West Papuan rebels have declared their province a war zone and appealed to the United Nations for assistance, as they vow to violently resist Indonesian rule until independence talks are entered into. By John Martinkus.

War in West Papua

There is a new war on Australia’s doorstep. After 57 years of sporadic fighting, military crackdowns, killings and detentions by the Indonesian authorities against the West Papuans, the Free West Papua Movement (OPM) last week declared war on the Indonesian government. Speaking in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, its chairman, Jeffrey Bomanak, said fighting wouldn’t end until Indonesia came to the negotiating table to discuss independence for the West Papua region.

In a statement released after the press conference, Bomanak urged “the colonial Indonesian forces, military and police, to respect and obey the international laws of war, and respect the war zones determined by the [National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), the armed wing of the OPM]. As the situation is becoming more desperate by the day for the people of West Papua,” he added, “the OPM makes an urgent appeal to the United Nations Secretary-General.”

This escalation of the independence movement, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, brings with it the potential of an even deadlier conflict, for both sides. In previous generations, West Papuan independence fighters were hopelessly outmatched by the Indonesian military, attempting to overwhelm helicopters and automatic weapons with the most basic of weapons.

In 2002, when I visited the West Papuan camps on the border of Papua New Guinea, independence fighters held a parade so I could take photographs. Watching them march, I remember thinking, you guys do not have a chance. I’d seen the Indonesian military in action in East Timor and Aceh. They weren’t the best soldiers, but they were well-armed with modern weaponry. There were a lot of them and they were brutal. And here were the West Papuans clutching a few old shotguns, hunting rifles, spears and bows and arrows.

Today, many West Papuan fighters are armed with Indonesian-produced weapons, bought or stolen from Indonesian soldiers. The Saturday Paper has seen photographs that appear to show West Papuan independence fighters holding guns resembling FNC assault rifles, as well as a variety of handguns and light machine guns. These weapons are reportedly produced by PT Pindad, the third-largest producer of small arms in the world, which is based in Surabaya, Java. Under licence, it is producing copies of some of the world’s highest-grade military weapons, including a version of the FNC assault rifle, called the Pindad SS2.

This latest militarised push-back against Indonesia is being led by a new generation of Papuans – the children of those killed, imprisoned and forced to flee during deadly confrontations with the Indonesian military in Papua’s remote central highlands. Growing up, these young Papuans also watched on as Grasberg – the world’s largest goldmine – has wreaked havoc on the environment of West Papua while generating billions for its co-owners, Freeport-McMoRan and the Indonesian government. Now adults, they have deeply held frustrations about perceived exploitation of their lands by the Indonesian government.

These frustrations appear to have reached a tipping point in December 2018, in Nduga province, north of the Freeport Grasberg mine. There, the Indonesian government is attempting to build a 4000-kilometre road, which will stretch from West Papua’s largest city, Sorong, through the Papuan mountains and forest to the town of Merauke in Indonesia’s east. Indonesian president Joko Widodo claims the road, the Trans-Papua Highway, will bring commerce and development to these remote regions. However, the highlanders see the road as a threat, which will bring Indonesian migrants and the military to the region. Many fear greater access to the highlands will destroy their way of life, as they believe it did for lowlanders living on the coast. As construction of the highway has progressed, it has catalysed many West Papuans to take up arms in opposition.

On December 1, the day Papuans mark as their declaration of independence from the Dutch in 1963, West Papuan rebels killed more than 20 Trans-Papuan road workers, suspecting they were part of the Indonesian military. The Indonesian government maintains these were civilian workers, and the killings sparked an Indonesian military offensive in West Papua, which is ongoing.

According to sources within West Papua, thousands of Papuan villagers have already been internally displaced, fleeing in fear of reprisals. Highlanders are abandoning their villages and heading into the mountains. By all accounts, the Indonesian military has gone in hard, using helicopters to reach remote areas. As reported by The Saturday Paper in December 2018, the West Papuans have accused the military of using chemical weapons during these operations, including white phosphorous, which is banned by the Geneva Convention rules against the use of chemical weapons on civilians. The Indonesian government has denied these allegations.

Images seen by The Saturday Paper show those wounded during the recent Indonesian aerial bombing are still dealing with ongoing effects and untreated infections. There is no adequate medical care in the central highlands. 

All signs suggest the violence will only escalate, with neither side willing to compromise. The Papuans are no longer talking peace; they are talking war. Last week, rebels shot at a light plane carrying military personnel and government officials, resulting in an Indonesian soldier dying from injuries sustained in the attack. Indonesia’s defence minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, told parliament in no uncertain terms West Papua will remain under Indonesian control, declaring last week that they are “not allowed independence. Full stop.”

Living in exile in Britain, West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda surprised the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in Geneva last week by presenting her with a petition signed by 1.8 million West Papuans. This was the second such attempt to hand the petition to the UN. The document – banned by the Indonesian government – was circulated around West Papua in 2017 and signed in secret by 70 per cent of the population.

Indonesia condemned Vanuatu for helping Wenda deliver the petition, accusing Vanuatu of sneaking the independence leader into a scheduled meeting with Bachelet. Indonesia’s ambassador to the UN, Hasan Kleib, said Vanuatu “deliberately deceived the high commission by taking manipulative steps through the infiltration of Benny Wenda into the Vanuatu delegation”.

Among other demands, the petition calls on the UN to review the controversial 1969 vote that transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. The Act of Free Choice vote, often referred to as the Act of No Choice by its detractors, saw 1026 people – selected by the Indonesian military – vote on behalf of their fellow West Papuans to give up sovereignty for Indonesian citizenship.

The petition also asks for West Papua to be placed back on the UN decolonisation list. This would mean the possibility of a referendum on Papuan sovereignty, which Papuans have been hoping for since a similar referendum in East Timor, now Timor-Leste, resulted in its independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Beyond acknowledging the escalation of the conflict in West Papua, and a promise to monitor the situation, there’s been little response from the Australian government.

The accusations of the use of chemical weapons in Nduga by the Indonesian military have been widely covered in the media internationally. There have been further unconfirmed reports of more aerial bombardments in the area of Mapenduma, north of the Freeport mine, which was the site of a drawn-out hostage crisis in the 1990s.

A spokesperson for the Indonesian government denied any bombing was occurring in the region. Instead, they claimed armed separatists had attacked the Indonesian military on January 31, injuring one officer.

In Port Moresby, Jeffrey Bomanak called on global authorities to hear the pleas of West Papuans and take action. “I call on the good offices of the United Nations in order to investigate the crisis that has been evolving on the Papuan ancestral land since December 2018. The OPM will continue to resist and fight until the Indonesian colonial power recognise[s] the proclamation on the first of July 1971.”

In principle, the Indonesian government has agreed to allow Michelle Bachelet access to the Nduga region. It remains to be seen whether this promise will be borne out. A spokesperson for the Indonesian government told The Saturday Paper that the Indonesian mission in Geneva is still in discussion with the high commissioner about a visit but remains committed to facilitating one. 

This piece was modified on February 20, 2019, to remove reference to Joko Widodo's military background. Mr Joko has not served in the military.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 9, 2019 as "War in West Papua".

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John Martinkus is a foreign correspondent and author.

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