I recently visited West Papua and was very surprised how different it is from the rest of Indonesia, Journalists are banned from entering the region so the outside world rarely hears about what happens.West Papua was colonised by the Netherlands in 1898, along with the islands that now make up Indonesia. When the Republic of Indonesia became an independent nation state in 1949, West Papua remained under Dutch control. The Dutch government began preparing West Papua for its own independence throughout the 1950s. At the end of 1961, West Papua held a Congress at which its people declared independence, and raised their new flag – the Morning Star. But within months the dream was dead. The Indonesian military invaded West Papua and conflict broke out between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the indigenous population regarding control of the territory. The US intervened and engineered an agreement between Indonesia and the Netherlands, which in 1962 gave control of West Papua to the United Nations and one year later transferred control to Indonesia. The Papuans were never consulted. However, the agreement did promise them their right to self determination – a right which is guaranteed by the UN to all people in the world.
By 1969 there was widespread resistance to Indonesian rule. The Indonesian military had killed and imprisoned thousands of Papuans in the seven years it had occupied the country – yet it was under these conditions that the people were supposed to exercise their right to self determination. It was agreed that the UN should oversee a plebiscite of the people of West Papua, in which they would be given two choices: to remain part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation. This vote was to be called the ‘Act of Free Choice.’
But the Act was a sham. Instead of overseeing a free and fair election, the UN stood by while Indonesia rigged the vote. Declaring that the Papuans were too ‘primitive’ to cope with democracy, the Indonesian military hand-picked just 1,026 ‘representative’ Papuans, out of a population of one million, bribed them and threatened to kill them and their families if they voted the wrong way. So strong was the intimidation that despite widespread opposition to Indonesian rule, all 1,026 voted to remain a part of Indonesia. Despite protests from the Papuans, a critical report by a UN official and condemnation of the vote in the international media, the UN shamefully sanctioned the result and West Papua has remained under control of the Indonesian state ever since. The Papuans now dub this episode ‘the Act of No Choice’. Consigning the fate of a million people to live under the brutal occupation that ensued is one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the UN. Recently there have been a number of detailed reports that heavily criticise the actions of Indonesia, the UN, and its member states during this period.
In recent years a new independence organisation, the KNPB (National Committee for West Papua) has become prominent. Under its guidance huge independence rallies have been held across West Papua and the West Papuan’s voice is united more than ever. As a result, many of its members have been arrested, tortured and killed. In 2012, the KNPB chairman Mako Tabuni was killed by Indonesian police, whilst many others face lengthy jail sentences of up to fifteen years just for raising the West Papuan flag.
You can lean more by checking the West Papua Subreddit or searching for the Free West Papua organisation in Oxford.