A spate of anti-racism protests has reinvigorated calls for political self-determination in West Papua, a region colonised by Indonesia for over half a century.

The anti-racism protests of August 2019 represent the most widespread, intense, and protracted social movement in West Papua since the region’s incorporation into the Republic of Indonesia.

These protests were triggered by footage of civil militia calling Papuan students “monkeys” and “dogs,” attacking them with teargas, and arresting them for reportedly disrespecting the Indonesian flag.

Since this incident, anti-racism demonstrations have multiplied at an unprecedented pace across some thirty locations across the archipelago. Thousands of Papuans have taken to the streets, bearing traditional headdresses, face paint, and bows and arrows, remonstrating against endemic racism and renewing their calls for political independence. 

Many defiantly bore the Morning Star, the West Papuan flag, and chanted independence slogans – an act punishable with a fifteen-year jail term under Indonesian law.

Over the last week, protests have grown increasingly violent, with rocks thrown, property burned, and a reported seven casualties to date (six protestors and one soldier). Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has deployed several thousands of military troops into West Papua and shut down all internet services in the region pending resolution of the conflicts. These responses have prompted further demonstrations across Indonesia against the violation of West Papuans’ right to freedom of expression. Dozens of protestors have been arrested and four Australian citizens deported for participating in the protests.

While racism towards West Papuans is endemic across Indonesia, the roots of the protests lie in the region’s long-standing and violent history of political colonisation, ethnic domination, and cultural assimilation under Indonesian rule.

The Dutch colonial authorities transferred administration of the region to Indonesia in May 1963 and Indonesia was placed under United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) pending a referendum, whereby West Papuans would decide on the fate of their independence.

Instead of a one-man-one-vote, this “Act of Free Choice” – or what many Papuans call the “Act of No Choice” – saw some 1,022 Papuan men (or less than one percent of the population) handpicked and coerced into voting under military pressure, resulting in what many Papuans see as the forceful incorporation of West Papua into the Republic of Indonesia.

Reluctant to lose a potential ally against communism in the context of the Cold War, and keen to exploit the West Papua’s natural resources, the United States and Australia did not intervene as West Papua fell for a second time under colonial rule, while the United Nations endorsed the referendum outcome unquestioningly.

A low-level guerrilla resistance movement against Indonesia continues across West Papua, concentrated predominantly in the highland areas and supported by Papuan activists in exile such as Benny Wenda, chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and founder of the Free West Papua Campaign.

Hopes for peaceful resolution of what has been called the longest-running and most violent political conflict in the South Pacific grew in the mount-up to the election of Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) in 2014. Yet little has changed on the ground for most West Papuans since Jokowi’s election.

Community impoverishment and ecological degradation remain rife in areas where top-down extractive and other corporate activities are underway. Despite its rich natural resources and high regional GDP, West Papua remains the poorest region of Indonesia, with the highest mortality rates in children, the lowest literacy rates, and the second-highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country.

Bureaucratic red tape and corruption within the government, the prevalence of military business, and the widespread criminalisation of individuals suspected of independentist aspirations restrict the capacity of Papuans to seek recognition and remedy for violations of their right to lands and livelihoods.

Assimilationist policies promoted by the government perpetuate racial discrimination against West Papuans, in turn, exacerbated by a growing population disparity between ethnic Papuans and non-Papuans across the region.

State violence endures in the form of forced incarceration, interrogation, physical and psychological harassment, torture, sexual violence against women, and brutal military responses to indigenous political actions - notably during the annual raising of the Morning Star on 1 December, when West Papuans commemorate their stolen independence. It is estimated that Indonesian security forces have killed some 200,000 Papuans since 1963, with other figures as high as 400,000.

The response of the Indonesian government to the protests of August 2019 has only further confirmed its reluctance to address seriously the demands and grievances of West Papuans.

Jokowi, for instance, has frustrated Papuan activists by calling for forgiveness in the face of racism. Wiranto, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs has declared a complete ban on foreigners into West Papua – including journalists – and limited his investigation to the Surabaya incident exclusively, ignoring the broader political and historical context in which this incident became meaningful to West Papuans.

Meanwhile, the shutdown of internet services and the deployment of military troops have intensified simmering anger, resentment, and fear among Papuan protestors.

Addressing West Papua’s violent geopolitical past is critical to achieving remedy and redress for egregious human rights violations committed against West Papuans over the last half-century. This should involve open, transparent, and inclusive dialogue between the Indonesian government and West Papuans across rural and urban areas pertaining to the long-standing treatment of West Papuans as primitive, sub-human, and killable before the law.

Reconciliation will require an acknowledgement on the part of the government of the very real cultural and ethnic differences that shape West Papuans’ societal values and aspirations as Melanesians and as peoples of the Pacific. It will require opening the region to journalists, researchers, and non-governmental organisations, as well as allowing transparent information flows that enable Papuan voices to be heard at the international level.

Such transparent dialogue can only take place if demilitarisation and the suspension of top-down extractive industries and land-grabbing in West Papua desists.

Finally, and most importantly for the vast majority of West Papuans, an internationally mediated but independent referendum is critical for West Papuans to self-determine their own political, cultural, and economic futures.A petition signed by more than 1.8 million Papuans for such a referendum was delivered in January 2019 to United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. 

As the demonstrations last month have made clear, the West Papuan struggle for rights and freedom is showing no signs of abating. Rather, these protests have unleashed a renewed collective call for justice and dignity by a people historically dehumanised under entrenched regimes of colour and capital.

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