West Papua * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

West Papua *

West Papua *

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

West Papua's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to changes in the survey methodology.


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 UN 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 Papuan 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 the main spokesmen for independence ever since Indonesia's democratic transition began in 1998. In an event high on symbolism but short on tangible results, the Papua Presidium Council, a forum for West Papuan leaders seeking peaceful independence, organized a week-long congress in spring 2000. The congress called on Jakarta to recognize a 1961 West Papuan declaration of independence that took place under Dutch rule and was never recognized internationally.

Jakarta tolerated the holding of the congress, but violence in the town of Wamena later in 2000 increased tensions and pushed the two sides even farther apart. That October, security forces in Wamena killed two people while trying to forcibly lower a pro-independence Morning Star flag. Amid mounting tensions in the town, security forces shot dead 11 more people and local Papuans killed 19 immigrants from other parts of Indonesia.

A court in 2001 sentenced five leading activists to between four and four-and-a-half years in prison for masterminding the Wamena violence. The human rights group Amnesty International said that there is no evidence that the five activists, all of whom are Presidium Council members, were involved.

The independence movement suffered a further blow when the leader of the Presidium Council was killed by unidentified assailants in November 2001. More than a year later, Thueys Eluay's killing was still unsolved. Throughout 2001, moreover, a series of alleged rebel attacks and security force crackdowns caused thousands of villagers to flee their homes, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Fewer incidents of politically related violence were reported in 2002, although tensions remained high in the province. In August, unidentified gunmen killed two Americans and an Indonesian near the giant Grasberg mine in Tembagapura owned by the local subsidiary of the U.S.-based Freeport McMoRan. The gold and copper mine came under increased scrutiny in the 1990s over environmental concerns and allegations that Indonesian security forces guarding the site committed rights abuses against local Papuans.

Meanwhile, the Presidium Council continued to reject an Indonesian law passed in late 2001 giving West Papua political autonomy and a greater share of local forestry, fishery, and energy revenues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

West Papuans enjoy many basic rights previously denied to them under former President Suharto. Discussion and advocacy of independence are no longer illegal, newspapers freely report on West Papua's pro-independence movement and other local political news, and nongovernmental organizations not only provide social services but also monitor and promote human rights. 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.

Despite these positive changes, serious problems remain. Indonesian forces continue to commit abuses in the province. "Security forces in Papua assaulted, tortured, and killed persons during search operations for members of militant groups," and reportedly assaulted suspects in detention, according to the U.S. State Department's March global human rights report covering 2001, adding that police also killed Papuans while searching for suspects in ordinary crimes. Some detained suspects are either tortured or brutally beaten, Human Rights Watch said in September. Meanwhile, the OPM and other small separatist groups have in recent years killed several soldiers and police while kidnapping foreigners in order to bring attention to their cause.

Since 2001 officials have subjected prominent local 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 alleged rights violations, such as the police killings of three students and other abuses in the town of Abepura in December 2000, have been summoned by police for questioning. The killings in Abepura, located near the provincial capital of Jayapura, followed a rebel attack on a police post. Journalists who try to expose abuses by security forces often face intimidation, according to Human Rights Watch.

While the judiciary is more independent than in the past, observers have criticized recent trials of antigovernment activists. The trials of the five Wamena activists in 2001 and of 17 other independence supporters were carried out in "a tense atmosphere of intimidation and secrecy" amid a heavily armed police presence around the courtrooms, according to Amnesty International.

Most Papuans follow either Christian or indigenous beliefs, and all generally enjoy freedom of worship. Traditional norms that put women in a subservient position contribute to unofficial discrimination against women in education and employment.

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 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 that officials 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 that the presence of large numbers of non-Papuans in the territory threatens to marginalize the Papuans' Melanesian culture and makes it harder for them to find work. Local governmental agencies and private mining outfits reportedly tend to fill job openings with immigrants rather than Papuans. Moreover, immigrants 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 immigrated 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 United Nations 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."