Indonesia escalates repression in West Papua
Indonesia escalates repression in West Papua

“The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights”, quipped the late British-American oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty. In West Papua, 2.5 million Indigenous Papuans have inherited the rights to neither their land nor the rich mineral resources that lie beneath. The violent suppression of protests across West Papua in the last month, resulting in at least 10 deaths and the jailing of pro-independence activists, shows that little has changed since Indonesia’s military takeover in 1963.

“When we non-violently march on the street calling for a referendum, Indonesia arrests and kills us”, Benny Wenda, chairperson of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, said on 9 September. “When we invite international media to hear our stories, Indonesia bans them from entering. When we try to tell the world what is happening through social media, Indonesia cuts off the internet. Under Indonesian occupation, West Papua is like the biggest prison in the world.”

For half a century, the Indonesian military has facilitated US mining corporation Freeport McMoRan’s plunder of gold and copper from the Papuan highlands. Over the last 15 years, oil giant BP has operated a liquefied natural gas plant in Bintuna Bay, south of Bird’s Head Peninsula. Like Freeport McMoRan, BP works closely with the military and police to target Papuan activists demanding human rights and self-determination. It is a sweetheart deal: Jakarta’s Western donors train and equip Indonesia’s armed forces, under the guise of “counter-terrorism”, to guard strategic industries; and the protection racket ensures untold wealth for Jakarta’s elite and the major shareholders of two of the world’s most powerful mining and energy companies. Meanwhile, most Papuans are left destitute, their ancient rainforests and livelihoods destroyed.


In 1936, Dutch geologist Jean Jacques Dozy scaled Mount Carstensz (today known by its Indonesian name Puncak Jaya), the highest mountain in the Dutch East Indies. On the way to the summit, a snow-covered peak 4,800 metres above sea level, Dozy noticed a mineral-rich outcrop. He took samples that revealed rich gold and copper deposits. The deposits were left untouched until 1959, when the New York Times reported the discovery of alluvial gold in the Arafura Sea, to the south of West Papua. Their source was the “Ertsberg” – Dutch for ore mountain – Dozy had stumbled upon.

At the time, the territory’s independence was being considered by the United Nations Decolonisation Commission. When the Netherlands conceded Indonesian independence in 1949, the fading European colonial power refused to give up control of resource-rich West Papua. A Dutch-trained Papuan elite, however, began to develop a national consciousness and agitate for their national rights. They formed the Papuan National Council and a provisional government with a military, police force, currency, national anthem and flag. On 1 December 1961, the West Papuan “Morning Star” flag was raised for the first time in the colonial capital, Hollandia (now referred to by its Indonesian name Jayapura).

The assertion of Papuan national identity was an affront to Indonesia’s nationalist president Sukarno, who led the country’s independence struggle against the Dutch. Indonesia declared war on the Netherlands and invaded West Papua. At the urging of US president John F. Kennedy, the United Nations sponsored an agreement between Dutch and Indonesian officials; interim control of the territory was signed over to Indonesia. The transfer provided US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold with a golden opportunity: it secured from Indonesian army commander general Suharto a mineral exploration agreement.

Backed by the United States, Suharto launched a violent coup against Sukarno in 1965. Indonesian communists, their sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were targeted in a brutal military campaign that left around a million dead. Suharto abruptly changed Indonesian foreign and economic policy, the country becoming a key ally of Washington and welcoming foreign investment. Freeport soon signed a contract with Suharto’s military regime for mining rights at Ertsberg. In return, Indonesia secured the promise of substantial tax revenues and a 10 percent stake in the company’s local subsidiary. After a $175 million construction project, the Ertsberg mine began operation in 1973.

Meanwhile, the Suharto regime denied 815,000 West Papuans an “act of free choice”: an independence referendum promised by the United Nations. Raising the West Papuan flag and singing the national anthem were banned. When, in May 1969, two Papuan politicians crossed the border into Papua New Guinea to expose Indonesian repression to the outside world, they were jailed on Manus Island by Australian colonial authorities.

In August 1969, 1,026 Papuans, hand-picked and closely watched by the Indonesian military, voted unanimously to give Indonesia control of their country. West Papua was declared a military operation zone, and dissent was violently suppressed. Western governments looked the other way. Australia’s external affairs minister Garfield Barwick wrote that an independent West Papua would be a “standing provocation” to Indonesia; Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was, in his view, more important than Papuan self-determination.


Today, the Grasberg mine – a joint venture between Freeport McMoRan and state-owned Indonesia Asahan Aluminium – operates three kilometres from the site of the now exhausted Ertsberg mine. It is the world’s fourth largest gold mine and second largest copper mine, with deposits estimated to be worth US$14 billion. It is also Indonesia’s largest single source of tax revenue.

Despite the provinces of Papua and West Papua gaining special autonomy status, and provincial administrations getting a larger share of mining revenues, most of the population receive few benefits. The 2010 census estimated GDP per capita at $3,510, compared to the Indonesian average of $2,452, but poverty rates are more than 30 percent – three times the national average. The two provinces also have the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates in Indonesia, the worst health indicators and the poorest literacy rates. It’s no wonder that Papuans have rejected Jakarta’s fake autonomy and are demanding independence.

In the decades since the overthrow of Suharto in 1998 and the Timor independence referendum in 1999, several factors have contributed to the resurgence of Papuan nationalism. First is the economic injustice arising from socially and environmentally destructive development projects. Second is the conflict over land and resources between migrants and indigenous Papuans after decades of state-sponsored migration into West Papua from other part of Indonesia. Third is the institutional racism, discrimination and marginalisation than indigenous Papuans face in all aspects of Indonesian society. Fourth are the state-sanctioned human rights violations committed by Indonesian troops and police.

While the Grasberg mine has been a source of untold wealth for its owners, it has brought poverty and repression for locals. Earthworks, a non-profit environmental organisation, estimates that the mine dumps 200,000 tonnes of tailings into the Ajkwa river system every day, turning thousands of hectares of verdant forest and mangroves into wasteland and muddying once crystal-clear waters. In the river delta, thousands of unlicensed panners compete to sell their pitiful findings to corrupt police and military. A 2005 New York Times investigation reported that Freeport paid local military personnel nearly US$20 million between 1998 and 2004, including $150,000 to one officer, to provide external security for the mine and its access roads and pipelines.

The once sleepy village of Timika, home to 1,000 indigenous Kamoro people in the 1950s, has been transformed into a boom town with a population of 130,000 by the influx of Indonesian workers, security personnel and women engaged in prostitution. Its streets are lined with gold-processing shops, bars and brothels. Over the last decade, HIV has spread faster in Papua than in any other Indonesian province.

In the valleys surrounding the town, where Papuans have pursued traditional subsistence farming, “land has been taken away, directly by Freeport ... and indirectly, as the Indonesian settlers have appropriated it”, according to Agus Sumule, professor of agricultural socioeconomics at the University of Papua. “The stresses [on indigenous people] are intense”, he told the Guardian.

Over the last half century, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians have been relocated to West Papua in a giant social engineering project. The policy of transmigration, which officially ended in 2015, supposedly contributed to “national unity” and sharing the benefits of national resources. However, transmigration has created difficulties for indigenous Papuans and new migrants alike. Indonesian settlers dominate major population centres such as Timika, West Papua’s capital Jayapura, Wamena in the central highlands and Manokwari, on the oil-rich Bird’s Head Peninsula. Writing in 2002, journalist John Martinkus observed of Jayapura:

“It’s a colony, and the Indonesians have tried to recreate the feeling of an Indonesian city, one they can feel comfortable in and work in. You get the feeling they are only at ease in the crowded streets and alleys of the town centre and not the mountains beyond, which are full of people they nervously deride as savages and whom they laugh at for their lack of sophistication but whom in reality they fear.”

Martinkus’ description conveys an air of hopelessness; West Papua is often portrayed as being “swamped” by Indonesians from Java and Sulawesi. Yet the latest protests demanding West Papuan self-determination are unprecedented in their breadth and scale, gaining support in other Indonesian provinces.

In the last two weeks of August, thousands protested across West Papua, setting fire to government buildings and confronting police. The provocation was a 16 August police and military raid on a student dormitory in Surabaya, West Java. Forty-three West Papuan students were arrested and taken to a police station in the city over claims by nationalist vigilantes that the Indonesian flag was found in the gutter by the building.

The day before the students’ arrest, on the eve of Indonesia’s independence day, the vigilantes had laid siege to the student dormitory, cutting power to the building and attacking those attempting to deliver food to the trapped students. The next morning, the mob was filmed chanting “get rid of the Papuans right now” and “monkeys, get out”.

According to human rights lawyer Veronica Koman, five students were injured. “Racist Indonesian ultra-nationalists insist that West Papuans can’t be free, but they don’t want West Papuans at the same time too”, she told the ABC. Koman, an Indonesian citizen currently abroad, now faces an arrest warrant on charges of treason.

According to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, 30 protests took place inside and outside West Papua in the week following the Surabaya police assault on the student dormitory. “Today’s protest is different because it’s so widespread”, he told the ABC. “The spread of the protests indicates the deep frustration among indigenous Papuans against Indonesian rule.”

As the protests escalated, Indonesian authorities suspended internet access in West Papua, restricted journalists’ access to the two provinces and deported four Australian observers. Since then, it has been difficult for media to verify the extent of military and police repression, though SBS reported that at least eight bodies were located after Indonesian forces opened fire on protesters in Deiyai Regency on 28 August.

West Papuan students studying in Java have also been the target of police raids and attacks by Indonesian nationalist militias. More than 800 are now returning home amid fear of reprisals. According to new website Suara Papua, police and military raids across Java have resulted in eight arrests. On 30 August, two Papuan students were arrested in Depok, West Java, during a police raid on a student dormitory. On 31 August, the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua spokesperson, Surya Anta, was arrested in Jakarta, accused of “subversive” acts in relation to his advocacy for West Papua. On the same day, another solidarity activist was arrested at a protest outside Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Regional Police station, and three Papuan women were arrested in a joint army and police raid at a student residence in South Jakarta.

The Australian government is complicit in the repression of Papuan demands for self-determination. In the 1970s, Australian-supplied military helicopters were used to carry out indiscriminate shootings and napalm bombings, according to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission. In 2006, John Howard’s Coalition government signed the Lombok Treaty, a security agreement with Indonesia. According to South-East Asian security expert Damien Kingsbury, the treaty “precludes Australia’s involvement in West Papuan matters and [demands] respect for Indonesian sovereignty”.

In 2013, prime minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Bali that “the people of West Papua are much better off as part of a strong, dynamic and increasingly prosperous Indonesia”. Responding to a protest in which three West Papuan students occupied the Australian consulate, Abbott said: “We have a very strong relationship with Indonesia. We are not going to give people a platform to grandstand against Indonesia”. To date, prime minister Scott Morrison has refused to comment on Indonesia’s repression. On 2 September, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told SBS News that Australia “recognises Indonesia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over the Papua provinces”.

Papuans’ struggle for self-determination demands our solidarity. As in the case of Timor Leste, and many others struggles for self-determination across the South Pacific, the Australian ruling class has stood side by side with colonial powers and military regimes against indigenous peoples. We must insist that indigenous peoples, not powerful corporations, decide what happens to the mineral deposits that lie below their land and sea.

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