You’ve probably heard about West Papua in the news. Here are five things you need to know.
1: WHERE IS WEST PAPUA?
West Papua is a region of Indonesia located right alongside Papua New Guinea.
It consists of two Indonesian provinces: Papua and West Papua. (Yes, one of the provinces is also called West Papua but independence activists use the term to describe the entire area.)
The region has a population of about 1.8 million. According to the UNPO, around half of the population are indigenous West Papuans from about 240 different Melanesian tribes.
2: WHAT IS ITS HISTORY?
The one-time Dutch colony was on track for independence in 1961. In fact, on December 1, West Papuans even raised their flag to declare a new national state. But then Indonesia, with support from the USSR, invaded to seize control.
A UN deal was soon brokered that paved the way for a referendum. West Papuans, the world was told, would vote on either independence or integration with Indonesia.
In the years leading up to the vote in 1969, Indonesian forces were accused of violently suppressing anyone who opposed integration. Some estimates say as many as 30,000 people were killed.
In the end, the referendum supported integration. But many considered the vote a sham with only 1,026 West Papuans allowed to actually vote.
3: WHAT DOES INDONESIA SAY?
Indonesia has no intention of surrendering West Papua.
Instead, President Joko Widodo has vowed to fix unrest by increasing investment in the region.
“I think the most important thing is education, yes, and then health care, and then infrastructure,” he says. “If we can deliver as soon as possible the education program, and health program, I’m sure, the political tension will drop.”
Widodo has also eased restrictions on international media accessing the region but human rights groups say violent crackdowns continue.
4: WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD?
Indonesia’s sovereignty of the region is recognised by much of the global community.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott once condemned a West Papua protest at an Australian consulate office in Bali: “We have a very strong relationship with Indonesia and we are not going to give people a platform to grandstand against Indonesia.”
Indonesia is working actively to form strong ties with Melanesian countries. That’s considered by many observers as a way to subdue regional support for the independence movement.
Other Melanesian countries aren’t as firm. Vanuatu, for example, has often sided with the independence movement and fought for a coalition of West Papuan organisations to be given membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. In the end, they were granted “observer” status while Indonesia became an “associate member”. Fiji and PNG supports giving Indonesia full membership.
Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are launching a new push to give the United Liberation Movement of West Papua full membership status.
5: WHAT NOW FOR THE INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT?
Independence campaigners say tension won’t be solved by simple financial investment from Jakarta.
“To get independence – that is the goal. We need a proper referendum to let people choose,” says human rights campaigner Paula Mackabory.
“I would love to rule my own country, my own land, my ancestral land; it needs to be kept in its beauty – not to be exploited – for my future generations.”