West Papua: Independence and exploitation

Down to Earth No. 44, February 2000

Companies which have profited from Indonesia's iron-fisted rule in West Papua, may be starting to feel jittery as calls for independence grow more insistent.

On December 1st last year celebrations took place in towns all over West Papua to mark the 38th anniversary of independence, declared when the territory was still under Dutch rule. The celebrations were attended by an estimated 800,000 people - well over half the indigenous population of West Papua.

In Timika the day ended in bloodshed - as have many flag-raising ceremonies in the past. According to the local human rights organisation, IHRSTAD, police started firing at protestors who had gathered outside a church to stop the Papuan flag from being lowered. An estimated 28 were injured. The flag had been raised in front of the church on November 10th. Ten people were arrested including Yosepha Alomang, recent winner of the prestigious Yap Thiam Hien Award for human rights. Police have denied using firearms, saying injuries were sustained in the crush of the crowd.

In most other towns, the celebrations passed peacefully, apparently because of an understanding reached between the organisers and the security forces - something new in West Papua, where political dissent is normally countered by brutal means.

An eye witness account in Manokwari highlights the political significance of the day's events:
...I should say it was the first time ever in Manokwari that a large and significant number of West Papuans gathered in one place to remember and reflect on what had happened in the past and pray for the future. The political situation and awareness in Irian Jaya will never be the same again. This is the beginning of a new hope and the central government of Indonesia can not take it lightly. (email message forwarded by osimopiaref@netscape.net, 1/Dec/99)

These words reflect a new surge of optimism among West Papuans that their country will gain independence from Indonesia - an aspiration that few Papuans could dare express openly until May 1998 when the Suharto regime ended. Since then, the movement for independence has become increasingly vociferous.

According to Tom Beanal, the Amungme tribal leader who took on mining company Freeport McMoran in the US courts, it will take three years to get independence, but he warns of much bloodshed on the way.

It is true that Jakarta will not give up West Papua easily. Indonesia earns a lot from the territory's rich mineral, timber and marine resources. It also wants the sparsely populated land for plantations, transmigration sites and ambitious mega-developments like the Mamberamo watershed agro-industrial complex (see DTE 37) and the Biak Integrated Development zone (see DTE 42:13).


Act of Free Choice revisited

A major boost for pro-independence campaigners came in December when the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister agreed to investigate fully and honestly the incorporation of Dutch New Guinea into Indonesia. "Finally, we can look the Papuans in the eyes," said Dutch MP Van Middelkoop, who made the proposal. (Algemeen Dagblad 10/Dec/99)

In October last year PaVo, the Papuan Peoples Centre for Study and Information, launched a campaign to persuade the United Nations and governments to review the Act of Free Choice (see DTE 43:7) and appealed to people in other countries to lobby their governments to do the same.

Contact for more details.

'Papua', yes...Merdeka, no

Speaking on new year's eve in the West Papuan capital, Jayapura, President Abdurrahman Wahid made concessions unprecedented for an Indonesian leader. He agreed to drop the colonialist name 'Irian Jaya' in favour of 'Papua' (pro-independence groups have used the term 'West Papua' for decades); he apologised for the years of human rights abuse in West Papua as well as Aceh, Ambon and other islands; earlier he had agreed to release all West Papuan and Acehnese political prisoners.

However, as Papuan commentators quickly pointed out, a change in name means nothing without the change in political status - and independence is an option which Wahid completely rules out. In his new year speech the president said his duty was to guarantee the unity of the Indonesian republic and warned about creating a "state within a state".

This stance sets President Wahid on a collision course with an increasingly outspoken political class in West Papua. NGOs, tribal elders, students and church leaders are demanding that Jakarta sits down and talks about independence with them. Even members of the provincial government - whose loyalty to Jakarta would never have been questioned before - are demanding that the Jakarta government explain the legal basis for the Indonesian take-over of West Papua and are calling for an international dialogue on the West Papuan case.

At the same time, the independence movement leaders recognise they have much work to do to create a democratic and united movement and devise a coherent strategy to gain independence. There are fears of political manipulation and disturbing reports of militias being recruited - as they were in East Timor - in preparation for orchestrated violence and military intervention.

Where does this leave the scores of investors, Indonesian and foreign, who have exploited the rich resources, cheap land and transmigrant labour to be found in West Papua? In January the provincial assembly announced it would investigate instances of human rights abuse, environmental destruction and land rights violations from 1963, when Indonesia took control of West Papua, to the present day. If the investigation is at all serious and looks into how large investors acquired land and access to resources, it will show many companies in an unflattering light.

Some companies operating in West Papua say they are not concerned about political developments. According to a report in the Indonesian daily, Jawa Pos, plantation companies are continuing as normal and have no plans to pull out. However, the same official source said that companies not yet in West Papua are afraid to invest in West Papua because of the political uncertainties.

Plantations in West Papua are, for the most part , being developed on stolen land - or at the very best on land for which token compensation has been provided. Loggers and plantation developers have been targeted by independence guerrillas of the OPM (Free Papua Movement) in the past and are the cause of much resentment among indigenous peoples. (AFP 1/Jan/2000 &1/Dec/99; Jakarta Post 15/Dec/1999; Reuters 2/Dec/99; Kompas 17/Jan/99)


Freeport/Rio Tinto

For mining companies the outlook may be even bleaker. Resentment runs highest against the US-UK partnership Freeport/Rio Tinto which operates the massive Grasberg gold and copper mine - the biggest single mine in the world. Freeport produces around 230,000 tonnes of ore per day and last year secured Jakarta's permission to increase this to 300,000 tpd. The deal was made without the involvement or consent of the indigenous peoples who live downstream of the mine and who have already suffered its impact for many years.

The company, which has employed Indonesian troops as security guards, has also been the cause of numerous instances of human rights violations. In January a group of 31 Papuans from Mimika district lodged a fresh demand for the closure of the mine at the provincial assembly in Jayapura.The group included Mama Yosepha Alomang. The delegation said indigenous people had been victims of killings, torture, intimidation and rape since the company began exploitation in the early 1970s. They also demanded the withdrawal of troops from the town of Timika which was like a "military base" because of the mine.

The dominating presence of troops and police in the mine area has led to a climate of tension and many violent clashes, most recently during the December 1st independence declaration ceremony in Timika.

Freeport/Rio Tinto does not take responsibility for the impact of its massive presence. The company has made little public reaction to the political turmoil in West Papua generally, commenting only that its operations were not affected by the December violence in Timika. Later that month, the company announced the results of an external environmental study of its operations carried out by international auditors, Montgomery Watson. Freeport said the audit had praised the company for its "exemplary" environmental management system which was "a showcase for the mining industry". It is harder to imagine a greater gap between the corporate gloss and the harsh reality.


Other investors

Other companies which may be watching the political situation in West Papua include the foreign companies exploring the vast oil and gas reserves off the coast of West Papua. These include Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) of the US and British Gas who are developing the enormous Tangguh gas project in seas off the north-western coast; Canadian mining companies, Ingold (subsidiary of nickel miners, Inco); and a host of smaller exploration outfits, some part-owned by notorious Canadian mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland.

Not least in importance are the shadowy business organisations controlled by the Indonesian military, ranging from logging operations to crocodile skin smuggling outfits. These profitable businesses provide military officials with a powerful economic motivation to stay in West Papua - in much the same way as taxes from the Freeport mine play a big part in Jakarta's determination to hold on to the territory. How fast Indonesia's grip on West Papua can be loosened depends on the pace of political organisation in West Papua and the level of support they can secure within Indonesia and from the international community.

(Parting Company Winter 99/2000; Jawa Pos 13/Jan/2000; Jakarta Post, 17/Jan/2000; 23/Dec/99; Detikcom 12/Jan/2000; Dow Jones Newswires 6/Dec/99)