by the Dutch in 1898, alongside the islands that now make up Indonesia. When Indonesia gained independence in 1949, West Papua, which was geographically, culturally and ethnically different, did not join the newly formed Indonesian state and instead,declared itself independent in 1961.

The Indonesian government under Sukarno wanted all former Dutch-colonies under its governance. The resource-rich region of West Papua was a key target and the Indonesian military soon invaded the region. Witnessing a conflict brewing between the Netherlands, Indonesia, and the West Papuan population, the United States stepped in.In 1962, the US under Kennedy brokered a deal between the Netherlands and Indonesia called the 'New York Agreement’, which gave control of West Papua to United Nations for a year.In 1963,control was transferred to Indonesia on a condition ofholding a referendum.

This referendum was called 'The Act of Free Choice', which took place in 1969 under the supervision of the United Nations (UN). Indonesia took full control of the elections and its military handpicked a mere1,025 people out of over one millionto vote.The vote reaffirmed Jakarta’s control over West Papua. But the Papuan's called the election a sham where the UN remained a mere spectator while Indonesia rigged the whole process in its favour. This gave rise to the West-Papuan independence movement, which for all these years, has marked its presence through pacifist movements as well as armed struggles.

Why is West Papua so important?

Resource extraction happens to be at the core of this tussle between Indonesia and the West Papuans. According to ‘Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)’, WestPapua is rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, silver, natural gas,etc., and the Indonesian government is exploiting these resources ever since ittook over the province. The Indonesian authorities via its military have beenrepeatedly accused of being in hand with big corporates in exploiting theregion’s natural resources, its population and the environment.

West Papua’s Grasberg Mine, the largest goldmine and the second largest copper mine in the world, has been at the centre of Indonesian control over the region. Grasberg Mine is jointly owned by a US company, Freeport-McMoran, and the government of Indonesia. According to Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), who has been in exile since 2003, the contract between the Indonesian government and Freeport was signed in 1967 - two years before the 'Act of Free Choice' vote took place. Over the years, Freeport has been regularly accused of environmental contamination and funding the Indonesian military to secure the mines, which in turn, has suppressed the natives.

The racism, discrimination and suppression that the Papuans have facedis essentially premised upon this extractive economy that Jakarta has nurtured.

International reactions

The reaction of the international community on the ongoing situation has remained as stagnant as it has been for the last fifty years. Indonesia's status as the largest economy of Southeast Asia and as the fourth most populous country in the world seems to be overshadowing its control over West Papua.

For instance, Australia has supported the Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua just like the United States, which has an important economic presence in the conflicted region.

The only exception are the Melanesian Pacific Island states with Vanuatu being a longstanding supporter of West Papuan independence. In 2015, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) consisting of Vanuatu, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, granted observer status to Benny Wenda, thus giving international representation to the Papuan pro-independence group.

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in its totality has had a mixed stance on this issue. At the recently concluded Pacific Islands Forum, at which Indonesia is a dialogue partner, the member states pushed for an investigation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in West Papua within a year and asked Jakarta to finalise the timing of the visit by the UN high commissioner over the reported human rights abuses in the region. An agreement for the same had been negotiated a year ago but was never materialized.

Indonesia on its part has continuously maintained that West Papua is its "internal affair" and that "no other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them." The PIF, while acknowledging the human rights abuses in West Papua, also reaffirmed recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua in its communiqué.

Further, the West Papuan independence struggle has found support from individual leaders across the world and not from any major country in particular.

What now?

With a week gone by, the protests are far from being over as thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in West Papua. The Surabaya incident has managed to open an old wound which is bound to become more violent with every passing day. Politically, the West Papuan freedom struggle has never impacted the mainland politics of Indonesia, thus, Jokowi will in all possibility emerge unscathed out of this. Though these protests are bound to impact the well-maintained ‘liberal’ image of the President in the international community owing to the increasing coverage in the international media.

It remains to be seen if anyone from the international community brings the issue up with the Indonesian government in the coming days or even issues a statement on the ongoing crisis. An important intervention here would be that from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, provided the Indonesian government’s finalization of a date for the commissioner’s visit.

What is evident is that the Surabaya incident has given new wheels to the West Papuan freedom struggle and the current movement, even if subdued soon, is bound to fuel the future of the struggle in the years to come.