Who controls Papua and West Papua?
Papua and West Papua form the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea). The region was known as Irian Jaya until 2000, before the provinces were renamed in 2003 as Papua and West Papua. Jakarta maintains they are an integral and indivisible part of Indonesia, but that has been contested for more than half a century, including via a low-level, armed insurgency. Indonesian troops have been accused of human rights abuses and violent suppression of the independence movement. The two provinces have suffered from systemic underdevelopment but are rich with natural resources, including gold, copper, and timber and generate billions of dollars for Indonesia.
Do the provinces have a colonial past?
Yes, they were part of the Netherlands but in 1962 the Dutch signed an agreement to transfer the administrationof what was then called West New Guinea to Indonesia, on the proviso that an act of “self-determination” or vote, would be completed within seven years. The so-called Act of Free Choice took place on 2 August, 1969, where 1,025 West Papuans were hand-picked and coerced – including being threatened at gunpoint – to vote in favour of Indonesian control. Rallies in support of Papuan independence have been held across the Indonesian archipelago this month, marking the anniversaries of the vote and the agreement. Last week’s Pacific Islands Forum issued a statement saying the UN high commissioner for human rights should visit and report on any abuses within a year.
Why have protests erupted now?
Protests are common in Papua and West Papua, but are usually shut down quickly by security forces. This week’s demonstrations descended into violence after dozens of Papuan students were arrested in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, on the island of Java, at the weekend, allegedly for damaging an Indonesian flag (they were later released after no evidence was found). Papuan students barricaded themselves in their dormitories, while a vigilante mob threw stones at the building chanting, “monkeys”, “kick out Papuans” and “slaughter Papuans”. In response, on Monday, protesters in the West Papuan provincial capital of Manokwari set fire to the local parliament.
Why do Papuans want independence?
The people indigenous to Papua and West Papua are Melanesian, ethnically distinct from most of the rest of Indonesia and more closely linked to the people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia. Many Papuans regard Indonesian control as illegitimate and the result of an illegal annexation. In 2017, an illegal petition calling for a free vote on independence, signed by 1.8 million people (about 70% of the Papuan population) and secretly carried around the provinces, was presented to the UN’s decolonisation committee, and the human rights commissioner.
What is Indonesia’s view of the push for independence?
Indonesia regards Papua and West Papua as integral and indivisible parts of the Indonesian state. It argues the Free West Papua movement is an illegal and illegitimate separatist movement and that the 1969 Act of Free Choice remains the basis for Indonesian rule. Jakarta is particularly sensitive to external interference over the two provinces and regards the issue as a purely domestic. Indonesia’s position has the support of regional and global powers, including Australia and the UK.