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West Papua: Forgotten War, Unwanted People

Nowhere in the modern world has an armed liberation struggle persisted for so long - nearly 30 years - and with such secrecy, as the West Papuan war of resistance against the military government of Indonesia.

West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, formerly known as Dutch New Guinea. A 13-year dispute with the Netherlands over whether the former Dutch colony would become an independent state or an Indonesian province culminated in 1962 in its occupation and annexation by force by he Indonesian military and the denial of the right of self-determination to its people. Following Indonesia's farcical Act of "Free" Choice, carried out in 1969 under conditions of extreme duress, West Papua was proclaimed an Indonesian province and renamed Irian Jaya. Through their acquiescence, Western nations assisted in these actions and have continued to support Indonesia's repressive military rule with arms, military support, and World Bank funding.

The United Nations has given diplomatic support to Indonesia, particularly in the case of the West Papuan takeover, and neighboring countries Papua New Guinea and Australia have followed a policy of appeasement even in the face of the military's worst excesses. Papua New Guinea has been thrust into the role of unwilling participant in an international problem by becoming the recipient of the first refugees in the Melanesian Pacific.

"We Are All OPM"

From 1973 until 1975, the year of Papua New Guinea's independence, the Indonesian military stepped up its activity against the West Papuan people Many dispossessed West Papuans joined the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or Free Papua Movement (OPM), the fighting wing of the resistance. Although Indonesia has consistently maintained that the OPM is not a threat, the might of its army has been deployed since the occupation in a vain attempt to destroy the movement. Villages were destroyed as the army hunted for OPM members and the whole population turned against the invading forces. It became impossible to separate activists from the community; all people, whether villagers of refugees, proclaimed their solidarity: We are all OPM.

In 1984, after Indonesia deployed widespread military action and seized traditionally owned land for transmigration sites, more than 10,000 West Papuans crossed the border to seek refuge in Papua New Guinea. Indonesia's 1984-1989 transmigration plan called for 5 million people from Java, Madura, and Bali to be moved to the provinces that continue to resist its military occupation (i.e., West Papua, East Timor, Kalimantan, South Moluccas, Sulawesi, and Sumatra). (This policy, along with a more comprehensive history of the conflict, has been widely documented and is summarized most recently by Gault-Williams [1990].)

Indonesia's deliberate cover-up of events in West Papua continued as the Papua New Guinea government tried to ignore the more than 10,000 refugees camped inside its border. The intense secrecy, the closed access to the two colonial territories. East Timor and Irian Jaya, and the complicity of world powers in Indonesia's state-endorsed terrorism have succeeded in ensuring that the outside world remains ignorant of the Indonesian policy of genocide. Every Australian newspaper has been banned in Indonesia at one time or another and the eminent and conservative Australian was banned for many years. Radio Australia has also been silenced and international media representatives and writers banned for reporting factual events.

The Battle over Resources

West Papua promised land space for over-populated Java, but the newly acquired province also contained exploitable material wealth - minerals and forests. The island of New Guinea and the surrounding seas, too, are resource rich. On both sides of the international border, destruction of the environment - the ancestral homelands of the indigenous people - continues unabated as international consortiums plunder and pillage. On the Papua New Guinea side, a few politicians and businesspeople share in the spoils, as the Barnett Inquiry (known as the Forest Inquiry) into the Forests Industry Council found: "A thoroughly corrupt industry was completely out of control. Many political leaders - from village `big men' to former prime ministers - were involved" (Murphy 1989).

Sustainable development, the buzzword of the late 1980s, means nothing to villagers who are see the hand clearing of forest trees as their most onerous task over the millennia. To them, the permanent loss of the forest is unimaginable, and selling logging rights is a quick and effortless way to join the cash economy. Villagers have no way to knowing that such schemes will destroy their birthright, nor that ruthless foreign companies will not honor agreements. The levels of deception and thievery unearthed by the Forest Inquiry in Papua New Guinea equaled that of the loggers of the Amazon's rain forests.

On the other side of the border, in West Papua, Indonesia makes no pretense of negotiating with traditional landowners; they are thrown off the land, destined to become refugees or to be shot or forced, like the Asmat, into slave labor for the Indonesians. Canadian and Australian logging companies have joined the Malaysians and the Japanese in the race to destroy New Guinea's tropical forests. Concurrent with Australia token gesture of giving the rock star Sting US $205,000 to support the protection of Brazilian rain forests, an Australian company announced plans to log a massive area of pristine rain forest in the Mamberamo River area - 600,000 hectares - in partnership with an Indonesian company (Sun Herald 5/28/89). Refugees from this area are exiled in Papua New Guinea camps along with people from every region of West Papua.

Mining, by its very nature the epitome of unsustainability, is entrenched in the economy of the New Guinea region. The total shut down and closure of the giant Bougainville copper mine in 1989 after an armed insurrection supported by the traditional landowners has crippled the Papua New Guinea economy. The income from the mine was the major local input (more than US $250 million per annum is supplied as united aid from Australia) for supporting the infrastructures of the parliamentary system, the civil service, and a small, educated elite; little of the wealth flowed down to the local people.

In West Papua, the US transnational company Freeport waited until the Dutch withdrew and then commenced negotiations with the Indonesians in 1963 to construct and operate the giant Freeport copper mine. The massive Indonesian police and military actions that accompanied the buildup of the mining operation, and the state and transnational collusion to mine the gold and copper, was described by Hyndman (1988) as "nothing short of economic development by invasion."

The ruthless exploitation of resources and destruction of indigenous homelands continues all over West Papua, creating refugees whose credentials are still questioned by a largely ignorant outside world and whose claims are dismissed as irrelevant by the international business consortiums.

A Mass Exodus

The first refugees who crossed into Papua New Guinea in the 1984 influx were educated urban dwellers fleeing for their lives during the extensive military operations of that year. Together with larger numbers of village people - refugees from the transmigration sites and from appropriated forest areas - they camped near villages inside the Papua New Guinea border. Although villagers welcomed the refugees, gardens could not supply food for their growing numbers. Despite both governments' attempts to blame the exodus on the OPM, the refugees consistently attributed it to transmigration, to the loss of their land and the violence of the Indonesian military.

The mass exodus of 1984 could not be hidden from the outside world; the Papua New Guinea government's initial response had been to offer some assistance to refugees, but to charge them with criminal offenses and repatriate them. Government policy was influenced by fear - fear that Indonesia would regard its granting of asylum to refugees and the establishment of rebel camps along the common border as hostile acts. The sheer number of refugees made repatriation difficult; the physical task of feeding them was assumed by church organizations, which warned that the situation was becoming desperate. It was not until 54 deaths were reported in the Western Province, however, that the Papua New Guinea government ventured a comment on the conditions, telling Parliament that the OPM was to blame and accusing OPM members of sacrificing their own women and children for political gain.

The public reaction to these statements forced politicians and policy makers to reconsider the depth of pan-Melanesian sympathies. Denying assistance to the refugees did not make them return home, and in 1985 reports of malnutrition, disease, and deaths by starvation (about 100) forced a policy change. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established a branch office in Papua New Guinea in 1986; in that same year, Papua New Guinea became a signatory of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, both administered by the UN.

What Fate for Border Dwellers?

Papua New Guinea's policy of minimal publicity on the refugees and on border incidents in general meant that very few outsiders gained permission to visit the refugee camps. The geographical isolation and the rough terrain helped to hide their presence from the outside world, and caused many logistical difficulties for visiting medical and welfare teams. Conditions in camps were crowded and unhygienic, and the refugees were often in poor health after months spent hiding in the bust during their flights from persecution. Many were suffering from diseases that had been under control in Papua New Guinea, and others carried diseases brought in by Indonesians and never before known on the New Guinea mainland.

Accepting that they were to remain indefinitely, the Papua New Guinea government enforced a policy of moving all the West Papuans to a single site away from the border. During 1987-1988 nearly 3,000 persons were transferred from the border camps to a site further east, at East Awin. Some refugees refused to move. Police supervised airlifts from the northern camps; official statements stressed that all refugees would be relocated - by force, if necessary.

Realistically, it is widely agreed that reaction to such violent removal is counterproductive: it attracts outside media attention, revitalizes Papua New Guinea's public support and mobilizes activists, either to prevent refugees from leaving or to launch new attacks within West Papua. Officially, most of the border camps are closed, but some services established by aid workers are maintained.

The West Papuan refugees are Christians who believe their faith and prayers will result in a positive resolution to their predicament. As Nonie Sharp concluded in a passionate plea for the West Papuan people in her 1977 book, The Rule of the Sword: For the delicately balanced, fragile and repressive Indonesian state, time is now on the side of East Timor and West Irian... for West Irian, the form which exploitation has taken has created a social basis for the spread of resistance."

More than a decade later, David Robie, in his book Blood on Their Banner (1989), supported the hope of the dispossessed West Papuans:

The further prospect of a free West Papua may yet emerge. It could, however, take several years. But an independent state, or a province with considerably more autonomy than at present, would depend on political pressure on Jakarta rather than any hope of an OPM victory in the "forgotten war."

The prospect remains of a long stay in the forest, but the internal breakdown of the Indonesian state, like the supernatural powers attributed to the West Papuan Morning Star flat (Osborne 1985a:99), is an article of faith among those who resist the Indonesians. Some of the refugees, severely traumatized by events in their own country, wish for Permissive Residential status and a new life in Papua New Guinea.

The unresolved political status of the refugees remains their major problem. The Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists recommended after visiting camps in 1984 and 1986 that Australia should share in resettling refugees, but discrimination against black Melanesians and their alleged lack of sophisticated skills have managed to prevent this. Officially, the White Australia policy is dead and buried, but its specter still haunts immigration policies. Economic and political refugees from Asia are now acceptable, but the handful of West Papuans who have attempted to land in Australia have been jailed and returned to their fate in Indonesia.

In 1985 Immigration Minister Hurford announced that Australia would not grant asylum to five "Irian Jayans" because "[he claimed that] this country would not become a home for Indonesian dissidents or economic refugees; [he] did not want to exercise a `draw effect' on people in the Papua New guinea camps; and [he] intended to maintain good relations with the Indonesian Government" (Osborne 1985b).

Surrounded by Rain Forest

Large-scale mining at Ok Tedi is the only manifestation of change in the otherwise undeveloped, isolated Western Province of Papua New Guinea. The Ok Tedi mine is sited on Mount Fulbian, northwest of the East Awin site, although there is no direct road link. The site for the relocation camp is in dense forest between the Fly and Strickland rivers. There is no airstrip, and access is by river transport via the Fly, a vast river that drains the area's 10,000 millimeters of annual rain fall - 220,000 million tons of water each year (Jackson 1982:3). From the air the camp is visible as a bright red circle of mud n the newly cleared forest. Despite the difficulties - literally impenetrable forest, total lack of rock, and periods of relentless, bucketing rain - a trafficable road was pushed through from the river to the camp in later 1989. There are no barbed-wire fences at East Awin; from the camp, the giant wall of rain forest around the perimeter blocks the horizon on all sides.

During my visit in late 1989, refugees expressed a fear that local Papua new guinea nationals would blame them for taking the land and would demand compensation for their occupation and use of resources. At the time, compensation to the traditional owners had not been paid by the government, and in May 1990 owners were reportedly threatening to close down the camp (Times of Papua New Guinea 5/24/90). The East Awin site cannot sustain the numbers of people now living there or the thousands more yet to arrive; in the future such threats will have to be take seriously.

The Awin area was not settled permanently due to a lack of sago palms, a basic supply for food and building materials. The torrential rains leach into the lowland soils and inundate large tracts of land. Unlike the subsistence farmers throughout most of the island of New Guinea, the Papuans off the southern swamps and forest, on both sides f the border, are hunters and fishers who leave their permanent villages according to the seasonal inundation to seek food over vast ancestral hunting grounds. The soil will not provide long-term subsistence even though the destruction of the primary forest in the camp area has supplied short-term fertility for garden crops.

The supply of wild animals (pigs, marsupials, reptiles, and birds, especially cassowaries) and edible greens - which have supplemented the tinned fish and rice rations from the UN - will dwindle under population pressure, and the forest will vanish as gardens push further out from the settlement. Refugees have worked hard building gardens, houses, and schools, rebuilding when available materials rotted under extreme climatic conditions. Enthusiastic response to educational opportunities offered in the camp may dwindle as refugees accept the lessening hope of resettlement in a third country and the impossibility of utilizing their skills in the closed world of a refugee camp.

After nearly seven years isolated in rainforest camps, refugees languish with little sign of change - forced out of their own country by the military government of Indonesia, an embarrassment to a hapless Papua New Guinea consumed by economic and political problems, unwanted by any third country, and aware that, environmentally, the region cannot sustain them. They persist in their belief that one day - some day - the internal disintegration of the Indonesian state will allow them to return to their homeland and attain their goal of self-determination. Detained in the wilderness by isolation, captured in a timeless void of official vacillation, and forgotten by a world that abandoned them inn their time of need 30 years ago, they may well turn to prayer as they wait, sequestered by the rain forest and the interminable falling rain.


In the text, New Guinea Refers to the geographical landmass and surrounding islands. Irian Jaya ("Irian victorious") is an acronym from the Indonesian slogan Ikut Republik Indonesia Anti-Netherlands ("follow Indonesia against Holland") and Jaya ("victorious"). Iryan is a Biak word meaning "hot [or steamy] land rising from the sea." The name Irian Barat (West Irian) was used during the Indonesian takeover, and persisted after the renaming in the 1970s. the indigenous people refer to their country as West Papua and to themselves as West Papuans.


Gault-Williams, M.

1990 Strangers in their Own Land. cultural Survival Quarterly 14(4): 43-48.

Hyndman, D.

1988 Melanesian Resistance to Ecocide and Ethnocide: Transnational mining Projects and the Fourth World on the Island of New Guinea. In J. Bodley, ed. Tribal Peoples and Development Issues. A Global Overview. Mountain view, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Jackson, R.

1982 Ok Tedi: The Pot of Gold, Port Moresby: University of Papua New Guinea.

Murphy. K.

1989 The Rape of Papua New Guinea. The Bulletin. 29 August.

Osborne, R.

1985a Indonesia's Secret War. The Guerrilla Struggle in Irian Jay. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

1985b refugee body attacks ban on Irian Jaya five. National Time. 19-25 July.

Robie, D.

1989 Blood on their Banner: Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific. London: Zed Books.

Sharp, N.

1977 the Rule of the Sword: The Story of West Irian. Victoria, Australia: Kibble Books.

For More Information

Robin Osborne's book Indonesia's Secret War: the Guerrilla Struggle in Irian Jaya (Allen & Unwin, 1985) documents in detail the history of the Indonesian takeover and the resistance of the West Papuan people. More recently, George Monbiot's Poisoned Arrows (Abacus, 1989) is an account of his secret journey through Irian Jaya in late 1987, where he saw the effects of transmigration and military repression on the West Papuan people; he ends with a plea to the outside world to petition the UN to stop the Indonesian government's inhumane policies.

TAPOL (The Indonesian Human Rights Campaign) issues six bulletins a year and can be contacted at:


111 Northwood road, Thornton Heath

Surrey CR4 8HW, United Kingdom


Indonesia Publications

7538 Newberry Lane

Lanham-Seabrook, MD 20706

TAPOL (Australia)

P.O. Box 229

Collingwood, Victoria 3066, Australia

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