Freedom in the World
You are here
West Papua *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Efforts to peacefully resolve demands for independence in West Papua were in tatters in late 2001. Tensions in Indonesia's easternmost province rose as unknown assailants killed prominent independence activist Theys Eluay, authorities jailed several leading activists, and pro-independence leaders rejected a new Indonesian law granting the territory greater autonomy. Eluay, 64, chaired the Papua Presidium Council, a forum for West Papuan leaders seeking peaceful independence. At year's end police had made no arrests in connection with Eluay's death, while courts continued to try four other leading Presidium members for subversion.
Located on the western part of the island of New Guinea, West Papua has been dominated by outside powers for nearly two centuries. The Dutch set up the first European outpost in New Guinea in 1828 and formally took control of the island's western part under an 1848 agreement with Britain. That deal paved the way for Britain and Germany to colonize the eastern part, which today is the independent state of Papua New Guinea. The Japanese occupied the Dutch-controlled territory during World War II. The Netherlands ceded its territory to Indonesia in 1963 under a United Nations agreement calling for Jakarta to hold a referendum on self-determination by 1969.
Seeking an independent homeland, a group of tribesmen calling themselves the Free Papua Movement (OPM) began waging a low-grade insurgency in the mid-1960s. As the violence continued, Jakarta gained UN approval to formally annex West Papua in the summer of 1969 after holding a tightly controlled "Act of Free Choice." The 1,025 traditional leaders who participated voted unanimously against independence. Indonesia in 1973 renamed the land, known locally as West Papua, Irian Jaya.
As the OPM escalated its hit-and-run attacks against the far more powerful Indonesian troops, the army launched a counteroffensive in 1984 that drove hundreds of villagers into neighboring Papua New Guinea. That year, Indonesian forces also killed the prominent anthropologist Arnold Ap. The army carried out more major anti-OPM offensives in 1989.
While the OPM and other tiny armed groups continue to mount sporadic antigovernment attacks, civilian groups have become increasingly vocal in demanding independence ever since Indonesia's democratic transition began in 1998. In an event high on symbolism but short on tangible results, Eluay's Papua Presidium Council organized a week-long congress in spring 2000 that called for Jakarta to recognize a 1961 West Papuan declaration of independence. The 1961 declaration took place under Dutch rule and was never recognized internationally.
Even before tensions were increased by Eluay's killing, which took place on or about November 10, 2001, it was not clear how pro-independence groups and Jakarta would manage to find common ground. The Presidium Council in early November rejected a law passed by the Indonesian parliament giving West Papua political autonomy and a greater share of local forestry, fishery, and energy revenues.
Indonesian authorities, moreover, continued in 2001 to crack down on peaceful pro-independence activism. Before his death, Eluay was among the Presidium leaders being tried for subversion for their advocacy efforts. Separately, a court in March 2001 sentenced five leading activists in the town of Wamena to between four and four and a half years in prison after convicting them of "conspiring to commit separatism." They had been accused of "masterminding" violence in Wamena in October 2000 that had killed more than 30 people. The London-based Amnesty International said that there is no evidence that the five activists, all of whom are members of the Presidium Council, were involved in the violence, which began after Indonesian forces killed two people while trying to forcibly lower a pro-independence Morning Star flag. Amid mounting tensions, security forces shot dead 11 more people and local Papuans killed 19 migrants from other parts of Indonesia. Jakarta has banned Papuans from flying the proindependence flag except in several designated locations, where it must be flown alongside the Indonesian flag.
Military developments in 2001 also seemed to diminish prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Pro-independence rebels increased attacks on security posts, while Jakarta continued a troop buildup that began in June 2000, sending thousands of fresh soldiers to the province, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in July. On the same day the five activists were sentenced, the Wamena court also sentenced 17 pro-independence supporters to prison terms of between 21 months and three and a half years after finding them guilty of attacking police and carrying weapons without licenses. Most of the 17 are believed to be members of a pro-independence militia group, the Papua Taskforce.
The worst violence in 2001 killed some 15 police officers, plantation workers, and others in the Wasior area of the Manokwari district. They were killed in a series of alleged rebel attacks and security force crackdowns during the year that also caused thousands of villagers to flee their homes, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
West Papuans enjoy many basic rights, but Jakarta's crackdown on independence activism has made it harder to express political views, hold protests, and run nongovernmental groups (NGOs). Newspapers freely report on West Papua's pro-independence movement and other local political news. NGOs monitor human rights and provide social services despite having limited funds. By contrast, during the Suharto era officials banned all expression of support for West Papuan independence, routinely jailed dissidents, and kept a tight lid on the private media and civil society.
In a setback to these new freedoms, however, authorities in 2001 subjected prominent human rights organizations such as the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy and other civic groups to increased surveillance and harassment. Activists who reported on the police killings of three students and other abuses in the town of Abepura, near the provincial capital of Jayapura, in December 2000, and other alleged rights violations were summoned by police for questioning, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Abepura killings followed a rebel attack on a police post. Observers also expressed concern not only over the jailings in March of the five Wamena independence activists but over the conduct of their trials. The trials of both the activists and of the 17 independence supporters were carried out in "a tense atmosphere of intimidation and secrecy" amid a heavily armed police presence around the courtroom, Amnesty International said in March.
Most Papuans follow either Christian or indigenous beliefs, and all generally enjoy freedom to worship as they please. In part because of societal norms, women tend to face discrimination when pursuing schooling and seeking jobs, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Indonesia's human rights record in 2000, which covers West Papua.
Indonesian rule has helped modernize West Papua and develop its economy. Most of the benefits, however, have been reaped by foreign investors, the military, and by immigrants from other parts of the archipelago, according to the U.S. State Department report and other sources. Papuans also have little control over the territory's abundant natural resources. They say authorities continue to expropriate their ancestral lands and grant mining, logging, and energy contracts without adequate consultation or compensation, while investing little in local development projects.
Critics say the presence of large numbers of non-Papuans in the territory threatens to marginalize the indigenous-Melanesian culture and makes it harder for Papuans to find work. Local government agencies and private mining outfits reportedly tend to fill job openings with immigrants rather than Papuans. Immigrants also dominate small business and reportedly discriminate against indigenous Papuans. The October 2000 killings in Wamena of at least 19 immigrants from other parts of Indonesia were the worst of several incidents in the past few years where Papuans violently attacked or otherwise harassed non-Papuans. Some 170,000 non-Papuans came to West Papua from Indonesia's overcrowded main islands under a largely defunct "transmigration" program that began in the 1970s. Thousands more migrated on their own.
In addition to having fairly little control over economic affairs, West Papuans lack the right to decide the territory's political future. They had no input in the 1962 New York Agreement between the Netherlands and the UN that transferred their land from Dutch to Indonesian control in 1963. Moreover, the 1969 referendum that ratified Indonesian rule was neither free nor fair. The New York Agreement did not specify a procedure for the referendum, but it did call for Indonesia to hold a popular consultation "in accordance with international practice," a standard that Jakarta arguably ignored. The Indonesian military reportedly coerced the traditional leaders into approving Jakarta's rule, with the UN special observer reporting that "the administration exercised at all times a tight political control over the population."