WEST PAPUA, the forgotten story of a people in crisis

Linked with Paula Makabory – Indonesia, and with Agenda, Empowering Women for Gender Equity.
Published on Agenda by Rochelle Jones, without a date – Since Indonesia took over the rule of West Papua (Irian Jaya) from the Dutch colonial administration in 1963, indigenous West Papuans have endured human rights abuses, ignorance from the international community, and the destruction of their fragile ecosystems. As the situation now escalates, AWID considers the women of West Papua.

We are familiar with what happened in Timor-Leste. It took a human rights disaster for the international community to take a stand and support the East Timorese in their fight for independence from Indonesia. West Papua, it seems, is heading in the same direction. During the 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’, where West Papuans were allegedly given the “choice” to decide on independence or Indonesian rule, the Indonesian authorities placed under detention any prominent West Papuans likely to protest [1].

This resulted in sovereignty being handed to Indonesia, which was accepted by the United Nations, and subsequently, West Papuans have been living under the control of Indonesia ever since, touting the 1969 experience as an “Act of No Choice”. Around 200,000 West Papuans have died under Indonesian control.

Only 4 years ago in 2002, members of the Indonesian military (TNI) brutally assassinated the West Papuan pro-independence leader, Theys Eluay, with 20,000 West Papuans attending his burial. In their most recent report, Human Rights Watch has reported a build up of troops in West Papua, with widespread displacement of civilians [2]. Last week, a group of West Papuan refugees landed on Australian soil seeking asylum from what they described as genocide against the West Papuan people [3].


West Papua has some 240 different tribal peoples, each with its own language and culture. Together with the rest of the island of New Guinea, they are the “lungs of the Asia-Pacific, containing the last great surviving virgin rainforest after the Amazon” [3]. It is a complex terrain of issues that the West Papuans face. For over 40 years, they have had to endure a climate of intimidation and violence from the TNI and militias who operate to undermine and destroy any pro-independence thinking or action. Against the odds, West Papuans continue to fight for their identities:

“Our freedom fighters are poorly armed, often having to make do with spears and bows and arrows to fight the Indonesian army, yet despite our poor military equipment, we have been strong enough to stand up against Indonesia’s military machine for more than 30 years. No one can deny we are strong” [4].

Official transmigration strategies of moving Indonesian nationals into West Papua are also rendering them a minority in their own homeland. The number of refugees taking refuge in the jungle as at the end of 2004 was over 6000 [1]. In addition, the mining and illegal logging of West Papua’s pristine ecosystems has left thousands of indigenous people landless, and has desecrated sacred grounds. TNI operations created over 11,000 refugees during 2003-5 [1]. To make matters more complicated, weapons smuggling into Papua New Guinea through West Papua from Indonesia is commonplace [5]. One author reports that there is increasing evidence that the TNI channel weapons into West Papua and then accuse West Papuan separatists of smuggling, using this for justification of repressive strategies such as “full-scale security operations to hunt down ‘terrorists’ and gun smugglers” [5]. These security operations have typically involved violence towards and intimidation of villagers, particularly those involved in pro-independence movements, and has included the raping and murdering of women – a haunting reminder of what happened in Timor-Leste.


These complex issues are compounded for West Papuan women, as is the case with most conflict situations. Women face sexual violence, such as rape and coerced sex work, HIV/AIDS, and displacement from their land and livelihoods. West Papua has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in Indonesia. According to a 2005 report, this is because of the “ongoing harassment Papuan women face from Indonesian soldiers, as well as the severe lack of health services for Papuans in the region” [6]. Despite HIV/AIDS
prevention programs being implemented by local governments, the number of infections has continued to increase, predominately due to the poor knowledge amongst health workers about sexually transmitted diseases, high mobility and migration, insufficient implementation of the programs, and communication difficulties caused by high rates of illiteracy and multiple languages [7]. In addition, sexual health is a sensitive issue that is rarely discussed.

These issues do not stop at the border. According to a recent interview with Mary Soondrawu, President of the East Sepik Council of Women (ESCOW), which is a province located on the New Guinea side of the border with West Papua [8], women suffer a double burden as a result of arms smuggling in particular, both from the Indonesian smugglers themselves, and their local men, who are pressured and threatened into compliance. She reports how ESCOW “almost weekly deals with issues of smugglers, mainly foreign nationals (the vast majority Indonesian) who have raped the local women”. Sex work is also a burgeoning problem wherever the mining companies are, with many women and young girls conducting “affairs” with Indonesian and other “white men” around the logging camps and mining towns, and some with no choice at all:

“Local women are often forcibly kidnapped from their villages and taken to the logging camps. They are then forced to perform sex acts on loggers and police, and sometimes have to “service” the whole camp. As Greenpeace have reported previously (and this is still happening), women who are made pregnant by this are expelled from camp, and forced to walk back in shame to their villages” [8].

Many women in West Papua are unable to turn to help because of the culture of impunity that exists at all levels of the Indonesian government. One story in West Papua tells of a homeless woman who was beaten to death by six police officers after they accused her of stealing money. The Indonesian Judge let two of the offenders go free, sentenced four months jail for two other officers, and denied a rank promotion to the remaining two [9].

The biggest hurdle in eradicating human rights abuses is that groups are unable to properly mobilise, and the message is very difficult to disseminate. Foreign journalists and most researchers and aid workers are still banned from West Papua, and any local dissent is put down immediately. In December 2004, for example, hundreds of students “took part in a demonstration that has landed several of them in jail and facing a possible death penalty”[1]. Human Rights workers and those who question the current situation are regularly subject to threats, intimidation and worse. In 2004, for example, a prominent Free Papua Movement member pleaded on Australian television for national and international dialogue on what he described as ethnic cleansing taking place. He was executed only days later in a raid by the infamous Kopassus arm of the TNI. Just weeks ago, when a group of West Papuan refugees landed on Australian soil, the Indonesian government warned the Australian Government against granting them asylum, and asked for them to be sent back.

West Papua, with its rich natural resources, is an important asset to Indonesia – one they will not give up easily. Mama Yosepha Alomang, who won the Goldman Environment Prize in 2002, will not give up easily either:

“As a woman, I didn’t go to school or receive an education. I’m a very simple person. But I see the world, I see the church, NGOs and I know that I have got rights. We should be treated as people abroad are, not be seen as thieves, threatened, intimidated, chased. We should be treated as other humans, allowed to live in safety, just like other people. That’s what I want for our lives, to be very peaceful, to solve the problem [of Papua] peacefully” [1].

[1] Wing, John & Peter King, 2005. Genocide in West Papua? Published the West Papua Project at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, and ELSHAM Jayapura, Papua.
[2] Human Rights Watch World Report 2006. Available from Human Rights Watch.
[3] West Papua Action.
[4] Interview with Moses Werror 24 January 96 (Green Left Weekly – Australia).
[5] In 2004 a Gun Control Committee was set up in the PNG Parliament to investigate the number and availability of small arms in the country. See “Terror-razing the Forest” by Nick Chesterfield. 2006. Available from dev-zone.
[6] Canada’s West Papua Action Network (WESTPAN), 2005. Papua’s Women & Children Under Fire. Available from westpapua.ca.
[7] Silitonga, Nurlan. 2002. Mining, HIV/AIDS, and Women: Timika – Papua Province, Indonesia. In Oxfam’s “Tunnel Vision” Report. Available from Oxfam.
[8] Chesterfield, Nick. 2006. Terror-Razing the Forest: A Preliminary Investigation. Available from dev-zone.
[9] Report written by Rev. Socratez Sofyan Yoman, President of the West Papuan Baptist Churches, July 2005.This report was on the site of West Papua Action, this site is no more available.

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