The demand for independence

Down to Earth No 43, November 1999

The push for an independent West Papua is gaining strength: mass protests met the government's decision to split the territory into three provinces and the vote in East Timor fuelled demands for independence. Internationally, a campaign has been launched to persuade governments to acknowledge that the 'Act of Free Choice', thirty years ago, was a total sham.

Thousands of West Papuans across the territory protested against the Habibie government's decision to divide West Papua into three new provinces. The measure was seen as an attempt by Jakarta to divide the population and weaken the struggle for independence. The decree, dated October 12th, divides West Papua into eastern, central and western provinces each with its own governor. The decree creates a further new province in the Moluccas, North Maluku, and various new districts.

Protests against the division of West Papua continued through August, September and October, and ended with a mass occupation of the local parliament and governor's office in the capital, Jayapura. The occupation ended peacefully when the local parliament announced its rejection of the decree as it had not been based upon consultation with the people of West Papua. Local assembly members were angry that the Habibie government swore in the new governors in Jakarta without their prior knowledge.

The protests against the new provinces were combined with demands for independence - a call which has continued to elicit a brutal response from the military. Police fired shots and beat protestors at a West Papua flag-raising incident in Sorong in July. Amnesty International issued an urgent action bulletin expressing concern for a possible 44 people under arrest following the protest. Nine Sorong protestors have now been put on trial. The continuing hard-line approach of the military underlines Jakarta's message on separation from Indonesia: East Timor, okay, but nobody else!

There have also been incidents of what Indonesians call "horizontal" conflict in West Papua, where communities of different ethnic background or religion are set against each other, usually as a result of provocation. Clashes between Papuans and migrants were reported in Timika, leaving at least 14 dead. Violence has also been reported in Fak-Fak in the west of the territory, where refugees from conflict in Ambon have arrived in their hundreds, resulting in friction with the local Papuan communities. (AFP 1/10/99, Amnesty International ASA 21/58/99)


A different approach or more of the same?

Since the end of the Suharto era, there has been some recognition in Jakarta of the need to respond to the West Papuan independence aspirations. Until now this has taken the form of the "National Dialogue" which promised open discussion on problems in the territory. Discontent in West Papua (as well as other regions) also inspired new laws on regional autonomy and fiscal balance passed in April this year, but these did nothing to quell the demand for independence. The Dialogue has been stalled since a delegation of 100 Papuan leaders presented their unanimous demand for independence to President Habibie in Jakarta in February. Following the meeting Papuan leaders were subjected to intimidation and attacks by the security forces and were forbidden to talk about the results of the meeting. In August five prominent Papuans were banned from travelling abroad. They include Tom Beanal, leader of the Amungme people affected by the Freeport/Rio Tinto mine, three church leaders and a journalist.

The new government of Abdurrahman Wahid has promised special autonomy status for West Papua (and Aceh), immediately to investigate human rights abuses there and prosecute those responsible. However, Wahid has ruled out independence and has assigned president Megawati - known for her nationalism - to deal with West Papua. In the meantime, Investigations by human rights organisations and by Komnas HAM, the Indonesian human rights commission, have produced evidence of atrocities perpetrated by the military in West Papua, all fuelling more demands for change. (Source: Jakarta Post 20/10/99)


The Act of Free Choice - Thirty years on

The 1969 Act of Free Choice legalised Indonesia's occupation of West Papua and opened the door to the countless acts of brutality committed against its people by Jakarta's military. The Suharto regime treated West Papua as a colony in the worst tradition: with the help of foreign companies, its rich natural resources (minerals, timber, fisheries) were exploited to line the pockets of the Jakarta elite; the land was taken for Javanese transmigrants, commercial plantations and infrastructure projects and the indigenous population were controlled by military oppression.

The Act itself was a total sham with the 'free choice' being given under duress by a group of 1,025 Papuans, hand-picked by Jakarta. In August this year evidence was released which revealed how much Australia, the UN, Netherlands and the United States - the main powers involved in the process - colluded to rubber-stamp the Indonesian take-over. A secret US document reported that "Personal political views of the UN team are...95 per cent of Irianese support the independence movement and that the Act of Free Choice is a mockery." Australia was directly involved in this process by arresting and silencing pro-independence leaders. (Sydney Morning Herald 25/8/99)


Mamberamo appeal at UN Working Group

Semuin Karoba, a West Papuan representative at this year's session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, spoke about the Mamberamo dam and mega-project planned for a 7.7 million hectare area in the north of West Papua. He appealed for all parties involved in the dam to consult the 7,300 people whose lives and lands will be affected. He asked them "to listen to their voice and their concerns, to appreciate their basic human rights as inheritors of this land." Until now, he said "almost all policies and decisions for the so-called "development" in West Papua have been made without our knowledge".

(West Papua - The land is ours, 17th Session of the UN WGIP, 26-30 July 1999, Geneva)


In West Papua, the Act of Free Choice was organised and implemented by the Indonesian government. The United Nations' role, ill-defined from the outset, was merely advisory and the UN team in West Papua was unable even to properly monitor the process, such was the level of Indonesian manipulation. Thirty years later, the vote in East Timor, organised by the UN was implemented under a one-person-one vote system. The success of August's East Timor vote only highlights the disgrace of the Act of Free Choice and its endorsement by the UN. It also highlights the need to do something about it.

In October PaVo (the Papuan Peoples Centre for Study and Information) issued an appeal for the United Nations to do just this. It is calling for an international campaign to press governments to re-examine the facts and acknowledge that the Act of Free Choice was a farce. PaVo is planning a demonstration to this effect at the Dutch Parliament on November 19th - the date the UN adopted the resolution which effectively legitimised Indonesian control in West Papua. It is calling on West Papua supporters in other countries to demand the same from their own governments.

For further details contact PaVo, P.O. Box 801, 3500 Av Utrecht, Netherlands, tel +31 30 2763088 fax:+31 30 2321379,


Protests in UK against British companies in West Papua

As part of a national day of action in solidarity with the Free Papua Movement (OPM), offices of mining and gas companies operating in West Papua were occupied by protestors. Both Bristol offices of Rio Tinto, a 13% shareholder in the massive Grasberg gold and copper mine, were occupied by activists, who were eventually ejected by the police. In Manchester, protesters entered the offices of British Gas, whose international arm is developing part of the huge offshore Tangguh gas project in the north-west of West Papua. (SWARM, 7/10/99; pers com).


Canadian company signs oil contract

Continental Energy Corporation announced in September that it had signed a production-sharing contract with state-owned oil company, Pertamina. The contract awards oil and gas exploration rights to PT Apex Ltd, wholly owned by Continental, to the 9,500 sq km Yapen block, off the northeast coast of West Papua. The contract, says Continental, contains special "frontier terms" which are more favourable than standard production sharing contracts. (PRNewswire on behalf of Continental, Vancouver, 28/9/99)