A History of West Papuan Independence Movement

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Recently, about 1.8 million West Papuans who demand independence, submitted a petition to the United Nations (UN). However, the UN refuses the petition, saying that the West Papua’s cause is outside the UN’s mandate. You may question the reason to why do Papuan people so eager to part of Indonesia? What was the cause?

West Papua is the western part of the island of New Guinea. Before joining Indonesia, West Papua was called Irian Jaya Barat. It became part of the Republic of Indonesia after the ‘Act of Free Choice’ was held in 1969. It was a process by which Western New Guinea population decided to vote for independence or integration with the Republic of Indonesia through a voting made by 1,025 men and women who were selected by the Indonesian military (the council of elders meeting). Some Papuan people were outraged because they were not given a chance to vote for their independence and call the referendum process as an “Act of no choice”.

The population in West Papua is 3.6 million, comprising of 48.7% of indigenous people and 51.3% of non-Papuans. This population includes more than 250 ethnic and linguistic groups. During the decades, immigrants from other parts of Indonesia have increased and most of the time, the majority of them dominate the local economy in urban centers.

This condition also became one of the reasons why a conflict with the local people arose. They were not satisfied with the imbalance of economy of the province. Moreover, after 30 years Freeport-McMoRan company has been operated in Papua, the local people believed that the company had failed to contribute to the prosperity of Papuan people. It can be seen from the Human Development of Papuan people which are considered as low among other provinces in Indonesia. Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) also recorded that in 2017, the highest percentage of poor people were in Maluku and Papua.

Papuan local people complained that their resources, such as timber and mining, were being exploited by Indonesian government while they were not receiving the fair share of revenue. They were also complaining about the repression by the Indonesian government, which was then governed by Suharto, and the Indonesian military.

Driven by the government policy to allow PT Freeport Indonesia to operate in Papua, Papua Liberation Organization or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) was born as a way to refuse the policy. During its initial establishment, the movement caused riots in Manokwari in 1965. The rebellions were later spread to all part of Papua. In their act, the rebels were making a physical contact with the Indonesian army, taking hostage, doing mass demonstrations, raising the flag of West Papua, and so on.

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The organization was later developed into a more organized movement led by Terianus Aronggear. However, even though the organization had a big supporter, they were unable to acquire their wish to free Papua from Indonesia. It was thought due to the disagreement between their leaders and the fact that most of the member only used looted and traditional weapons in their acts.

Beside OPM, another separatist organization was born in 1999, which is called the Papua Presidium Council or Presidium Dewan Papua (PDP). The organization was led by Theys Eluai. He ever stated that Papua had gained its independence on 1 December 1962 when the Dutch government decided to absolve its authority over Irian Barat. Apart from Theys, other young Papuan politicians such as Nicolaas Jouwe, P. Torey, Markus Kaisiepo, Nicolass Tanggahma, and Elizer Jan Bonay have also stated the same statement.

There were many parties who concerned about the existence of DPD because, during the reign of President Abdurrahman Wahid, PDP was granted funds to organize a congress. The decision caused pros and cons among Indonesian people, as many people assumed that this policy is a form of recognition by Indonesian government towards Papuan independence. However, in the end, President Wahid finally evoked his decision since it was later known that the congress also involved Papuan independence supporters.

The movement of DPD eventually declined when their leader, Theys Eluai, was later found dead. It was coupled with a conflict with OPM as OPM reckoned that DPD has deviated from their goal to gain the independence of Papua. The conflict between DPD and OPM culminated when a member of OPM, Simon Awom, closed the PDP office on 30 August 2000. It was later known that the command to close PDP office came from the OPM commander in chief, Mathias Wenda, in Vanimo.

Nicolaas Jouwe and other Papuan politicians thought that the disputes between Indonesia and the Dutch to seize their power against Papua is an attempt to eliminate the rights of the people of Papua. They showed their disagreement by organizing the First Papuan National Congress which was held on 19 October 1961 in Hollandia (now Jayapura) which resulted in a Political Manifesto. The consistency of some people in Papua regarding how the Papuan people have strived to have a free nation continued through international lobbying up to the demands for independence led by Tom Beanal in 1999.