The arrival of Australian troops in East Timor in September 1999 sent such a clear signal to the Indonesian settlers in West Papua that 60,000 of them left for other parts of Indonesia. It seemed at the time that independence for West Papua, the other province of Indonesia that had been forcibly integrated into the unitary republic back in 1962, was just a matter of time.
The parallels between West Papua and East Timor were obvious. Both had been taken over by Indonesia on very shaky legal grounds. Both had identified strongly with their former European colonial masters, the Papuans with the Dutch and the East Timorese with the Portuguese. And in each case their integration into neighbouring Indonesia was approved by the United States and Australia as part of the Cold War strategy to keep Indonesia out of the communist camp.
Both territories had suffered the full force of the Indonesian military’s attempt to crush any resistance. In West Papua this left at least 100,000 people dead and inspired a legacy of hatred for the Indonesians that fuelled the independence movement.
In 1969, the Act of Free Choice, a sham plebiscite that allowed only 1,026 representatives chosen by the Indonesians from an indigenous population of 814,000 to vote on whether to remain a part of Indonesia, had apparently consigned West Papua to permanent occupation. But in 1999, as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor drew to a bloody close (and the Australian and American governments were finally compelled to condemn the actions of the Indonesian military), it seemed that the other great historical wrong to Australia’s north might finally be redressed.
A wave of support for independence went through West Papua. The Morning Star flag, the emblem of Papuan independence, was flown for the first time without bloodshed, and massive rallies for self-government took place in the capital Jayapura, culminating in the 2nd Congress of West Papua in June 2000. For the time being the Indonesian military did not respond. Theys Eluay, leader of the Papuan Presidium Council, could credibly claim to speak for all Papuans when he demanded a UN-sponsored referendum for the people of West Papua to decide whether to remain a part of Indonesia.
But the Indonesian military was not idle for long. Militia groups were set up and Laskar Jihad, a group of militant Islamic fundamentalists allied to the Indonesian army, was now moving into the province. Leaders were tailed and monitored and death lists drawn up. Then, on the night of 11 November 2001, on his way back from a dinner in the capital with members of Indonesia’s special forces,West Papua’s most prominent pro-independence leader, Theys Eluay, was murdered.
It was a deliberate assassination designed to divide the independence movement and provoke the Papuans to violence. When riots broke out in Sentani, Theys’ home town, it looked for a moment as if the strategy might work. But the West Papuan leaders called for calm and the people, for the moment, kept their heads.
I went to West Papua in April 2002 to explore the aftermath of the Eluay assassination and to have a look at the independence movement on the ground. West Papua is remote and expensive to travel to. These reasons alone are enough to deter most visitors, but the Indonesian military has until recently made it doubly difficult for journalists to spend any amount of time there. It is commonplace for journalists requesting visas to travel to Papua to have their request denied with little or no reason given. To travel there “undercover” as a tourist is to risk arrest, and this has, in fact, become increasingly common. On arrival the journalist is heavily monitored, he is kept track of and the atmosphere of intimidation and subtle threat from the Indonesian authorities makes West Papua a very unpleasant place to work. But the threats to foreigners are negligible compared to the risks incurred by those people – leaders, activists, human rights workers – who persist in trying to maintain a flow of reliable information from the province regarding the activities of the Indonesian authorities who are engaged in the business of repressing them. Because of this climate of fear inside West Papua and the effect it has on what people will say, I knew I also needed to speak to the guerrilla leaders of the OPM (the Free Papua Movement), which has long been the umbrella group for the resistance to Indonesian occupation.
In July 2002 I travelled to Vanimo in Papua New Guinea, just across the border from West Papua, to interview Mathias Wenda, the commander of the arms-bearing division of the OPM known as the OPM–TPN or the Liberation Army of West Papua.
The guerrillas Wenda commands are the inheritors of an armed struggle that began almost as soon as the Indonesians arrived. In 1963, a broad-based resistance led to uprisings in several regions of West Papua before the Act of Free Choice. Then, in 1977, revolt in Wamena in the highlands spread to almost all the regions of the province.
Many of those now in the camps on both sides of the border, training as soldiers and pledging allegiance to the OPM, are highlanders. Some like Wenda fled in the late seventies and early eighties as the operations against them intensified. Others took flight more recently. For these guerrillas, the death of Theys was a call to arms. The non-violent dialogue he had espoused had only led to his death.
The repressive strategy being played out now in West Papua by the Indonesian authorities is an intimately familiar one. Only the most blinkered and partisan supporter of Jakarta could refuse to admit to the culpability of the Indonesian military in the destruction of East Timor in 1999, an event that forced the Australian government in the end to act decisively to stop the violence under massive Australian public pressure. Now, as the same Indonesian commanders and the same instrumentalities of its military elite are moving towards a comparable goal in a province that also lies directly to the north of Australia, the line has been drawn and it seems we have no outrage left.
This is an extract from John Martinkus's Quarterly Essay, Paradise Betrayed: West Papua's struggle for independence. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY