• Young Diplomats Society

West Papua's Fight for Independence

Source: Flickr/ 'Free West Papua', Eric Verdaasdonk

Rhiannon Arthur

As West Papua celebrated its self-proclaimed independence day this year on December 1, independence leaders declared a provisional “government-in-waiting” for the Indonesian province. This “provisional government” was announced by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which alongside issuing a new constitution, appointed exiled leader Benny Wenda as interim president for the “government-in-waiting”.

In order to stem this independence movement, Indonesia’s government is currently trying to extend the “special autonomy” provisions first granted to West Papua in 2001 under the Special Autonomy Law. This law gives West Papuan leaders the authority "to regulate and manage the interests of the local people". However, pro-independence fighters say the law is only there to quell any independence aspirations from being realised."

The ULMWP says its new "government-in-waiting" wants to hold a referendum on independence, which would grant the organisation legitimacy to form government. However, Indonesian authorities are reluctant to release their grip on the territory. Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah, said: "[u]nder what pretext [does] somebody by the name of Benny Wenda make a self-proclaimed status as representative of the Indonesian people of Papua?”

West Papua has long struggled with the idea of independence. When Indonesia gained independence from The Netherlands in 1949, West Papua remained separate but then was later incorporated into the nation in 1963. In 1969, the UN General Assembly called for a referendum to determine whether West Papua was to be independent, but this was unsuccessful. Since then, West Papuan nationalists have fought against West Papua’s absorption into the Indonesian state and have led an independence movement calling for another referendum to decide the sovereignty of West Papua.

Jakarta is unwilling to grant the province independence, as it sees the area – which is rich in natural resources – as an indivisible part of the nation. One of President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) 2019 election promises was to develop Indonesia “from the periphery”. In 2019, 22 per cent of West Papua’s population were considered to be living in poverty, compared to just three per cent of Jakarta’s population. This wealth disparity prompted policies focusing on closing the economic gap between rural and urban areas, through the stimulation of economic growth in regional communities. However, despite the Government pouring millions of dollars into development and infrastructure projects in the region, West Papuan independence leaders have made it clear that such projects are not enough: they want independence.

The fight for independence is not unique to West Papua. The Pacific region has been grappling with a colonial hangover for years, with several islands achieving independence over the last fifty years. New Caledonia was the most recent nation to take the independence question to a referendum, with secession being narrowly rejected by the populace.

Snapshot of Independence Movements in the Pacific

  • Papua New Guinea: Papua New Guinea achieved independence from Australia on September 16, 1975.

  • Tuvalu: Tuvalu achieved independence from Britain on October 1, 1978.

  • Kiribati: Kiribati achieved independence from Britain on July 12, 1979.

  • Vanuatu: Vanuatu achieved independence from France and Britain on July 30, 1980.

  • Timor Leste: Timor Leste voted overwhelmingly, in a UN-sanctioned referendum, for independence from Indonesia on August 30, 1999, but was plunged into violence soon after. It was not until May 20, 2002 that the nation had its full independence restored.

  • Bougainville: Bougainville achieved independence from Papua New Guinea in December, 2019, with the populace voting overwhelmingly, with 98.31 per cent of votes in the referendum, in favour of independence.

Not independence but?

There are also other Pacific islands that have not achieved outright independence but fit into a third category of partial independence. For example, Niue and the Cook Islands are self-governing in free association with New Zealand. This allows the two countries to be responsible for their own domestic and foreign affairs, while residents hold New Zealand citizenship. Similarly, the Micronesian nations of Palau, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are independent states, but have close defence relationships with the United States. Citizens of these three countries have the right to live and work in the United States too, suggesting it is more than just a strategic relationship.

While there are many Pacific islands that have achieved independence through referenda, or have achieved partial independence, the right of West Papuans to govern independently is being subjected to continuous challenges. Indonesia is a vast archipelago made up of more than 1,300 ethnic groups spread out over 17,000 islands. Indonesia’s national slogan is “unity in diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), which stands true with its many ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious groups. While Indonesia is a multicultural and ecumenical success story in many ways, not everyone feels part of the nation. The question of West Papuan independence looks to remain contested for years to come.

This article was originally published in YDS' end of year Special Edition, '2020'. The Special Edition can be accessed here.

Rhiannon Arthur is a recent Master of International Relations graduate from the University of Melbourne. Previously, she completed a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) and a Diploma in Languages (Indonesian). Rhiannon is passionate about deepening Australia’s understanding and appreciation of Asian and Pacific languages, cultures, politics and social issues.