The Guardian 21 February, 2007

A guide to West Papua:
Some questions answered

Where is West Papua?

West Papua is about 200 kilometres from the Australian mainland. It is the western half of the island of New Guinea. The other half of the island is the independent state of Papua New Guinea. Taken as a whole, the island is the third largest in the world (after Australia and Greenland).

West Papua has a land area of 418,000 sq km. To put this in perspective, it is more than half the size of New South Wales, which has a land area of 809,444 sq km.

What is the population of West Papua?

West Papua’s total population is approximately 2.6 million. About 65% are indigenous West Papuan and 35% are non-West Papuan (from elsewhere in Indonesia).

Who are the West Papuans?

The West Papuans have been on their island for as long as 50,000 years. They had a distinct ethnic identity long before Europeans entered the region in the 16th century. They practised sedentary agriculture in the highland basins, and used advanced irrigation and swamp drainage techniques. They are a Melanesian people i.e. in physical appearance they resemble Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders and the people of neighbouring Papua New Guinea. Meriam Mer, the language of the eastern group of Torres Strait Islands, is closely related to many Papuan languages.

How different is West Papua from Indonesia?

Indonesia’s own diversity is reflected in its national motto (Unity in Diversity). Seafarers, traders and merchants from neighbouring islands in eastern Indonesia have been familiar with the west coast of Papua for centuries. However, West Papua, currently Indonesia’s easternmost province, has long been recognised as a very different place.

How did Indonesia come to rule over West Papua?

The Netherlands was the colonial ruler of the islands that comprise modern-day Indonesia including West Papua. Indonesia became independent in 1949 and insisted that West Papua should also belong to it. After growing pressure, the Netherlands agreed that West Papua would be transferred to an interim United Nations Temporary Executive Authority from October 1, 1962 to May 1, 1963. Indonesia would administer West Papua from May 1, 1963 until the end of 1969. West Papua’s inhabitants would be allowed to participate in an act of self-determination before the end of 1969.

However, Indonesia refused to allow a "one person, one vote" system. Instead, it hand-picked 1,022 West Papuans — less than one-tenth of one percent of the population — and coerced them to vote for integration with Indonesia. This episode, officially known as the Act of Free Choice, is referred to as the Act of NO Choice by many West Papuans today.

The Australian government was complicit in this episode. In May 1969, two young West Papuan leaders named Clemens Runawery and Willem Zonggonau attempted to go to New York to sound the alarm about the Act of Free Choice. When their plane stopped to refuel in the Australian-administered Territory of Papua and New Guinea (today known as the independent state of Papua New Guinea), Australian authorities detained them on the instructions of the Indonesian government. By stopping them from reaching the United Nations, our government helped Indonesia take over West Papua, which was not what the majority of the West Papuans wanted. The Australian government therefore bears a responsibility to stop the Indonesian military’s human rights violations.

What are the facts about human rights in West Papua?

The US State Department’s 2006 report on human rights stated:

There was evidence that the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) considered anyone killed by its forces in conflict areas to be an armed rebel. The government largely failed to hold soldiers and police accountable for such killings and other serious human rights abuses.

NGOs in Papua reported widespread monitoring by intell­igence officials as well as threats and intimidation. Activists reported that intelligence officers took their pictures surreptitiously and sometimes questioned their friends and family members regarding their whereabouts and activities.

During the year 2006, indig­enous people, most notably in Papua, remained subject to widespread discrimination, and there was little improvement in respect for their traditional land rights. Mining and logging activities, many of them illegal, posed significant social, economic, and logistical problems to indigenous communities. The government failed to prevent domestic and multinational companies, often in collusion with the local military and police, from encroaching on indigenous people’s land.

According to Amnesty International’s annual report in 2006:

Tight restrictions on access to Papua by international human rights monitors, as well as harassment and intimidation of local activists, hampered independent human rights monitoring. At least two peaceful supporters of Papuan independence were sentenced to long jail sentences. There were reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and ill-treatment.

In April, prisoners of conscience Yusak Pakage and Filep Karma were sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison respectively for having raised the Papuan flag in December 2004. Both were imprisoned in Jayapura, Papua province, and had lodged appeals to the Supreme Court by the end of the year.

Doesn’t Indonesia have the right to exclude independent human rights monitors and foreign media on the grounds of national security?

These restrictions are not being imposed for national security but to prevent the world finding out about the extent of human rights violations by the Indonesian military. Any reasonable restriction should be in line with Principle 19 of the widely accepted Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Information.

The Australian governmentt and the opposition both say they support Special Autonomy for West Papua. What is Special Autonomy?

After the resignation of Indonesian dictator Suharto in May 1998, West Papuans hoped to renegotiate their territory’s relationship with Jakarta. The Indonesian military, however, murdered or imprisoned senior West Papuans; the chairperson of the Papua Presidium Council, Theys Eluay, was strangled to death and five other leaders were imprisoned. Referring to his killers, the chief of the Indonesian army General Ryamizard Ryacudu said that "for me, they are heroes because the person they killed was a rebel leader". The next month, Indonesia’s president instructed the military leadership to "execute your assignments and responsibilities to your best ability without constantly experiencing anxiety about violating principles of human rights".

The Indonesian authorities then offered Special Autonomy. West Papuans drafted a Special Autonomy bill that would have resulted in a greater share of revenues from resource extraction projects (70% of oil and gas and 80% of mining). Funds would be allocated over a 20-year period towards health, education and infrastructure that benefits rural communities. Papuans would be represented in an upper house — the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP or Majelis Rakyat Papua) — which would uphold indigenous interests. Any administrative division of West Papua would have to be deliberated by the MRP and approved by the provincial parliament. Migration to West Papua would be guided, supervised and controlled by the provincial government. It was, in short, an excellent opportunity for the Indonesian authorities to demonstrate trust and resolve matters.

Unfortunately, the Indonesian government rejected many of these proposals. The Minister for Home Affairs Hari Sabarno allowed only a watered-down version of the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP). The Indonesian president at the time signed an instruction on January 27, 2003 in which West Papua would be partitioned. When West Papuans challenged the partition in the Constitutional Court, the court ruled that the partition was unconstitutional, but that it should continue to exist since it had already been implemented!

Large demonstrations therefore occurred under the leadership of the Papuan Traditional Council. Protestors presented the Indonesian authorities with a coffin marked "Special Autonomy". Furthermore, although the Special Autonomy law permits the flying of a flag symbolising West Papua’s cultural identity, two West Papuans who did so were sentenced to ten and fifteen years’ jail for treason. This is the context in which the Australian government and the federal opposition’s support for Special Autonomy should be understood. As long as Special Autonomy means a Jakarta-imposed caricature rather than a genuinely democratic institution, Australian support will conceal more than it reveals.

How can I help?

You can write to Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, who have been sentenced to 15 years and 10 years in prison respectively for organising a flag raising ceremony in West Papua on December 1, 2004. Amnesty International says that they are in prison simply because of their peaceful political actions and has declared them Prisoners of Conscience. They are currently in prison at the following address:

Lembaga Pemasyarakatan Abepura
Jalan Keshatan, Abepura,

If you send a card to Filep or Yusak please use a simple, non-political greeting ("I am thinking of you", "Merry Christmas" etc) because political messages will very likely be confiscated by the prison. Please also use ‘Papua’ rather than ‘West Papua’ because the Indonesian authorities oppose the use of the latter term and may not allow the mail to go through.

By raising their profile, you are helping to ensure their safety.

You can talk to your friends and family about West Papua and invite a speaker to your community, church or local group. Contact Free West Papua at

You can also talk to your local politician about West Papua and insist that independent human rights monitors be allowed into West Papua.

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