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United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP)
Free Papua Movement
Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM)

West Papua's half-century of struggle for independence from Indonesia is one of the world's longest-running conflicts. Some estimates say that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control in 1969.

In August 2019 thousands of people in Indonesia’s eastern-most provinces of Papua and West Papua on the island of New Guinea began protesting over reports of racial discrimination and political unrest. Some are demanding an independence vote. Several people have reportedly died in clashes between pro-independence demonstrators and Indonesian authorities. The unrest was triggered by the mass arrest of a group of Papuan students in the East Java city of Surabaya on August 17 - Indonesia’s Independence Day. They were accused of desecrating the Indonesian flag and throwing it into a sewer. An angry mob hurled racist slurs, calling them “monkeys” and “pigs”.

A poorly armed and fractured separatist movement has simmered in Papua for decades. However, it is becoming politically cohesive. Many disparate independence groups united in 2014 under the banner of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). In January 2019, Chairman of the ULMWP Benny Wenda, presented the UN with a petition purportedly signed by 1.8 million people calling for an independence referendum.

West Papua contains the western half of the island of New Guinea (second largest island in the world), part of the vast sea of archipelagos that is known as Melanesia. In 1848 the United Kingdom and the Netherlands established in an agreement that the 141 meridian was to mark the border between the eastern half and the western half of the island. Herewith, the Netherlands officially established its colonial administration over West New Guinea, hereafter referred to as West Papua.

The Netherlands’ chief interest in staking a claim to the territory was to protect its lucrative assets in the Dutch East Indies (later Republic of Indonesia), its vast colony to the west of West Papua. Geological exploration began in 1907 when Dutch military personnel surveyed the northern region and examined its natural resources.

Indonesia faced separatist and sectarian fighting in several parts of the far-flung archipelago, in addition to Papua, giving rise to fears the country could break apart. The government took a hard-line on separatist movements since it lost control of East Timor in 1999.

Migration from other parts of Indonesia has increased the number of non-Papuan residents to about 40 percent of the current population in Papua and West Papua. The total population of both provinces is 2.4 million, of which 900,000 are migrants. Past government-sponsored transmigration programs, which moved households from more densely populated areas to less populated regions, account for part of the influx. The majority of the population shift has resulted from natural migration trends from Indonesia’s large population centers to Papua where there is relatively low population density. Some Papuans have voiced concerns that the migrants have interfered with their traditional ways of life, land usage, and economic opportunities.

Although the region is rich in natural resources, including gold, copper, natural gas, and timber, Papua lags behind other parts of Indonesia in some key development indicators. Poverty is widespread in Papua and Papua has the lowest level of adult literacy in Indonesia at 74 percent. The region also has a disproportionately high number of HIV/AIDS cases compared with the rest of Indonesia and high rates of infant and maternal mortality.

Irian Jaya, the former Dutch New Guinea or West New Guinea (WNG), remained under Dutch control after Indonesian independence in 1949. In December 1961 Indonesia's President Sukarno ordered the "liberation" of WNG. In 1961, in Operation Trikora, Indonesian forces took over West New Guinea, renaming it Irian Barat in the process. In January 1962 the new US President John F. Kennedy considered WNG to be a potentially dangerous Cold War focal point in Southeast Asia. With the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, Kennedy sought to avoid a second crisi in the region. He refused to support the Netherlands -- a NATO ally -- over WNG. The US government pressured the Dutch into an August 1962 agreement for the transfer of WNG to Indonesia in May 1963. A combination of Indonesian political and military pressure and international efforts led to an October 1962 Dutch transfer of sovereignty to the United Nations (UN) Temporary Executive Authority, which was supported by a military observer force that oversaw the cease-fire. In May 1963, full administrative control was handed over to Indonesia.

After a 1969 Act of Free Choice, the territory, which the Indonesians called Irian Barat (West Irian) until 1972, was integrated into the republic as Indonesia's twenty-sixth province. Rich in natural resources, Irian Jaya (Victorious Irian)--as the province was renamed in 1972--is the largest and least-populated province.

Opposition to Indonesian control has existed since 1963. This opposition takes two forms: those in favor of a federation with Papua New Guinea, and those whom prefer independence as West Papua or "West Melanesia." The 'Act of Free Choice' in 1969 involved little more than a small number of hand-picked indigeneous Papuans who were taught a few simple pro-Indonesian phrases in Indonesian language and then told to say them in front of an audience. It was not in any way a 'choice', or 'free', and certainly did not involve the consent of even a substantial minority of the population, let alone a majority.

Cultural differences between Indonesians and the indigenous population and complaints about the Javanization of Irian Jaya exacerbated tensions. The cultural conflict was aggravated by indigenous people's perceptions that they were being left behind economically by a flood of Indonesian immigrants coming in via the central government sponsored transmigration program. Native-born Irianese also resented the so-called spontaneous immigrants who dominated the informal sectors of urban economies. International critics of Indonesian policy in Irian Jaya accused the central government of waging a kind of demographic genocide.

Indonesia's efforts to exploit the resources and assimilate the indigenous Papuan and Melanesian populations into the national administration and culture met sporadic armed resistance from the Free Papua Movement and aroused international concerns. Since the 1960s the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM), which has its own flag, has waged a low-level but diehard guerilla separatist campaign. The campaign peaked in the late 1970s with attacks on government outposts. Although the OPM became a marginal domestic actor, more visible as an international symbol, the fact of its existence justified an intimidating Indonesian military presence in the province, where suspicions about Irianese loyalties led to abuses in the civil-military relationship.

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Page last modified: 04-09-2019 19:16:50 ZULU