West Papuan independence

Why Australia should take a stronger stance

Next Voices

Australia has a history of advocacy and material support for its Pacific island neighbours, including playing roles in the Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands civil unrests. But successive Australian governments have turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s brutal oppression and economic exploitation of the indigenous peoples of West Papua, prioritising cooperation with Indonesia over the welfare of West Papuans. Indonesia’s pervasive abuse of ethnic Papuans has become institutionalised in the decades since its independence. Left unchecked by foreign powers, the West Papuan crisis is the Asia-Pacific’s “silent genocide”.

Australia should strive to be more than an ambivalent bystander to these ongoing human rights abuses by one of its close allies. And, beyond the moral dimension, Canberra might also consider the strategic, trade and military benefits of supporting an independent West Papua as a partner in the region. A tougher stance on West Papuan independence would both strengthen Australia’s position as a leader in the Asia-Pacific and lead to a renegotiation of its relationship with Indonesia, foregrounding greater respect for indigenous rights.

A history of oppression

The island of New Guinea, a mere 200 kilometres from Australia’s mainland, is a land of verdant jungles, soaring mountains and vast biodiversity. The western half of the island, referred to as West Papua by Papuans, is home to around 312 different tribes, including some remote peoples. The first colonisers there were the Dutch, who controlled the territory from the late 1890s, bringing Christianity and European models of political organisation with them. In 1949, after World War II, a decolonisation movement took hold, and the 17,000-island archipelago then known as the Dutch East Indies won the right to self-determination and re-formed as the Republic of Indonesia. The Dutch recognised that ethnic Papuans considered themselves different from other Indonesians – sharing a cultural heritage with Melanesian peoples, such as Solomon Islanders, and practising a mixture of Christian and traditional religions – and so they retained Western New Guinea as a Dutch colony.

During the Cold War, fears of communist rule in Indonesia led to US and United Nations support for Indonesia’s claim to the territory, bolstering the rise of Suharto’s pro-Western dictatorship. Indonesia, the Netherlands and the UN brokered an agreement to allow Papuans to vote for either joining the Indonesian republic or obtaining their independence. This resulted in the infamous 1969 Act of Free Choice ballot, in which a group of barely 1000 local leaders from a population of close to 1,000,000 were coerced into voting in favour of Indonesian rule. Despite the sham election, the international community accepted Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua, and Papuan decolonisation remained unresolved. Papuans still consider Indonesia a foreign occupier, and a small but determined insurgency led by the Free West Papua Movement has persisted ever since.

The plight of the Papuans

The political and humanitarian situation in West Papua has been dire for decades, but the crisis there is now increasingly illuminated by social media. Frequent gruesome videos of protesters being beaten reveal a systematic abuse of power by Indonesian security forces. Papuans’ attempts to procure more meaningful political representation are consistently met with violent retaliation from Indonesian armed forces. A 2018 Amnesty International report detailed recurrent extrajudicial killings carried out by law enforcement, on the order of government officials or with their complicity. Some estimate that more than 500,000 have been murdered or disappeared since 1969, most of these for political activism. The 2001 murder of democratically elected independence leader Theys Eluay by Indonesian soldiers was a watershed moment.

The Papuan provinces – despite being granted special autonomy status in 2001, in an Indonesian bid to transfer limited self-rule – remain rife with corruption, cronyism and absenteeism of government officials. The money from the enormous amounts of resources that Jakarta extracts at Grasberg, in West Papua, the world’s largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, is funnelled away from local people and into the hands of government and security officials, working in cahoots. The now defunct transmigrasi program, encouraging Indonesian economic migration to West Papua, led to a population boom, and native Papuans in the provinces are now on track to become a minority. With Papuans gradually outnumbered by predominately Bahasa-speaking Muslim Indonesians and jobs going to migrant workers, there has been a large disruption to the sociocultural fabric, resulting in violence and cultural tension between migrants and ethnic Papuans. Despite the region’s lucrative natural resources, ethnic Papuans are the poorest demographic in the entire archipelago, many surviving on subsistence living. In rural areas, where residents are almost entirely native Papuans, infant mortality is double the national average. A lack of government services means that Papuans are also the least educated, least healthy and most likely to die from preventable disease, due to scarcity of health resources.

Misplaced hope in Jokowi

The recently re-elected Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, came to power on a platform that included unity, infrastructure development and greater foreign investment. Jokowi receives relatively strong support from local Papuans due to his administration’s funding of new maritime and electrical infrastructure, and a 4330-kilometre trans-Papua road project that seeks to address the isolation affecting indigenous Papuan communities. Jokowi has also lifted bans on international journalists and aid workers operating in West Papua, although they are still required to travel on limited permits and are surveilled constantly. His administration’s promised enquiries into human rights abuses have so far led to investigations into sixty-four cases; but the methodology and reach of the investigators is questionable.

While Jokowi’s attempts to throw money at problems in West Papua have garnered some political favour with locals, they have done little to quell the ever-growing independence movements operating in the provinces. An Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) report damns Jokowi’s “policy mistakes” – moves that have led to misdirected funds, and have done little to improve basic services or to effectively reduce the widespread corruption, electoral fraud and cronyism. The exiled Papuan leader of the United Independence Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, claims that neither special autonomy nor Jokowi’s initiatives have improved the lives of Papuans, the majority of whom continue to support independence, seeing little benefit in being administered by a state that inflicts abuse and neglect.

Risking an important relationship

The post-Suharto Reformasi period in Indonesia has focused on stabilising the Indonesian economy and transitioning to a functioning representative democracy. Australia and Indonesia are forging a closer relationship, bridging the vast cultural divide between their countries in pursuit of a stronger strategic alliance. The two work closely on maritime security and shipping routes, counterterrorism strategies and combating people smuggling. A recently confirmed free trade agreement will allow for growth in two-way trade, which generated A$16.7 billion in 2017. 

Australia has long been reluctant to risk the ire of Indonesia over West Papua. The fear is that Canberra pressing Jakarta on the topic would jeopardise trade and security investments and compromise diplomacy. Jakarta has regularly threatened to take its business elsewhere over diplomatic quarrels, as was indicated by the 2006 dispute over the Howard government’s granting of asylum to forty-two Papuans who arrived by boat. Despite the aid and military training Australia offers, Indonesia has made it clear that its sovereignty is paramount. There are high-ranking elements in the Jokowi administration that still deeply distrust Australia over its involvement in Timor-Leste. Were Jokowi to attempt to relinquish the lucrative natural resource revenue stream to an independent West Papua, he would doubtless face deep resistance from Indonesian powerbrokers. Indeed, the controversial Lombok Treaty, which outlines security cooperation between Australia and Indonesia, would have to be rewritten, as the document specifically prohibits support for separatist groups. The concern is that hardline political elements could force negotiators to go back to basics, impacting on the growing economic, scientific and academic exchanges between the two states.

Mutual benefits for our neighbours

Australian is a consequential regional power in the Asia-Pacific. But it faces a very real risk of slipping towards irrelevance in the shadow of the ballooning economies and influence of China and Indonesia. A key emphasis – and a core strategic aim – of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper is that mature political institutions are of mutual benefit to both developing states and to Australia’s security and trade interests in the Asia-Pacific. China’s increased spending in the region is well documented, and it could soon set its sights on West Papua. Were China to become involved in the Papuan independence movement, it could gain access to an area ripe for development and brimming with natural resources.

A stronger Australian regional influence that encompasses West Papua, including through the Pacific Regional Program, would go some way towards countering China’s presence and to positioning Australia as a reliable alternative. The strategic position of West Papua at the south-western tip of the South China Sea and its proximity to Australia is not to be underestimated. Australia would do well to curtail any Chinese involvement in the violent guerrilla war waging ever louder in West Papua.

Australia should no longer sit idly by while Indonesia abuses human rights. It has a number of foreign policy options it might pursue. Decolonisation could be re-initiated, with the admission of West Papua to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization’s list of seventeen non-self-governing territories. Eligibility for the list is granted through a UN General Assembly vote, which means that West Papua would need more international advocacy – which Australia could provide. Benny Wenda’s 2017 petition calling for a UN investigation into human rights abuses in Papua was rejected on this technicality. But Australia is a current member of the UN Human Rights Council, which seeks to advance human rights for indigenous peoples around the globe, so it is well placed to mediate negotiations between the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and Indonesian leadership.

Once West Papua is admitted, the UN and the Pacific Islands Forum could implement a UN Peacekeeping mission and assist in constructive engagement with Indonesia. In 1999, a successful Australian-headed military operation in Timor-Leste – another Pacific state historically subjected to Indonesian oppression – led to the stabilisation of the Timorese nation and dismantled pro-Indonesian militias. This experience suggests that peacekeeping could strongly deter government-led violence and expose human rights abuses in West Papua, halting this humanitarian crisis in our region.

Australia should assert its influence by supporting the membership of the ULMWP to the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an intergovernmental advocacy organisation made up of Melanesian peoples currently being wooed by Indonesia to prevent ULMWP membership.

A portion of the approximately $316 million that Australia will send to Indonesia this year could fund a political infrastructure for negotiating a new, fair and legally binding vote for ethnic Papuan independence.

Australia also needs to ensure its military and security cooperation does not contribute to ongoing human rights violations, including the Indonesian counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88, accused of acting as death squads in West Papua.

Looking to the future

A strong Australian collaboration with indigenous Papuans would bring myriad mutual benefits. Should West Papua become an independent state, Australia could help fund drastically underdeveloped infrastructure and independent management of its natural resources – crucially, with profits remaining in the country. A strong military alliance, similar to that Australia has with Papua New Guinea, would further Canberra’s push to strengthen our Pacific partnerships. The natural beauty and cultural uniqueness of West Papua could be harnessed for tourism, drawing visitors to the area, creating jobs and boosting development.

Australia needs a sturdier regional foreign policy that will renegotiate partnerships, like that we have with Indonesia, and takes a no-compromise stance on human rights. Were Australia to flex its diplomatic muscles over West Papua, it would be a bold but overdue step. Inevitably, it would have an impact on bilateral relations with Indonesia, but support for the welfare of West Papuans would set a moral standard that also represents a more thorough regional assertiveness on human rights, consolidating Australia’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific. Australia not only has a moral imperative to back the ethnic Papuan majority who want their independence, but it also stands to benefit from it.


Dominic Simonelli is a former Europe and Eurasian Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Read our interview with Dominic here