Indonesia needs to clean up its act in West Papua

Photo:Free West Papua Campaign/Facebook

The Indonesian government’s response to the protests in West Papua is undermining its credibility. Without meaningful dialogue between all parties, tensions will remain and protests will continue.  


Violent protests erupted in West Papua following Indonesia’s Independence Day last month when 43 Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, were arrested for allegedly destroying the Indonesian flag.

Videos emerged on social media showing police and an angry mob attacking the dormitories in which the Papuan students had barricaded themselves. The police threw tear gas, and the crowd chanted racial slurs.

The incidents triggered further protests in Papua, which boiled over into violent confrontations between the public and the authorities, killing several people and destroying buildings and governmental structures.

What started as a protest against racism, soon became a call for an independence referendum

The protests in West Papua began as a response to the racist abuse levied against the Papuan students in Surabaya but soon reiterated Papuan demands for independence. Thousands of people took to the streets across the country, demanding justice.

The vice president of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla and other senior members of government believe that a pro-independence group, who call themselves The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), under the command of a prominent Papuan independence leader, Benny Wenda, was behind the violent protest in West Papua. The government is accusing the group of using the protest to further its own objectives and raise the issue of an independence referendum and ultimately independence from Indonesia.  

Free West Papua Protest in the Melbourne CBD on August 2012 asking for the release of all West Papuan political prisoners.
Photo: Nichollas Harrison

The calls for independence have been long-standing

The West Papuan conflict is not new.  Tensions have existed since 1969, after a UN-backed referendum on Papuan independence took place. The result declared Papua as part of Indonesia. However, many Papuans contested the outcome. There were allegations that the Indonesian military had handpicked the 1,026 Papuans who voted and threatened many with violence if they didn’t vote to join Indonesia.  

Since then, the Free Papua Movement has emerged and championed Papuan independence through peaceful protests and insurgencies. The movement is calling for the United Nations to assist West Papua to hold an independence referendum.

The Indonesian government has tried to ease the situation in West Papua by improving economic opportunities. Since Jokowi took office, he has embarked on several infrastructure projects in the province, including the 4,330km Trans-Papua Highway. Under Jokowi, Papua has received more funding for development projects than any other Indonesian region. In 2016, the government also allocated Rp. 85.7 trillion (US$5 billion) to the development of the Papuan provinces.

While funds for infrastructure development has been forthcoming, there has been less progress on human rights. Unlawful killings of protestors continue unabated. Public service provisions are also woeful. Measles outbreaks and malnutrition still ravage Papuan families and the region still sits at the bottom of the national human development index.

Human rights abuses and the internet shutdown are undermining the government’s credibility

Whether the pro-independence group was behind the violence or not, the government’s decision to stymie the flow of information in the region is not helping.  

Photo: Free West Papua Campaign/Facebook

The government defended the decision by saying that it is as a matter of national security. It argues the internet shutdown is necessary to prevent the spread of false information that could further escalate tensions in the region.

But an internet shutdown does not help dispel false information. It aids its spread. As a result of shutting down communications, journalists and civil society were unable to communicate with those on the ground to determine what really happened. According to Human Rights Watch, “restrictions on access to Papua for foreign journalists and rights monitors and a partial internet shutdown have hindered reporting on the situation.”

The internet shutdown has fueled speculation that the government is attempting to cover up human rights abuses carried out by the authorities against West Papuans. Videos have emerged showing Indonesian soldiers giving orders to armed militias to attack peaceful protesters.

In the short term, there are routes to stability

Indonesia must investigate the killings of at least 10 Papuans and either release the detained activists or give them access to lawyers and bring them before a judge. The government must follow legal protocols if it wants to regain public trust.

The government must also fully restore internet access to the region because such communications are vital for dispelling false narratives.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet urged the government “to engage in dialogue with the people of Papua and West Papua on their aspirations and concerns.”

On September 10, Jokowi invited 64 Papuan figures to the presidential palace in an attempt to resolve the issue. However, the meeting will not be enough to solve the problems. The 64 Papuan leaders only represent the elites of West Papua and don’t represent the whole province, making progress impossible.

There is still a long way to go to solve the problem of Papua

Until progress can be made on the key issues of racial discrimination, accountability for human rights violations and regional autonomy, stability in the region will remain elusive.

Indonesia needs to actively engage in talks with all levels of Papuan society, including the pro-independence groups, to come up with solutions on these key issues. Papuans deserve justice, peace, and prosperity from their rich land. While Indonesia has the right to defend its territory, it must do so without bloodshed, injustice, and human rights violations.