West Papua is fighting for independence from Indonesia
—but will it win regional solidarity for its efforts?
On July 13, Indonesian delegates — angry because the Morning Star Flag, emblem of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), was flown alongside other members’ flags — walked out of the first day of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders’ summit.
The ULMWP is a coalition of Papuan freedom fighters demanding independence from Indonesian control. It and Indonesia have both applied for full membership status in the MSG, but for very different reasons. ULMWP hopes the MSG can bring international attention to their struggle for self-determination, while Indonesia wants to shore up its economic position in the region.
The Indonesian diplomats demanded the flag be taken down, but the organizers ignored them, and the opening ceremony proceeded without the Indonesian delegation.
The summit resulted in a split decision over the ULMWP’s membership status. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) of New Caledonia strongly support ULMWP, while Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG) — nations Indonesia has courted with sweetheart economic deals and financial support — oppose it.
The Indonesian delegations’ dramatic exit and the ensuing vote over ULMWP’s membership can help us understand long-standing political fault lines in the region that date back to the 1970s anti-colonization wave.
The MSG and Freedom
For fifty-two years, different political groups have been fighting for West Papuan independence from Indonesia. Although their ideologies differ, each has pursued a common strategy: trying to build diplomatic connections by joining the MSG.
On December 7, 2014, a historic meeting of these independence groups took place in Vanuatu. Papuan leaders from different factions of the movement came together and formed the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.
This new organization consists of the three main groups — the Federal Republic State of West Papua (NRFPB), the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), and the National Parliament of West Papua (NPWP) — that had until then waged separate struggles for Papuan self-determination. Once they joined forces, they were able to resubmit an MSG application as well as counter Indonesian claims of West Papuan division.
Since it was established, the ULMWP has enjoyed full support from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, which, along with Papua New Guinea, originally founded the MSG.
The MSG began in 1986 as a political gathering of these three independent Melanesian states. In 1989 FNLKS joined, followed by Fiji in 1996. Since then, the MSG has developed into a regional bloc with its own trade agreement. On March 23, 2007, the five members signed the Agreement Establishing the Melanesian Spearhead Group and formalized their coalition under international law.
The MSG differs from the other political grouping in the region — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — in important ways. For one, it takes a more radical approach to human rights violations than ASEAN.
While ASEAN was founded by pro–United States countries, the MSG developed in the spirit of anticolonialism that spread throughout the region in the 1970s. American interests drive ASEAN, but the MSG’s geopolitical identity — especially its claim to represent Melanesia — was forged in its member nations’ struggle against colonial occupation.
The FNKLS’s MSG membership bears this out. The New Caledonian group doesn’t represent a nation, but a political party that has long called for its nation’s political independence from France. The MSG has played an important role in raising FNKLS’s profile globally and making the Kanak Independence Movement an international topic of discussion. The MSG’s history with FNKLS makes the group especially attractive to the West Papuan freedom fighters.
Who Are Melanesians?
An important aspect of the MSG comes from its self-identification as Melanesian, a term that describes a specific group of South Pacific residents, distinct from both the Polynesian and the Micronesian people.
Melanesia literally means “islands of the black-skinned people” and refers geographically to a subregion of Oceania that extends from the western side of the Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea, north and northeast of Australia. Jules Dumont d’Urville first used the term in 1832, but his classification is now considered inaccurate because it ignores the area’s broad cultural, linguistic, social, and genetic diversity.
The original inhabitants of the Melanesian islands were likely the ancestors of the present-day Papuan-speaking people. They are thought to have occupied New Guinea — now divided between independent Papua New Guinea and West Papua under Indonesian control — and reached the other Melanesian islands around thirty-five thousand years ago. They appear to have settled islands as far east as the Solomons, and perhaps even farther.
Around four thousand years ago, the Austronesian people came into contact with the Melanesians along New Guinea’s north coast. A long period of interaction produced many complex changes in genetics, languages, and culture, which are mistakenly used to condense Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian people into one category.
A study published by Temple University, which found that Polynesians and Micronesians have little genetic relation to Melanesians, contests this belief. In fact, it found significant diversity between the groups who live within the Melanesian islands.
Melanesians share a common bond based on identity and a growing consensus against non-Melanesian control. Vanuatu leads what can be called the Pan-Melanesian movement. In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on October 11, 1984, Vanuatu foreign minister Sela Molisa condemned the United Nations for constantly ignoring apartheid in West Papua and closing their eyes to Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor.
Even beyond the region, Indonesian control of West Papua has become a contentious issue. At a UN hearing this June, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands condemned Indonesian security forces for human rights violations in West Papua. Both countries argued that any future visits by the UN Special Reporter on Freedom of Expression should include West Papua.
The Vanuatu statement expressed its “deepest concerns on the deteriorating human rights situation,” citing regular reports of gross human rights violations in West Papua.
The Solomon Islands, meanwhile, strongly endorsed the International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) forum, held in London this May. The gathering called for an internationally supervised vote on West Papua’s independence, a declaration cosigned by cross-regional parliamentarians from fifteen UN member states.
Unsurprisingly, the Indonesian representative reacted strongly, accusing both Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands of their own human rights violations.
Indonesia and Melanesia
Indonesia applied for MSG membership for the first time in 2010. It claimed that, because of its population of at least eleven million Melanesians — spreading throughout the provinces of Papua, West Papua, Maluku, North Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara — it belonged in the regional bloc. But the country’s overtures were met with skepticism.
Most damningly, Indonesia failed to address the cultural differences between Melanesians and Polynesians. For instance, in October of last year, it organized a Melanesian Cultural Festival aiming to promote cultural pluralism and demonstrate how integral Melanesians are to the country. But the event was held in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, a Polynesian — not Melanesian — region.
Prior to the event, Indonesia brought a team to lobby the Melanesian countries, but one of the spokespeople was a Polynesian priest from East Nusa Tenggara. Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands both highlighted Indonesia’s confusion over the difference between Polynesian and Melanesian people, arguing that the people outside Papua who Indonesia likes to refer to as Melanesian are in fact Polynesian.
The confusion didn’t stop there. Indonesia invited East Timor — a Polynesian country — to participate in the cultural festival. The event opened with a dance performance billed as Papuan, but the dancers all came from Malay and Polynesia. The director of a documentary that was supposed screen at the festival pulled out, explaining that she would not let Indonesia use her movie to support its claims on Melanesia.
Indonesia quickly realized that it could not make a credible cultural claim, so the country devised a new strategy: positioning itself as an ideal economic partner for MSG countries.
It targeted Papua New Guinea first. Since their partnership, PNG’s GDP has increased 16 percent. The growing trade links and budding economic ties between the two nations are a match made in free-market heaven. They share land and water borders as well as impressive portfolios of vast natural resources and accessible transportation routes into commercial Asian markets.
Papua New Guinea’s quickly expanding middle class provides Indonesian products and services with a massive new market. And both countries have growing populations, making new labor pools available to globally competitive industries such as manufacturing and textiles. Also, thanks to improvements in information and communications technology, they benefit from newfound access to otherwise inaccessible markets and to geographically remote — yet commercially viable — sectors like agriculture and forestry.
At the invitation of PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill, Indonesian president Joko Widodo visited Port Moresby in May 2015 to negotiate cooperative economic, trade, investment, and infrastructure projects. The two leaders also agreed to increase the value of their current bilateral trade agreement beyond current trading activities in the border areas, which already reach $4.5 million a year.
The two countries have signed eleven memoranda of understanding and three agreements to strengthen their partnership based on mutual respect, O’Neill said. Papua New Guinean elites cite their willingness “to learn from Indonesia’s rich experiences in democracy.”
Next, Indonesia turned to Fiji. In April, an Indonesian delegation — led by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs — traveled to the country. Pandjaitan met with Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, extending $5 million in financial assistance to help the victims of Tropical Cyclone Winston, which hit Fiji in late February. Indonesia sent an additional $3 million worth of goods to aid recovery, and promised to deploy engineer troops to help reconstruct Queen Victoria School on Lawaki Island.
The engagement was welcomed by Fijian elites. Ina Seriaritu, Fiji’s minister of agriculture, rural, maritime affairs, and national disaster management openly praised Indonesia as a key player in the Asia-Pacific region, and called the country’s success in disaster management and mitigation a model. Seriaritu also hailed the two countries’ plans to intensify educational, agricultural, and economic cooperation.
Indonesia moved fast, sending Husni Kamil Manik — chairman of the Indonesian general election commission — to sign a memorandum on cooperation for election management with his Fijian counterpart.
As Indonesia’s public face in Fiji, Pandjaitan expressed his country’s keenness to become a full member of the MSG and listed Fiji as one of its strategic allies. In exchange, Fiji’s foreign minister Inoke Kubuabola remarked that the Fijian government had proposed upgrading Indonesia’s membership status to strengthen the nation’s position in the group of Melanesian countries.
These economic investments later paid off: both PNG and Fiji supported Indonesia at the MSG meeting this July. They not only endorsed Indonesia’s proposal to become a full member — the nation was granted associate member status in 2015 — but also took Indonesia’s side in debates over the criteria for membership in the regional alliance.
But Indonesia’s desire to prevent ULMWP from obtaining full membership has an important side effect: it endangers the FLNKS’s status as co-founding member. Because the FLNKS is a pro-independence political organization, its status is in many ways dependent on that of the ULMWP.
The response to MSG in Indonesia and West Papua is telling. When Indonesia achieved associate membership status, Jakarta newspapers ignored the country’s failure to get full membership and instead focused on its successful block of ULMWP’s application.
The anticolonial party was granted observer status thanks to support from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands at the same meeting. In stark contrast to how it was reported in the capital, ULMWP supporters in Port Numbay celebrated their new status as an internationally significant step in their lengthy diplomatic campaign.
During this year’s MSG meeting, the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) welcomed the summit by holding mass rallies. KNPB chairperson Victor Yeimo called for protesters to present a united front to the international community to increase political pressure on Indonesia. More than five hundred people were arrested over the course of the day.
These protests were not the first time Indonesia shut down a nonviolent KNPB rally. Indonesian repression against West Papua has only increased since June 2015. The Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Jakarta) frequently criticizes the police for their violence. According to Papua Itu Kita (“Papua Are Us”), an Indonesian solidarity network, police have arrested more than six thousand KNPB members and supporters since last summer. Mass KNPB rallies are outlawed, which grants the police and army license for repression.
Recently in Yogyakarta, pro-Indonesia militias stormed the university, harassed Papuan students, and chanted racist epithets while blockading the Kamasan dormitory. The militia group tried to break into the dorm to attack, but the students defended themselves by locking the main gate.
About one hundred students were inside without sufficient food or water. But the police were no help: when two students ventured outside to buy cassava, sweet potatoes, and vegetables for lunch, they were detained and had their food confiscated. In total, seven activists were arrested and charged with treason.
When the news spread across social media, many Indonesians showed their solidarity by collecting food, water, and other basic needs for the Papuans. The country’s Red Cross attempted to deliver aid, but police ordered it to stay away from the location. The next day, in a clear attempt at intimidation, the police held their morning muster outside the dorm.
At the same time, students in Manado and North Sulawesi were not allowed to march, and two activists were arrested and charged with treason as well. Naturally, Indonesia’s restrictions and censorship, its denial of access to international bodies, and its ban on journalists entering Papua have all failed to convince these Melanesians that they are really Indonesians.
The next special MSG summit will take place before September in Vanuatu. But there are some questions that need to be settled first.
For ULMWP, the June vote marked a delay, not a full stop. The Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, ULMWP, and FLKNS just signed an agreement demanding ULMWP’s full membership status in MSG, and connecting the Kanak independence struggle against French rule with West Papua’s fight against Indonesia. The prime ministers of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the FLKNS chairperson, and the ULMWP general secretary all signed it.
Following the agreement, this new alliance met with Polynesian and Micronesian countries in the first international meeting between these nations, political groups, and regional alliances in the Pacific.
Indonesia, on the other hand, continues to tout its success in stalling the ULMWP’s diplomatic aims. Indonesian media repeats state propaganda, referring to the ULMWP as a separatist group that only represents a small part of exiled Papuans.
The majority of Indonesians believe that the problems in West Papua can be solved with more development. They praised the Widodo regime for expanding infrastructure — by grabbing hundreds of acres of indigenous land — and building schools that assimilate Papuan children into the Indo-Malay culture.
For example, they encourage Papuans to have a “more civilized way of life” by eating rice instead of sago. But this is really because sago forests are being converted into palm oil, pulp, and paper mega-plantations. This exploitative economic relationship is one reason why Indonesia will put up a vicious fight to prevent Papuan independence.
At the same time, another group of Indonesians believe that the Papuan demand for self-determination can be resolved by addressing the dozens of open human rights violation cases. They call on the Indonesian government to form separate independent bodies to address each case.
Another faction calls for a “democratic solution”: holding a “peace dialogue as one nation” between Jakarta and the Papuan people. All the extrajudicial killings, all the land grabs, and all the long-term discrimination and racism will be solved through dialogue, and the self-determination demand will be forgotten.
But with each passing day this liberal solution looks more and more far-fetched. Independence is the only solution.
This article was published by Jacobin Magazine