Resisting Colonialism and Development Aggression in West Papua

Rosa Moiwend

A former Dutch colony, West Papua was occupied by the Indonesian military in 1963. The international framework that allowed this occupation to take place was based on the economic and political interests of the United States and supported by its allies the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Australia. The United Nations actively denied West Papuans right to self-determination and supported the Indonesian occupation. During the first few years of the Indonesian government’s occupation West Papuan resistance was brutally crushed through military operations and aerial bombardment. Two years before the United Nations formally facilitated the transfer of Dutch sovereignty to Indonesia – all without West Papuans consent – the United States and Indonesia established a massive gold and copper mine in West Papua. From the beginning the Freeport mine was declared a national asset and security project protected by a massive Indonesian military presence. Old fashioned colonialism marked by territorial occupation by a foreign military force remained but was augmented by neo-colonialism: intensive capital investment in the extractive industries and the influx of large numbers of Indonesians to displace indigenous West Papuans. In the early years the Indonesian government’s transmigration program was funded by the World Bank. Although on paper the project was designed as development to benefit ‘the poor’ in reality the Indonesian government’s sole objective was to protect its territorial integrity. It was militarised development that in actual fact generated poverty.

Along the Papua New Guinean border from Arso in the north to Sota in the South indigenous Papuans were displaced by large-scale logging which then gave way to palm oil. In the northern region of Keerom, for example, indigenous Papuans went from being 100% of the population to 40%. The border was also secured by military bases and the insertion of Indonesian military personnel into every level of society including the most remote village. Colonial occupation and neo-colonial investment and transmigration was supported by a range of political policies, most recently UP4B (the Unit for the Acceleration of Development) and MP3EI (Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development). In the South of West Papua foreign companies, including Korean companies, were invited to participate in MIFEE, the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate, a massive 1.2 million hectare land grab, that will displace tens of thousands of Indigenous West Papuans who have lived on their land since time immemorial. All of these companies have connections with Indonesian military officers.

West Papuan resistance to colonialism, neo-colonialism and militarism existed since the beginning of the occupation, whether we are talking about Dutch or Indonesian rule. Defending customary land is the foundation of a larger resistance movement for self-determination. Since 1998 that resistance has been overwhelmingly through nonviolent means. In the south of West Papua where the MIFEE project is being established the indigenous Malind Anim people have occupied the offices of companies trying to access their land. Members of the Malind Anim, for instance, blocked the road, turning company access roads into food gardens. These daily streams of small everyday acts of resistance are in the process of converging into a raging river of political dissent.

In the wider political movement resistance has been growing. In 2014 the three largest resistance groups came together to form an umbrella organisation: the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. The ULMWP’s first campaign goal was to seek membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, an important sub-regional forum with status at the United Nations. Inside West Papua over 500 people were arrested, scores tortured and one person was killed. The centrepiece of this campaign was a paper petition signed by over 55,000 people. Outside the country – in the Melanesian nations of Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands in particular – massive mobilisation compelled governments to support the West Papuan cause. As a result, the ULMWP gained observer status at the MSG. This effectively creates a permanent forum for political negotiations with Indonesia. Colonialism, development and militarism show no sign of abating in West Papua but the West Papuans are more determined than ever before to continue their struggle for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination.