‘Papua Merdeka!’: Why It’s Kicking Off in Occupied West Papua

by Connor Woodman

23 August 2019

Over the past week, unrest on a scale not seen in years has wracked West Papua. Tens of thousands of West Papuans, living under a six-decade-old Indonesian military occupation, have flooded the streets, torched a local parliament building and provoked a public intervention by the Indonesian president. What’s the background to the flare up? 


On 16 August, the day after Indonesia’s Independence Day, dubious rumours started spreading through the city of Surabaya that West Papuan students, housed in their own dormitory, had defaced the Indonesian national flag. 

Hundreds of members of Indonesian nationalist groups rapidly surrounded the dormitory, screaming ‘monkey’, ‘pig’ and ‘dog’ at the Papuan students, barricaded in their dorms. Detachment 88, an elite Indonesia police unit trained and supported by the UK and other Western states, arrived. 

Rather than protect the besieged students, the police unit fired 20 canisters of tear gas into the dorms, stormed the dwellings and arrested 43 Papuans. As the students were forced to crawl out of the building, calls to ‘kick out’ and ‘massacre Papuans’ rained down on them from assembled nationalists groups – chants with particular resonance in a country with a record of mass killings.

The response by the West Papuan people has been explosive. Mass demonstrations have raged from Timika to Fakfak, demanding dignity and an end to Indonesian racism and colonisation. Public buildings are in flames, police caught unprepared, and the Indonesian president on the back foot.

Indigenous Papuans, who are ethnically distinct from archipelagic Indonesians and consider themselves Melanesian Pacific Islanders, have long suffered extreme racism at the hands of the Indonesian state. Indonesian elites have appropriated still-common European racial tropes directed against darker-skinned Pacific peoples, a convenient ideological framework at hand to justify their own colonisation of West Papua. Today, Indonesian police regularly humiliate Papuans by publicly cutting off their dreadlocks, and an endless string of assassinations by Indonesian security services testifies to a contempt for Papuan lives. As the Papuan Legal Aid Foundation puts it: “The disease of racism is still alive in the bodies of the state officials and Indonesian citizens”.


This ongoing episode cannot be understood apart from the Indonesian occupation of the territory, and West Papuans’ long and intensifying resistance to it.

Facilitated by the US and other Western powers, the former Dutch colonisers handed West Papua over to Indonesia in 1963, pending a referendum on independence. 

When the 1969 ‘referendum’ came, West Papuans were thrown under the boot of the Indonesian military by the UN and the West. Instead of the free and fair referendum promised to them, just 1,022 Papuans were selected, taken into military ‘protection’, and forced to vote in favour of Indonesia – on pain of execution. 

Western leaders and diplomats, from the psychopathic Henry Kissinger to the social democratic Harold Wilson, supported Indonesia’s bloody and fraudulent takeover, without a thought to West Papuans. “The freedom of a mere 800,000 people”, as the British Embassy secretary in Jakarta put it, “is scarcely the point”. 


Despite dying in their hundreds of thousands during the subsequent half-century of military occupation and colonial settlement, Papuans’ burning desire for independence, freedom and self-determination – what they call ‘merdeka’ – has never been snuffed out. 

In fact, the West Papuan independence movement is stronger than ever. In relative disarray for a decade following the brutal repression of the Papuan Spring at the turn of the millennium, the political and military wings of the movement have this decade come together for the first time under the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP).

The latest round of unrest marks a new step towards unity. Ironically, Indonesia’s colonial project is laying the very basis for its own destruction. By presenting a common enemy to a diverse Indigenous population with hundreds of languages and tribes, and, through cultural colonisation, a common language of communication – Bahasa – Indonesia is facing an increasingly strident Papuan national awakening reminiscent of the great anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. 


This new level of resistance is reverberating throughout the globe. Vanuatu, a small Pacific Island state, is leading the way on West Papua, assisting the ULMWP in international institutions. The current conflagration in West Papua has come in part in response to the ULMWP’s and Vanuatu’s recent spearheading of Pacific action on West Papua, in the face of strong resistance by Indonesia and an uber-reactionary Australia. As usual, the bastions of humanity, dignity and hope are to be found among the oppressed and subaltern: West Papuans facing annihilation, Pacific states facing submersion.  

Due to the Indonesian state’s ban on international media, the reporting of the latest unrest has come primarily from Papuan witness reports, videos and photos sent out of the country via international solidarity networks. With 1,000 more Indonesian troops and police deployed to the territory, internet access blocked in unrest hot-spots and videos of severely injured Papuans emerging, fears of a military crack-down on the Sudanese model are spreading. Papuans are calling for as much attention to be focused on the situation as possible. 

To find out more about the campaign and to support the work of Papuan leader Benny Wenda, who lives in exile in the UK, click here.


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