To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
August 31, 2019
RE: Resurgent movement of the indigenous Melanesians of West Papua

Denounce Indonesian racism!
Self-determination for West Papua!

By Frank Arango, Seattle Workers' Voice

West Papua is an Indonesian colony that comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea. But its native Melanesians have never accepted being turned into brutalized colonial subjects, and since August they've developed an unprecedented upsurge in their struggle for the right to determine their own future. Their fight deserves the support of the working people and democrats of all countries, including Indonesia. It's our fight too.

The immediate events

On  the eve of Indonesian independence day, August 16, students from West Papua in the Javanese city of Surabaya supposedly "disrespected" an Indonesian flag at a rally. A crowd of Indonesians then hurled racist abuse at them, while the police and national militia tear-gassed them, beat them, and invaded a youth hostel and dormitory hurling racist slurs: "monkeys," "pigs," "dogs". There were arrests. The students were justly enraged, and in the following days and weeks they and fellow Melanesians resident in Indonesia have repeatedly taken to the streets to defiantly denounce racism and call for a referendum on West Papuan independence.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Indonesian government had cut off internet access to West Papua, news reached home. Mass protests quickly developed, with tires being burned in roads and the West Papua Regional Legislative Council set on fire on August 19. Since then there have been repeated protests of thousands, including by thousands of traditional people marching down from the hills. On August 28 Indonesian authorities opened fire on Papuans at one of these protests, killing six people. (The police have denied this with claims that "only" two protesters were killed as they tried to storm a local government office, while one soldier and five police officers were injured by arrows or machetes.) On August 29, several government buildings in the capital, Jayapura, including the Papuan People's Assembly, were burned by protesters denouncing racism and calling for a referendum. On August 30, some 5000 protesters remained camped outside the Papua governor's office after refusing to meet with the Indonesian president and demanding a referendum as the best solution.

How could such a powerful movement arise so quickly?

A history of anti-colonial struggle

Today's West Papua was once a Dutch colony, Dutch New Guinea. But after Holland was driven out of the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia), and under pressure of the great anti-colonial movement of the time, including demands by the Melanesians, in 1957 the Dutch embarked on a Papuanisation program that was supposed to see West Papua become an independent state in the very early 1970s. This was not to be.

In the 1962 New York Agreement made under the auspices of the UN, the United States pressured Holland to "temporarily" cede the administration of West Papua to Indonesia. The agreement also said that by 1969 the United Nations was supposed to oversee a referendum of the Papuan people. None of this happened. In 1963 Indonesia marched into West Papua with troops that would stay permanently. Then, unknown to both the Dutch and Melanesans, in 1967 the U.S. mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold began negotiating with the Indonesian dictator Suharto over mining concessions in West Papua that turned out to be extremely lucrative. Then, in order to give a legal cover for what was in fact annexation, in 1969 Indonesian soldiers gathered 1,026 Melanesian "leaders", and using cajolery, bribes and threats to murder their families, forced them to unanimously vote for Indonesian rule. (West Papua had a population of roughly one million at that time.) The government called this the "Act of Free Choice," while the West Papuans dubbed it the "Act of No Choice." And despite the fact that the UN had previously promised a referendum would be held “in accordance with international practice,” it turned around and approved this travesty.

Today, West Papua is rich in forests, oil, natural gas and minerals, including having the world's largest gold mine. But it is the poorest region controlled by Indonesia. The people are impoverished as the forests they've depended on are clear-cut for logs or to plant palm oil plantations, and as rivers are poisoned by mine tailings and sludge from palm oil mills. And when they find work they're super-exploited in the worse jobs. Meanwhile, they're becoming strangers in their own land as the official language is Indonesian, and the government's transmigration policy has resulted in around half the population being comprised of Indonesian settlers.

Beneath this, however, something else has been going on. Already, in the early 1960s the West Papuans had established a Papuan National Council and provisional government as well as their own military, police force, currency, national anthem, and flag. Thus, when Indonesia seized West Papua in 1963 it banned political parties and tried to annihilate all resistance.  But the people continued to organize and fight back anyway. In 1965 the Free Papua Movement (or OPM) was founded to fight for independence, including with armed struggle. (1) Tens of thousands of people have died in Indonesian revenge operations that were long kept secret from the rest of the world by a ban on press reporters. In 2014 the United Liberation Movement for West Papua was founded. And other organizations have been founded to fight against devastation of the environment and on other issues. Thus, in conditions of the most painful capitalist development, the indigenous peoples have further forged themselves into a nation through their struggles. That's why the once-illegal Morning Star flag is today being raised in all the protests. In fact, it's still illegal to raise the Morning Star flag by itself, but the Melanesians of West Papua and in Indonesia itself defy this reactionary nonsense. We can't predict the immediate results of the presently raging struggle, but without doubt the West Papuans are paving the way toward a more liberated future.


(1) The Guardian reports that in March this year as many as 15 Indonesian soldiers and Papuan independence fighters were killed in a firefight. On its side, the Indonesian military said three of its soldiers, and seven to 10 independence fighters died. The spokesman for the West Papua National Liberation Army said five soldiers were killed and spoke of no deaths for the Papuans.

Videos and photos from the uprising

* A T.V. report on the initial protests.

* Women marching down from the hills. 

* In Deiyai.

* In Jayapura, August 19 (scroll with the arrows). 

* In Timika, August 20.

* Government buildings burning in Jayapura on August 29 (scroll with the arrows).  <>

Back to main page, how to order CV, write us!

Posted on August 31, 2019