Indonesia took over Papua from Dutch colonial rule in 1963. Its sovereignty over the region was formalized in 1969 through a stage-managed vote by 1,022 community leaders that critics dismissed as a sham. Rich in natural resources, Papua is Indonesia’s least densely populated region. The central government’s efforts to exploit these resources and to assimilate indigenous Papuans, who are racially Melanesian, into the national administration and culture have met with sporadic armed resistance from the Free Papua Organization (OPM) and have aroused international concerns. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “For Indonesia, Papua is the last major piece of unfinished business. East Timor, a former province, claimed independence in a 1999 referendum, although international troops were called in recently to halt fighting between the police and armed forces. A three decade-long separatist uprising in Aceh province ended with a peace deal last year, given impetus by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Indonesia insists that Papua is an integral part of the country, a position that almost all foreign governments accept, even as some have expressed concerns over charges that Indonesian security forces have engaged in human rights violations. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, June 25, 2006 ]

“More than 2,000 miles east of Jakarta, Papua has the world's largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, a U.S. mining giant. But the villages here are among the least developed in Indonesia. Papua has the country's highest poverty level and the highest concentration of HIV/AIDS. One-third of Papuan children do not attend school. Nine out of 10 villages do not have a health clinic, doctor or midwife.

“Papua has an indigenous population of 1.6 million; in all, 2.6 million people live in the region. Native Papuans now outnumber non-Papuan teachers in elementary grades, though not at higher levels, one expert said. But the sting of discrimination lingers. "They said we weren't smart," said the man, who has a university degree and spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from authorities. "They didn't let us speak our own language. They called us all kinds of rubbish words."

“In an effort to redress long-standing grievances, the government passed a law in 2001 giving Papua, which is about the size of California, greater revenue and decision-making power than other provinces. The government also gives Papua more money per capita than any other province except East Kalimantan.”

What Papuans Want

Merdeka is the word used for independence in Papua. T-shirts with pro-independence slogans are plentiful and the name for the Papuans currency has already been chosen (the goldens). A Catholic missionary told the Los Angeles Times, "Many people have no idea what independence means. They think it means getting everything for free and not having to work. Whenever the issue heats up, kids start dropping out of school and men quit their jobs because they think that easy times are just roud the corner."

Reporting from Siliba in Papua, Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “Here, in the chilly central highlands of Papua, Yumbologon Wandikbo wears nothing but an orange-beaded choker and a covering known as a penis gourd, a custom of his Dani tribe. "When we get freedom," he said with a hint of defiance, "I will put on clothes." Wandikbo, a tall man with a lithe stride and a touch of gray in his sideburns, paused on a dirt path near about a dozen huts topped with shaggy thatch domes. Snorting pigs rooted around muddy trails. In a free Papua, he said on a crisp, gray afternoon, the young people will go to school and then find jobs. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, June 25, 2006 ]

"I have never felt like I was part of Indonesia," said Jelam Wandikbo, a former Dani warrior, sitting cross-legged on the ground in a thatched hut an hour's hike away. This clan elder, with five wives and 17 children scattered across several villages, is a former tribal chief of war and a hero for the enemy tribesmen he killed in his youth. Now, he posts scouts around his hamlet, but not to fight. "I will run to the forest," he said, eyes bright, his body still taut and square-shouldered, "when the government troops come."

Danny Mofu, 30, a itinerant pastor who lives in Wamena, wants to see Papuans help themselves. "There's a popular slogan at the moment: Be a king of your own land. But the problem is, a lot of people take it wrong. They want to be a king but don't want to work," said Mofu, who hikes for days to reach his church members in the hills and valleys. "It's about awareness, and are Papuans willing to be leaders of their own people, to build their own people?" Biruk Wandikbo, Jelam Wandikbo's oldest son, is adamant about what he wants: "Our own president. Our own military chief. Our own police. Our own pilots. Our own Freeport." Asked if he would see freedom in his lifetime, Jelam Wandikbo, the old tribal chief of war, paused and then smiled. " Wa. Wa. Wa. Wa ," he said, using a Dani word. "I hope so."

Papua Promised More Autonomy After the Fall of Suharto

In 2000, two years after Indonesian President Suharto was ousted, President Wahid renamed the province Papua in a somewhat futile attempt to dampen separatist sentiments. Wahid promised Papua more autonomy and even said it would be allowed to fly the Morning Star flag below the Indonesian flag. The independence movement was given a boost when East Timor was allowed to vote for its independence in August 1999. In the early 2000s, Jakarta gave Irian Jaya more power to manage its own affairs. In October 2001, the Indonesian national parliament changed the name of Irian Jaya back to its original name of Papua The Special Autonomy Law for Papua passed in November 2001 was set up to give indigenous people up to 80 percent of the profits from resources taken off its land. The centerpiece was the creation of a Papuan People’s Council composed of tribal elders, religious leaders and women.

As in Aceh, the Indonesian government responded to unrest and separatism with both repression and concessions. The “special-autonomy” law, passed in December 2002, provided for a much greater share of Papua’s natural resource wealth to return to the region as block grants and specifies that these funds should prioritize the infrastructure, education, and health sectors. The law also provided for the establishment of a special upper house of the local legislature, the Papuan People’s Council (MRP). This body consists of representatives of religious leaders, traditional (adat) leaders, and women. The MRP is involved in all decisions regarding special autonomy, in any proposals to subdivide Papua, and in vetting candidates for governor, mayor, and bupati to ensure that they are native Papuans. Implementation of this law has been slow and partial. The enhanced fiscal resources began to flow to the region immediately, but without local-government capacity to use these funds properly, much has been wasted in corruption or inappropriate projects. [Source: Library of Congress]

Implemented the Special Autonomy Law for Papua has been hampered failure by the Indonesian government to honor the terms of agreement and the presence of pro-independence separatists in Papua. The establishment of the Papuan People’s Council was repeatedly delayed by Jakarta. In the mealtime the Indonesian government has continued to sell land concessions in Papua to foreign companies and has tried to break up Papua into three provinces—which critics regard as a divide and rule tactic.

Megawati Divides Papua

The effort to gain more Papuan autonomy was given a set back when Megawati came to power in 2001. She is fierce nationalist who had little tolerance for separatist movements and regarded the maintenance of Indonesia as a unified state as a goal that has precedent over all others. Indonesia fought harder to hold on to Papua than it did for East Timor in part because it has more valuable resources.

Megawati in 2003 set in motion a tortuous three-year process by which the northwestern portion was split off to form the new province of Irian Jaya Barat (West Irian Jaya), with the eastern two-thirds retaining the name Papua. (Irian Jaya Barat was renamed Papua Barat, West Papua, in 2007.) Further division of the rump Papua was blocked at the time, although various proposals for as many as four new provinces remain in circulation.

Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM)

The Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM) is a small group of Papua separatist guerrillas. It has reputation for being poorly organized and ill equipped. Many of its fighters have been equipped with nothing more than spears and bows and arrows. The group is lead by a Papuan named Titis Murib. In the early 2000s the OPM had only a few hundred members and was comprised of two main groups that operated in different strips near the border of Papua New Guinea. The groups lack the organization and intelligence to launch anything more than occasional hit and run attacks. Many members have fled to Papua New Guinea or have abandoned the movement.

Although the OPM is a marginal domestic actor, more visible as an international symbol, the fact of its existence has been used by the central government to justify suspicions about Papuan loyalties and an intimidating Indonesian military presence in the region, leading to human-rights abuses. Cultural differences between Indonesians and the indigenous population, and complaints about the “Indonesianization” of Papua, have exacerbated tensions. The cultural conflict is aggravated by resentment of racially Malay in-migrants (Javanese, Buginese, Bataks, and other groups) from other parts of Indonesia, who dominate the state bureaucracy and urban economies. Despite human-rights abuses and ethnic tensions, charges by some international activists that the central government is waging genocide in Papua are overblown. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The fight between the OPM and the security forces pits a rudimentary force against a high-technology police and military. The remaining OPM guerrilla bands were concentrated in the hinterlands of Jayapura, Merauke, Mimika, and Paniai by late 2008. The guerrillas coordinate few, if any, of their operations; instead, they select and strike at targets as resources and opportunities become available. OPM targets include small police and military posts and patrols and unarmed, nonmilitary groups, such as civilian timber workers. The last significant attack by the OPM occurred in 2002, when a force led by admitted OPM guerrillas attacked a group of mostly American teachers near Tembagapura, site of a huge open-face mine operated by Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold—known locally as P. T. Freeport-Indonesia—and protected by Indonesian military and police, who are paid by Freeport. Two Americans and one Indonesian were killed, and eight Americans and Indonesians were wounded. By 2006 the leaders of the attack had been captured, tried, and convicted of assault and murder. There were other attacks, also near the Free-port mine in 2009. *

The OPM is believed to have fewer than 1,000 armed guerrillas. Many of its unarmed supporters have turned their attention to peaceful urban demonstrations to express grievances. Active, full-time OPM activity is limited to those guerrillas living in the jungles fighting with spears, bows, arrows, bush knives, and stolen and captured guns, mostly of military and police origin. The OPM is viewed as a political movement with an extremely limited military capability that poses no threat to Jakarta. However, it is another centripetal force encouraging the fragmentation of Indonesia.

See Freeport-McMoRan

Papua Independence Activities

Pro-independence demonstrators have staged rallies in Papua waving spears and bows and taken over community centers. Blowgun-wielding tribesmen have conducted raids against Indonesian troops. The raising of the separatist Morning Star flag has been a major demonstration of independence that the Indonesian security forces do not tolerate.

In November 1999, a group of protestors hoisted a Papuan independence flag at a local Roman Catholic church. Indonesian authorities waited a week to do anything about it and pulled the flag down in a morning raid that left one protester dead and nine other wounded by bullets. Izhak Onawame is independence activist and a Protestant pastor who hoisted the Papuan independence flag at a Roman Catholic church.

In June 2000, a congress of Papua activists declared the independence of West Papa. Some of the 2,700 participants wore nothing but headdresses and penis gourds. Pro-independence supporters felt some urgency in their effort because new Indonesia settlers are arriving all the time and Papuans worry that before long they will be outnumbered by non-Papuans.

Papua Presidium Council and the Assassination of Its Leader

The Papua Presidium Council (PDP) was an individual active in the late 1990s and early 2000s that sought independence through peaceful means. The Indonesia government portrayed the group as a political wing of the OPM. But rather its an umbrella group for leaders of 254 tribes in Papua. It is lead by Tom Beanal.

Theys Eluay is a local leader who headed the Papua Presidium Council (PDP) and the powerful black-clad “Satgus” militia. A recognizable figure with long frizzy white hair, he was detained briefly in October 1998 on suspicion of trying to organize a pro-independence protest. He was releases after demonstrations by his supporters.

In November 2001, Theys Eluay was assassinated by Indonesian security forces. He was kidnaped and found dead in an overturned car. An autopsy revealed that he had been badly beaten and strangled. The night before his death he had dinner with the commander of Indonesia’s elite special forces. A couple years later a soldier admitted he strangled Theys. In April 2003, four military officers and three soldiers were given jail sentences of two to 3½ years for their involvement in the murder.

Papuans were quite upset about Theys’s assassination. Thousands turned up for his funeral and worries of violence. There were large demonstrations. Most were peaceful. Some were not. One was broken up by 200 stick-wielding policemen. Most if the injuries were not serious.

Separatist Violence in Papua

There has been sporadic low-level violence over the independence issue in Papua. Thousands have died, most of them civilians killed by the Indonesian military in its effort to crush the separatists. Many Papuans compare their situation to that in Aceh. According to Associated Press: “A small, poorly armed separatist movement has battled Jakarta's rule ever since” Papua was taken over by Indonesia in 1969. “About 100,000 Papuans — one-sixth of the population — have died in military operations.”

Much of what occurred in Papua has gone on there in secret, outside the view of the Western media. In the early 2000s, there were many similarities between Papua and East Timor. There were a number of powerful militias and was it sometimes difficult to ascertain whose side they were on. Sometimes their main goal it seemed was to stir up trouble so they would remain relevant. Pro-Indonesian militias such as Satgas Merah Putih (Red and White Taskforce) were blamed for triggering violence.

Separatist Violence in Papua the Early 2000s

By June 2000, pro- and anti-independence militias were getting considerably stronger and involved in more and more violence. In October of that year at least 40 people were killed and 45 were seriously injured in clashes between security forces and pro-independence activists armed with bows and arrows in Wamena, 250 kilometers southwest if Jayapura. Many of the dead were non-Papaun settlers speared and hacked to death with machetes or shot with arrows by pro-independence tribesmen rebels. Some of the dead were shot to death by Indonesian security forces. Clashes began after the security forces lowered the separatist Morning Star flag.

In December 2000, six people were killed when pro-independence supporters, armed with bows and arrows, tried to raise an outlawed rebel flag in Merauke, a town in the southeast corner of Papua. A few days earlier police shot and killed two members of mob of tribes people, armed with bows and arrow, the police claim attacked them. A few days before that three people were killed, two of them policemen, when a student-led group of Dani tribesmen, armed with spears, bow and arrows and Molotov cocktails attacked a police station. One policeman was killed by an arrow. Another had his head split open with an ax.

It is not clear who was behind the attacks. Some say it was the OPM. Most believe it was a splinter pro-independence group or even a pro-Indonesia militia trying to stir up trouble as militias in East Timor did to give the Indonesian military an excuse to crackdown hard on pro-independent members of all stripes.

In July 2003, a Papuan man was killed by police as he tried to hoist a Papuan independence flag with four other men in front of a local parliament building around midnight. Two other men were wounded, at a local Roman Catholic church.

Killing of Two Americans in Papua

In August 2002, two American teachers and an Indonesian colleague were killed and 14 others were wounded in an ambush in Papua on a road near the Freeport-McMoRan mine. The teachers taught at Freeport International School in Papua. They were in a convoy of vehicles carrying mostly U.S. teachers and their families from the school. It was the worst spate of violence involving foreigners in Papua.

The attack was initially blamed on Papuan separatists but the fact it was carried out with automatic weapons, including M-16s led many to believed that Indonesian security forces were behind it not separatists who normally didn’t have access to such weapons. The attack was believed to have been ordered by military commanders in the area as a form of extortion. The Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold mining company had recently cut payments to the military in the area and the killings, it was said, were how the military expressed its disapproval.

The incident caused the United States to thinks twice about establishing better relations and offering more military assistance to the Indonesian government. It also put foreign investors on the alert that Indonesia was not necessarily a safe place to do business. In January 2001, the United States government decided not let the matter affect military ties with Indonesia.

Unrest in Papua in the Mid-2000s

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “The continuing tensions were apparent again In May 2006, when security forces shot two protesters dead at a courthouse in Wamena, the main town in Papua's central highlands. The demonstrators were showing support for their mayor, a native Papuan, who had been charged with corruption. The police said they fired in self-defense. In March, activists staged protests against Freeport-McMoRan accusing the company of polluting the land and taking the people's wealth. The protest turned violent, and five security officials were beaten to death. Forty-three Papuans recently sought asylum in Australia; it has granted to all but one, sparking a diplomatic row in which Indonesia recalled its ambassador. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, June 25, 2006 ]

The Indonesian government, citing security concerns, requires foreign journalists and researchers to obtain special permission to visit Papua and has seldom granted it in recent years. In rare interviews with a foreign journalist recently, native Papuans in the highlands near Wamena described living through three decades often characterized by fear and political uncertainty. Though a brief spring followed the ouster of the authoritarian president Suharto in 1998, renewed tensions in recent years have made them reluctant to go to their sweet potato gardens, for fear soldiers will arrest them. Their crops, they said, are dwindling.

Limited Autonomy in the Late 2000s

The Papuan People’s Council (MRP) did not form until November 2005, three years after it was hatched, and was immediately thrust into the uncomfortable position of having to rule on the formation of the new province of Irian Jaya Barat and gubernatorial candidates in both provinces. In February 2006, the first direct elections for governor proceeded in both Irian Jaya Barat and Papua, despite continued controversy regarding the sheer existence of the new province. At first the provincial government of Irian Jaya Barat did not receive special-autonomy funds (instead relying for its existence solely on support provided by the central government), but in July 2008 the DPR passed a law mandating that special autonomy also be implemented fully in the renamed Papua Barat. [Library of Congress *]

Indonesia no longer faces a significant secessionist movement in Papua or Papua Barat. Rather, the rapid changes at the start of the twenty-first century have exacerbated the preexisting problems of poverty, high unemployment, environmental degradation, and the poor quality of many government services. The greatest threat to security is posed not by secessionist violence but by increased social, ethnic, and religious tensions between the indigenous Papuan population and the swelling tide of non-Papuans from elsewhere in Indonesia, drawn by opportunities in the commercial, agricultural, and extractive industries in the two provinces. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “In the towns and cities, members of the educated Papuan elite have tried to work with the central government to advance special autonomy, which includes the creation of a people's assembly of ethnic Papuan tribal, women and religious leaders. But the council has little clout, and police keep close watch on the leaders and political activists. Local government bureaucrats, increasingly native Papuan, often misuse the money, to the people's detriment, analysts said. The villagers noted that the mayor in Wamena was recently charged with misusing funds that should have gone to roads, medical services and factory construction. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, June 25, 2006 ]

Papuan Separatist Threat in Papua in the Late 2000s

The remaining small secessionist movement in Papua is remote and fragmented. The Free Papua Organization (OPM) formed in 1969 and has been conducting a low-level armed insurgency since then. The OPM is fragmented into several factions whose goals range from independence to a merger with neighboring Papua New Guinea, autonomy, or better treatment by the central government. The influx of new residents resettled under the government’s now-defunct Transmigration Program caused resentment among the indigenous population and brought new recruits into both the OPM’s political and military structures. However, since the early 2000s that resentment has manifested itself in mostly urban political demonstrations, and the OPM has steadily lost strength. Indonesian military operations in Papua have claimed many lives over the years, and nonviolent pro-independence OPM spokespersons have been jailed on charges of subversion. *

The central government maintains approximately 10,000 military and police in Papua. The missions of these forces include the destruction of OPM military units, general law and order and security, and protection of the designated strategic industry locations that include the Freeport mine. Despite resolution of the separatist conflicts in East Timor and Aceh, albeit via very different outcomes, it is likely that problems in Papua will continue to fester for many years, as the central government does not yet seem serious about addressing issues there in a systematic manner. *

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “ People point to the recent shooting of protesters as reason for fear. The military points to such incidents as justification for a continued presence. There are 15,000 soldiers and 8,200 police officers and paramilitary forces in Papua and West Papua, the two provinces that make up the Papua region, according to military and police officials. The clashes often begin with a dispute over control of natural resources. Security forces are battling a small, separatist insurgency called the Free Papua Movement, which has tried since the mid-1960s to gain momentum. But it is scattered, ill-equipped and lacking a central command, analysts said. Some activists allege that as many as 100,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control of Papua in 1963. But analysts who have researched the issue said they see no evidence of genocide or a massive military buildup. However, the area's remoteness and restrictions on entry make documentation difficult, they said. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, June 25, 2006 ]

“When it comes to criminal justice, Papuans said they do not trust the courts to be fair. Theys Eluay, a charismatic leader who advocated separatism through peaceful means, was murdered in November 2001. A military court in 2003 convicted seven soldiers. The longest sentence was 3 1/2 years. In 2005, two men led a peaceful ceremony to raise the Morning Star flag, the symbol of Papuan independence. They are serving 10- and 15-year prison sentences for rebellion. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has admitted the government has made mistakes, including human rights violations. But now, he said, "the government is firmly committed to upholding human rights." He recently announced that he would issue a decree to ensure that the $1.4 billion in special autonomy money that Jakarta sends to Papua is spent wisely, on poverty relief, health and education.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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