The West Papuan independence movement has been ongoing for more than half a century. Since the 1962-1963 Indonesian takeover of West Papuan territory, West Papuans have endured political and social persecution, without any substantial help from the international community. This piece will look specifically at the relationship between West Papua and Australian foreign policy.
A Movement Both Enduring and Unpublicized
In the region of West Papua, a sectarian conflict between the Indonesian government and West Papuan nationalists is ongoing, with the nationalists seeking independence and self-determination from Indonesia. Colonialism and West Papua have been intertwined throughout Indonesia’s contemporary history as it was formerly a Dutch colony. This is the root of political complexity in the region and one of the major rationales for the Indonesian invasion and official annexation in 1969, who then inflicted their own form of colonization, and West Papua once again became an object of domination, a situation that persists. According to Al Jazeera, in the last month alone, approximately 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as Indonesian security forces attempt to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains, and amid rising tensions the three main armed separatist groups in West Papua have joined forces to intensify their push for independence. Among the West Papuan population, there has been widespread disenfranchisement since the 1969 annexation; the independence movement has endured since then while at the same time being actively prevented a platform by the Indonesian government.
In order to decipher the current issue, it is essential to understand the historical context from the perspective of both sides. For the Indonesian government, Indonesian territory is based upon Dutch colonial territory. Therefore, they see West Papua historically and legally as an intrinsic aspect of the former colony and therefore modern Indonesia; the fact that the existing state is culturally heterogeneous should not prevent the union of people as one nation state. This is supported by an established principle of international law, uti possidetis juris, which states that emerging, decolonized sovereign states should retain the borders of the preceding dependent area. Furthermore, in 1969 the Papuans controversially decided to be a part of Indonesia through a political referendum. However, all these points are disputed by West Papuan separatists.
For many years, the Papuans have not possessed an adequate platform to voice their account of history. They have been politically and socially silenced through severe punishment, and even assassination. The claim for West Papuan independence is justified broadly by the idea that Papua has never been culturally, ethnically and politically integrated with Indonesia. Along cultural lines there is dissimilarity: according to Dr Nino Viartasiwi, author of The politics of history in West Papua – Indonesia conflict, difference is highlighted through “governmental features such as big-man leadership, community-level decision-making, and small, close-knit communities that do not answer to a higher authority. Tribalism is a central component of Papuan sociopolitical organization.”
As well as this issue, during the 1960s West Papua thought itself to be a sovereign state. Willy Mandowen, the appointed mediator of the Papuan People’s Congress stated that this occurred on 1 December 1961, with the approval of the Netherlands royal government. This assertion is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the AFC (Act of Free Choice), as it denied the existence of the sovereign state of West Papua. The AFC was a political referendum administered by both the United Nations and Indonesia in 1969, however, from the perspective of West Papuans they were denied the opportunity for self-determination because the AFC was manipulated by Indonesia to ensure that West Papua was absorbed. Indonesia opted against the common process of “one person, one vote,” and instead, the Indonesian practice of musyawarah was used. According to an analysis by Thomas D. Musgrave, this involved “a consultation process with the representatives of an enlarged version of the eight regional councils of West Papua.” However, the pre-existing members of those councils had been selected by Indonesia, and the additional members selected to enlarge the regional councils were also hand-picked by Indonesian officials. All in all, there were 1022 members chosen to represent the entirety of West Papua, and in the opinion of the Indonesian government, this constituted an appropriate act of self-determination for West Papua. The Act of Free Choice was nothing of the kind for West Papuans. Their right to self-determination was compromised as the result did not reflect the sentiments of the vast majority of the West Papuan population. In the years before and after the Act of Free Choice referendum, West Papuans have shown their resistance to becoming a part of Indonesia through repeated demonstrations and armed rebellions, though without gaining the attention of the international community. The tension in the region remains unpublicized, and seems to be of little concern to other states. This approach is problematic and demonstrates a willing ignorance in regard to the well-being and rights of West Papuans.
The Australia-Indonesia Relationship and West Papua: Realpolitik vs Morality
Currently the international community is dealing with the political and social unrest in West Papua nonchalantly. The Australian government is especially reluctant to address the issue, a stance that is in direct contrast to the liberal institutions and norms that underpin Australian society. This reluctance is a consequence of the complex economic, political and strategic relationship between the two countries, and the situation in West Papua has only acted as an irritant to this relationship, often referred to as a “pebble in the shoe.” For Australia, the issue in its most simplistic form can be described as a contest between realpolitik and morality and unfortunately realpolitik has consistently emerged as victorious.
Australian foreign policy has been described by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans: “the conduct of foreign affairs is about responding realistically to the world as we find it… we have to balance questions of international morality against the pragmatic acceptance of irreversible fact.” Consistent with this definition, the Australian government has prioritized the relationship with Jakarta more or less without fail in modern times, whereas they see support for West Papuan independence as counterproductive, operating with complete disregard for the suffering of the West Papuan people. Australia wishes to avoid divisive issues so as to not compromise relations with Indonesia and provoke tension but are otherwise dismissive of the political and social tumult in the region. This can be seen in an incident in early 2006, where a group of 43 West Papuan refugees landed on Australian shores flying banners which read “‘Free West Papua” in both English and Bahasa. They were led by Herman Waingga, a member of the student union who had previously been charged on two separate occasions with subversion as a result of conducting peaceful protests. Jakarta therefore inferred that his intention was political rather than for fleeing persecution. Australia granted 42 out of the 43 asylum seekers the status of genuine refugees, which put stress upon the Australian-Indonesian relationship. Consequently, Australia turned a blind eye to the persecution occurring in West Papua, instead appeasing Indonesia by putting forward a bill called the “migration amendment,” which essentially stipulated that an asylum seeker who landed in northern Australia would not technically be in Australia. The Australian government chose realpolitik over morality and continue to do so.
Though the situation in West Papua is undoubtedly complex, with great disparity between the perspectives of both Indonesia and West Papua, the response by Australia has operated solely on the basis of self interest. This approach is problematic as it completely ignores the plight of the West Papuan people, an issue that should take precedence over bilateral relations with Indonesia.
Zac Williams Junior Correspondent at The Organization for World Peace Currently studying at the University of Queensland and in the process of completing a Bachelor of International Studies, majoring in both international relations and french.I possess a deep interest in civilizational politics, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, as well as interest in the role of multilateral institutions in the international system.