Will dynamics of conflict in West Papua, Indonesia change with COVID-19?

Photo: Apdency / CC BY-SA

Indonesia’s heavy-handed approach has failed to crush Papuans’ nationalist sentiment. COVID-19 is an opportunity for Jakarta to push for reconciliation and address the community’s genuine political concerns.

By Umair Jamal

Is the conflict in West Papua worsening?

In Southeast Asia, there are active armed conflicts in various countries across the region. The Mindanao conflict in the Philippines remains a challenge as several Moro Muslim insurgent groups continue to defy the state. In Thailand, ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents have been fighting against the government for decades. The Rohingya conflict in Myanmar has resulted in the deaths and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

The clash between the Indonesian government and West Papuan nationalists has emerged as one of the deadliest conflicts in Southeast Asia. Indonesia claimed West Papua in 1969 after a group of 1,000 locals voted in favor of joining Indonesia. The west half of the island of New Guinea became the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua. The local population doesn’t recognize the decision and has fought to upend it.

Over 50 years after the takeover, the contested region remains a hotbed of terrorism and militancy. Indonesia has been unable to crush the demand for West Papuan independence. Over the years, Jakarta has used armed militias and heavy-handed police efforts to subdue dissident nationalism.

A growing number of studies warn that the state-led repression in West Papua is getting worse. Amnesty International estimates that “at least 100,000 Papuans have been killed since the 1960s.” The nationalists themselves put the death toll much higher.

Indonesia continues to refuse any third party mediation of the conflict, rejecting “interference” in internal matters. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it may further weaken outside oversight and resolution structures, causing the conflict to escalate.

The growing fragility of Jakarta’s control in West Papua

In West Papua, the question of where sovereignty lies remains contested. The longstanding demand for independence and self-rule has challenged the authenticity of Jakarta’s rule over the West Papuan territories.

Over the years, Indonesia’s central government has offered special autonomy to the region that allows West Papuans to exercise more administrative control than residents of other provinces. However, there is a widespread view among the provinces’ population that the special autonomy status is aimed at managing the region rather than offering political space needed for real reforms. 

West Papuans complain that funds allocated for the region’s development hardly reach the region. For Papuan students, the quest for higher education is both a privilege and a curse as it comes with a price. Papuan college students have recently faced a wave of racially-motivated hate crimes and increasing police surveillance.

The exiled leader of the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua, Benny Wenda, has described West Papuan nationalism as an anti-colonial struggle.

“As Indonesia deliberately tries to create ethnic conflict in West Papua with militia, I must stress that for West Papuans our enemy is not the Indonesian people,” he recently said. “Our enemy is only the system of colonization. We will not be provoked. Our peaceful struggle is for a referendum.”

Currently, there is no international body monitoring the conflict and the emergence of COVID-19 makes any future prospects more difficult still. The growing grievances of West Papuans with Indonesian rule and mounting human rights abuses make the issue a ticking time bomb for Jakarta.

Photo: AK Rockefeller / CC BY-SA

Who will benefit from the COVID-19 threat?  

The Free Papua Movement (FPM), as the independence movement is broadly known, has said it would welcome dialogue with Indonesia’s central government if third party mediations are part of the process. However, Jakarta considers any calls for independence to be terrorism and it is unlikely that the Indonesian government will negotiate or allow mediation. In the coming weeks, Jakarta will probably deploy more security forces and tighten its political and administrative control of the disputed territories.

In the past, Jakarta has denied any international request to intervene in West Papua. Last year, Indonesia won a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, but this only means that Jakarta is better positioned to sideline any criticism of its West Papua policy.

As next-door neighbors, New Zealand and Australia would like to see an end to the conflict, but they have refrained from criticism. In 2006, Australia signed a treaty with Indonesia, pledging to “respect the sovereignty of the Indonesian state and not support separatist movements.”

The independence of East Timor has also taught Indonesia that external intervention should be opposed at all costs. To this end, a complete ban on media coverage in West Papua has prevented the world from seeing the true scale of the crisis. Indonesia has evaded criticism from the international community in part because foreign journalists are banned from entering or reporting from West Papua. Most of the news that comes out of the region is approved by government regulators.

As the world grapples with the pandemic, Indonesia is likely to clamp down harder on West Papua. The spread of COVID-19 into West Papua will further alienate the West Papuans from Indonesia. “The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic appears likely to stall any peaceful resolution, with conflict in West Papua continuing at various flashpoints. Public health issues will take priority, and could distract attention from the West Papuan cause for some time. Despite this, West Papuan claims are unlikely to be abandoned,” notes a recent report published by the Lowy Institute.

Does Jakarta need to change its West Papua policy?

Indonesia’s government needs to carry out serious reforms if it is determined to keep West Papua a part of Indonesia. To forge sustainable peace in the disputed region, Indonesia should work on addressing the indigenous people’s demands. The mismanagement of development funds, rampant underdevelopment and strict policing of the region remain key issues. A partnership between government and civil society is necessary to bridge the existing trust deficit.

Indonesia cannot successfully govern the West Papua region unless it has the support of the local people. West Papua’s large young population base represents a big opportunity for Indonesia as winning their support can go a long way towards addressing Jakarta’s concerns. Offering better education opportunities and curbing the growing racism against Papuan students would be steps in the right direction for Jakarta. Unless the community’s core needs are fulfilled, West Papua’s demand for independence will not abate.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15