Map of Papua. Photo: Flickr Commons
Map of Papua. Photo: Flickr Commons

The next two years could prove to be transformative for Melanesia, a region of Pacific islands spanning from Papua in the west to Fiji in the east. Two votes on independence, scheduled in 2018 and 2019, could bring two new nations into the fold and shake up the politics of a region where decolonization is still a pressing matter.

One more long-running movement hopes to join their ranks: the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which seeks independence for the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island. Unlike their neighbors in French New Caledonia and the Papuan island of Bougainville, there is little prospect of a free vote for West Papuans.

In an unprecedented effort organized by ULMWP leader Benny Wenda,  activists in West Papua and among the diaspora worked to collect 1.8 million signatures throughout West Papua’s two provinces for an independence petition to be presented to the United Nations last September. Despite receiving the backing of over 70% of West Papua’s population, the effort to gain a seat at the UN Decolonization Committee failed — it won the support of only eight countries, all of them small Caribbean and Pacific island states.

“I think the Indonesian government will increase its efforts to block the ULMWP,” says Jakarta-based Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono. “This could range from increasing bilateral cooperation with Melanesian states to threatening to boycott some businesses over their support for West Papua.”

Indonesia’s Papuan provinces were incorporated into the country in 1969, when Indonesian authorities held a widely disputed referendum that ended seven years of UN administration following the departure of the Dutch colonial regime. An on-and-off conflict with local separatists of various stripes has endured since then, with the Indonesian military accused of atrocities amounting to genocide against the Papuan population.

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Political prisoners

The Indonesian authorities aggressively prosecute any actions deemed supportive of independence, including jailing activists for raising West Papua’s “Morning Star” flag. The election of Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, to the Indonesian presidency in 2014 raised hopes of a thaw in the conflict. He promised to lift restrictions that forbade journalists from visiting the region on the campaign trail, but those hopes have largely been dashed.

While he did lift the bans, it is still difficult for reporters to access West Papua. Jakarta released several high-profile prisoners that had been in jail for years, but authorities still imprisoned up to 8,000 Papuans in mass temporary arrests over the last two years. Political prisoners like 27-year-old Yanto Awerkion, who was arrested last May in the coastal city of Timika while collecting signatures for the ULMWP petition, remain in jail with uncertain prospects for release.

“Jokowi would probably like to see these political prisoners released, but there have been more mass arrests,” says Dr. Jim Elmslie, co-founder of the West Papua Project at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Harsono agrees, pointing out that the number of annual arrests has risen well into the thousands under the Jokowi administration.

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War & peace

Activists fighting for independence in West Papua have operated under a variety of different armed and peaceful groups since 1969. While going through several periods of internal division, most have long operated under the umbrella of the Free Papua Movement, also known by its Indonesian acronym, OPM.

Activists fighting for independence in West Papua have operated under a variety of different armed and peaceful groups since 1969

The OPM’s armed wing, known as the TPN-PB, has long engaged in a low-level insurgency against the Indonesian military and police. Another target of its attacks has been the Phoenix-based mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which operates the enormous Grasberg gold and copper mine in the region’s western mountains. Indigenous Papuans living in nearby towns have long protested that they see receive little of the lucrative wealth produced, which instead finds its way to Freeport or officials in Jakarta.

The armed conflict escalated towards the end of 2017, when deadly clashes in November were followed by the Indonesian military accusing the TPN-PB of occupying several villages near Grasberg one month later. After the death of a leading TPN-PB commander in September, the group released a formal “declaration of war” against Indonesia in February this year.

“The TPN-PB stole two powerful guns from the Indonesian military near the mine in 2016,” says Elmslie. “That’s when the attacks started increasing, and after they declared war they blocked the road leading to the mine in Tembagapura.”

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Melanesian support

The leaders behind the petition campaign brought together several disparate groups after the 2011 Papuan People’s Congress, going on to form the ULMWP three years later and enabling them to form a united front for the independence effort.

Its biggest platform for international support has been the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a regional forum for Melanesian countries. Citing the increased profile that MSG membership gave the FLNKS, a pro-independence party in New Caledonia, the ULMWP was granted observer status at the MSG summit in 2015 — but so was Indonesia, which became an associate member.

After presenting the independence petition to the UN, ULMWP leader Wenda renewed his efforts to gain full membership at the MSG summit in Port Moresby last February. Wenda gave a speech to leaders at the event, highlighting the movement’s progress on reforms demanded by the MSG before granting full membership. But with the Indonesian government placing its diplomatic weight behind regional allies like Fiji, the membership application was shelved for the foreseeable future.

“The West Papuan people continue to suffer brutality at the hands of oppressors every day,” said Wenda in a statement released before his speech. “We call on Melanesian leaders to acknowledge our political aspirations, to hear this cry for freedom.”

Giacomo Tognini is a London-born Italian journalist currently based in the United States. A longtime resident of Southeast Asia, his articles have been published in Bloomberg News, the Huffington Post, Worldcrunch, and the Jakarta Globe.

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