The Struggle for the Liberation and Independence of West Papua Continues
Just 200km to the north of Australia lies one of our nearest neighbours, West Papua (1), which has been under a brutal Indonesian occupation since illegal military incursions in 1962 and eventual annexation by that country in 1963. Prior to that, it was under the rule of Dutch colonialism. From the time of Indonesian occupation to the present, some 500,000 West Papuans lives have been martyred in the resistance to the occupation.
Yet, in the face of this adversity and life-threatening repression, the resilience and determination of the West Papuan people for liberation remains undiminished. The struggle takes many forms including direct armed conflict against the occupying Indonesian military and other elements of the Indonesian state. Under the banner of The United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), the many West Papuan organisations fighting for the liberation and independence of their country are forging a united front effort.
A number of recent developments are worth noting and supporting.
Grasberg in West Papua is the site of the world’s largest gold mine and the world’s second largest copper mine. It is operated by the giant US mining company Freeport-McMoran (2). The company has been operating the mine since 1967, ie since the early days of Indonesian occupation.
The next largest stakeholder in the mine is the Rio-Tinto company (remember Bougainville Copper in New Guinea and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army?). After that, it is the Indonesian government.
The copper reserves alone are valued at $40Billion. Little wonder that Indonesia is intent on maintaining its colonial grip on the country.
The mine has been marred by industrial disputes, disputes between the Indonesian government and Freeport-McMoran, the guerrilla insurgency and environmental issues.
The mine employs 32,000 workers made up of West Papuans and ex-pat Indonesians (3). These workers live in company “villages” near the mine. On May 1 this year some 10,000 mine workers went on strike over the company’s unilateral implementation of a “furlough” policy. Under this policy, the company can at short notice, put workers on long-term leave. These workers immediately lose benefits including overtime and accommodation. Workers on “furlough” have been evicted from their accommodation barracks after only two days’ notice.
The workers carried out the strike due to their fear and uncertainty about whether they will ever get their jobs back under this policy.
The company declared the strike illegal and in its early days sacked 178 workers. The strike was to last for 30 days but due to a lack of resolution it is ongoing. As of late August, 4,200 workers had been sacked. This has caused severe hardship for these mineworkers. Lives have even been lost through suicide and loss of access to health services because the company has withdrawn health coverage. The company is guilty of violating human rights in the most callous fashion.
The question must be asked, who is actually carrying out illegal action here? The company had an agreement with the workers that the resolution of disputes would be handled via an arbitration panel, however, the company acted unilaterally in the implementation of “furlough”.
Furthermore the mine itself is illegal, as it was established directly as a result of the annexation of West Papua. The traditional owners of West Papuan have never given permission for the mine and they have never ceded the land where the mine is situated.
On the 19th August the strike escalated when the striking workers took the initiative to blockade the mine. Protests were also held where vehicles were set alight (see photo at start of this article). This is something that the workers organised themselves, without any involvement from their union. However, the police and security guards moved in and after many workers were injured as a result, the blockade was dismantled. The Indonesian army was in the area in case it was needed. Freeport has used the military in previous disputes.
There is concern that the situation has the potential to turn into another Marikana.
The root cause of the strike lies in a dispute between Freeport and the Indonesian government over Freeport’s majority control of the mine (and hence the majority of profits). Indonesia wants Freeport to divest its interests in the mine to the point where Indonesia will have a majority and controlling stake. After all, Indonesia did the hard yakka of taking over West Papua, providing the army and doing all the killing on the behalf of US imperialism! However, Freeport is not moving over so easily.
In a cruel tactic, Freeport is using the mine workers as pawns in its dispute with the Indonesian government. The Indonesian government revoked Freeport’s export permit and in response the company slowed down production and introduced the “furlough” policy mentioned above.
The West Papuan people have had enough of the exploitation of the resources of their country by foreign interests, be they American-based or Indonesian. They have seen very little benefit from the vast profits from the mine which have been repatriated elsewhere. In fact West Papua is the poorest of Indonesia’s territories, with 28% of the population living below the poverty line and has some of the most appalling statistics in terms of infant mortality and illiteracy in the Asia region.
As well as the ongoing strike by the mineworkers, the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPN-PB) has been engaged in armed struggle in the area around the mining region for many years. It has recently escalated its attacks against the mine. In a recent statement, the TPN-PB said “the main reason Papua was integrated into Indonesia was a conspiracy between the US and Indonesia to exploit Papua for the Freeport mine. That resulted in the colonisation of Papua lands by foreign capitalism and the Indonesian government. That's why we continue in our fight to destroy Freeport."
It further stated "We and Papuans only want independence. We will continue to fight until we achieve independence”.
In November, the TPN-PB occupied five villages in the region around the mine and has been involved in skirmishes with the police and security forces. The Indonesian police and army have been putting out reports to the media that “people have been raped and some have had goods stolen” and that villagers were being held hostage. These are trumped up assertions designed to discredit the legitimate struggle of the West Papuan freedom fighters. Independent journalism is not permitted by the Indonesians inside West Papua. A few days later a community leader from one of the villages in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald said "I would like to stress we are not being held hostage. No one in the village is being stopped from doing daily activities." He went on to say that the non-Papuans were also not being held hostage. "They are safe, they are not being treated differently. They are our neighbours." He travelled freely (ie unimpeded by the freedom fighters) out of the village and managed to give the interview.
The commander of the TPN-PB said “I don't want any lives lost, I don't want anybody from the community to fall victim”.
Irrespective of the lies from the Indonesian military about the TPN-PB, there is support for the TPN-PB here. In fact, the villagers are terrified of the 300 or so additional Indonesian army forces subsequently sent into the area. These fears were justified when villagers were intimidated, injured and killed by the Indonesian military. Since then, Indonesian forces have retaken the villages. However, this is a temporary setback for the movement to liberate West Papua. The TPN-PB is continuing its actions in the area. Indonesia cannot justify its presence there and day after day its brutality becomes more exposed to the international community.
In September this year, West Papuan leader, Rex Rumakiek (Secretary of ULMWP) presented a petition to the United Nations signed by 1,800,000 Papuans. The petition had to be smuggled from village to village in West Papua. Many of those promoting the petition were arrested, jailed, beaten and tortured.
The colossal scale of the mining activity has resulted in environmental damage in the region, including the contamination of waterways and soil with acidic leachate. Freeport is being investigated for dumping waste into rivers, the forests and the sea. The estimate of the environmental damage caused by the company is almost $14 billion (if it is at all possible to put a monetary value on such a thing!).
Needless to say, the traditional custodians of the mining area are angry about the presence of the mine, the damage done to the environment and the loss of their traditional way of life.
This is exemplified by the example of the Kamoro people who used to sustainably practice agriculture, fishing and hunting here. When the mine opened they were involuntarily displaced from their traditional land. Even the Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights views Freeport’s takeover of the mine area as a land grab.
A Kamoro elder recently said “The land that could be used to live on has been contaminated with chemicals. Our nature is damaged. The mountain is filled with holes. I’ve never received anything from Freeport.” He said that it would be best for Freeport to cease operations there.
The people of West Papua are continuing their protracted fight for liberation from Indonesian rule on many fronts, and victory is inevitable. Within West Papua itself support for independence is gaining support as human rights there worsen. The resolve of West Papuans to achieve this is becoming stronger. The sooner Indonesia and the multinational corporations exploiting the country realise this, the better.
Between 27 November and 3 December this year the ULMWP held its first summit in Port Vila, Vanuatu. The outcome of the summit was a strengthening of the unity amongst the various organisations that form the thrust for the liberation of West Papua.
The CPA-ML congratulates the ULMWP on the success of its summit.
The summit reported that the liberation struggle is gaining wider support internationally.
During the summit on 1 December, in a genuine gesture of Melanesian solidarity, the government of Vanuatu handed over to the West Papuan independence movement a building for their offices in Port Vila. A solidarity march was held to mark the event (see photo below). 1 December is considered by West Papuans as their national day, making this gift by the people and government of Vanuatu even more significant. Also on 1 December, in an action of global solidarity, the West Papuan flag was raised in countries around the world.
Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are strong supporters of the just struggle for an Independent West Papua - not only at the political level but at the people to people level. The Vanuatu and Solomon Islands rugby league teams last month made an open invitation to the West Papuan team to host them in Honiara and to take part in the test matches. Should be a good series!
In September this year, a number of Pacific Island countries showed strong international leadership by defiantly raising the issue of human rights violations by Indonesia in West Papua. By contrast, it is shameful that the Australian government has been gutless, not even saying boo, let alone showing any support for an independent West Papua. So much for Australia’s election to the UN Human Rights Council!
All fair-minded Australians support a free and independent West Papua.
Victory to the people of West Papua!
(1) In this article, the term West Papua refers to the entire western half of the island of New Guinea. Indonesia has tried to create confusion by dividing this occupied half into two provinces which they have named West Papua and Papua. Indonesia calls these two provinces in combination, Irian-Jaya. The indigenous population is resentful of this name.
(2) It happens that the third largest shareholder in the Freeport company is billionaire Carl Icahn, who until his resignation in August this year was a regulatory advisor to President Donald Trump. He resigned due to conflict of business interests being revealed. He is being investigated.
(3) Since its occupation of West Papua, Indonesia has instigated a policy of “Trans-migration” whereby it has systematically diluted out the indigenous population by bringing in Indonesians to settle there - a form of genocide by other means.