Shortcuts / 20 October 2019

West Papua

West Papua has recently seen the largest scale uprising for some time. That uprising has led to deadly riots and mass arrests. Here is the history of the region, the major players and the background to the unrest.

What part of the world are we talking about?
We’re talking about the area that’s located on the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea). West Papua is the collective name used by pro-independence supporters to refer to two Indonesian provinces – Papua and West Papua.  Directly to our north, the mountainous region is home to more than 250 Melanesian ethnic groups. Since the 70s, the region was known as Irian Jaya until 2000. 

Some history please…
The former Dutch colony had been preparing for independence before Indonesia asserted its claim in 1962. West Papua became part of Indonesia after the Act of Free Choice in 1969, a referendum that was overseen by the United Nations. That referendum was highly contentious – only a fraction of the population – just 1,025 of them – were selected to vote on whether or not to remain within the Republic of Indonesia. Reports say those voting were coerced to support Indonesia, including at gunpoint. 

And what of West Papua’s stats today?
With a population of about 4.5 million, it is the poorest province of Indonesia despite being one of the most mineral-rich regions in the world. Many locals believe their home is being exploited with little economic turn to them. 

Recent figures show 25% of West Papuans live in poverty – more than double the rate of Indonesia as a whole (9.8%). 

The region also has the highest mortality rates in children and expectant mothers, as well as the poorest literacy rates.

What’s happened recently to put West Papua in the news?
Since coming under Indonsian control in the late 60s, there has been a constant friction between the indigenous population and Indonesians. For almost 60 years, there have been numerous reports of reports of violent crackdowns and human rights abuses committed by Indonesian authorities against pro-independence supporters.

And recently we’re seeing the largest scale uprising for some time. Recent events were triggered in December 2018 when an attack by independence fighters killed 19 people working at an Indonesian-owned construction company. That triggered a military crackdown that caused 35,000 civilians to flee as security forces tried to flush rebels out of the mountains.

Since then, there have been demonstrations over the alleged mistreatment and racist verbal abuse of Papuan students by Indonesians both in West Papua and in universities in other parts of the country. That’s led to deadly riots and mass arrests. 

How has the Indonesia Government responded?
President Joko Widodo has sought to ease tensions with steps such as building the Trans Papua highway to spur economic activity and boost welfare. He’s also sent hundreds of troops to the region in an attempt to maintain law and order.

The government has also attempted to hold onto control by shutting down the region’s internet – a tactic deployed in August. 

And reports say the Indonesian Government keeps a tight rein on journalists’ access to the area. In 2015, Widodo announced he would open the region to foreign journalists following decades of media blockades, but foreign journalists say it’s still difficult to get there to report on what’s happening. 

What of the push for independence?
Indonesian officials say West Papua is “rooted in history, language, geography” and “West Papuans, like the peoples from other regions of Indonesia, have always considered themselves as part of Indonesia.”

Not so, say independence campaigners. 

In August a petition signed by more than 1.8 million people calling for an independence referendum was delivered to United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. 

Some locals say the UN must correct the 1969 referendum because it should have been one man-one vote, but it was done collectively and under intimidation. They have knocked back this request repeatedly in the past

Others say they would be ok with some Papuans having greater autonomy within Indonesia, rather than independence.

The area is close to Australia – what does our government think?
Australia supported the West Papuan bid for Independence in the 60s, but backtracked when the Netherlands and Indonesia started to go down that path.

Australia says it recognises Indonesia’s sovereignty over the provinces – and Indonesian sovereignty of the area is widely recognised by the international community.

Experts say Australia leaders have been reluctant to become involved due to its sensitivity towards Indonesia and a desire to not be seen to be interfering.

Squiz recommends:
The Conversation – A researcher’s account of visiting West Papua before the most recent uprising.
Lonely Planet – A guide to the area’s natural beauty.

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