West Papua: Mass demonstrations erupt against Indonesian repression

The Indonesian government has sent more than 3,700 police and military forces into West Papua following nearly three weeks of protests and mass demonstrations in the region. These were triggered when the Indonesian National Army (TNI) and right-wing vigilantes targeted several Papuan students in Surabaya in East Java, after allegations that they tried to destroy a flagpole flying the national flag during celebrations for Indonesia’s Independence Day on 17 August.

Forty three students were arrested after tear gas was fired into their dormitories by paramilitary Islamic organisations, alongside police. They chanted vile racist slurs against the ethnic Papuan students, labelling them “monkeys”, “drunks” and “womanisers”.

The internet was suspended by the central government and the situation remains tense. Mass protests are spreading across Papua even reaching the Indonesian capital Jakarta and the island of Bali. Journalists and activists involved in the struggle of the Papuan people report that these have been the largest mass protests and demonstrations in the region for decades.

The origins of oppression in Papua

The island of New Guinea, situated in Oceania, and rich in minerals, raw materials and natural resources, has been fought over by rival imperialisms for decades. The eastern half of the island achieved its independence in 1975, becoming Papua New Guinea.

Dutch imperialism finally relinquished its colonial rule over the western side of the island (then known as West New Guinea) in 1962, transferring the territory to Indonesian control. The deal included a provision that within seven years the Papuan people should be permitted to vote on whether they wished to pursue self-determination, i.e. become an independent state or stay under the rule of Indonesia.

The ironically named, Act of Free Choice, took place in August 1969, and was a grotesque caricature of a democratic vote. Just 1,025 West Papuans were chosen by Jakarta and coerced at gunpoint to vote the ‘right way’. This sham referendum involved the participation of less than 0.2% of the population, but sought to obtain international legitimacy for Indonesia’s rule. The United Nations noted the result in Resolution 2504 and expressing a mere squeak of protest about the abusive procedure.

Indonesia subsequently declared that these two western provinces, which lie more than 4,000km from Jakarta, were to be known as Irian Jaya. But in 2003 it was renamed Papua and West Papua and granted a largely illusory semi-autonomous status.

Indonesia maintains that Papua has self-governance rights through this special autonomy status and democratically elected leaders who participate in the Indonesian political system. The regime asserts that in the 2019 elections, the turn-out in the province of Papua and West Papua was 88%, with 94% being in favour of president Jokowi’s administration. According to Indonesia, this reflected the contentment of the Papuan masses with its support for their political aspirations and trust in Jakarta’s democratic credentials!


Almost the size of Spain, West Papua possesses huge areas of rainforest and is rich in gold, copper, timber and natural gas. Foreign, multinational and national capitalists favoured autocratic rule in Indonesia under the previous dictatorship of Suharto (1967-1998). They continue to exploit the natural resources in Papua through the Indonesian military power. Here, as everywhere else, imperialism is incapable of bringing economic and social benefits to the masses.

Any liberation struggle by the Papuan population that could complicate the process of this exploitation is evaded by stuffing millions of US dollars into the Indonesian political structure and by lobbying for the occupation to continue. Both indigenous and international capitalists are major contributors to ensuring that the working class and poor peasants are not free to decide their own economic matters, which include the management of highly profitable natural resources.

The Grassberg mine, owned by the US Freeport Company, began operating two years before the 1969 New York treaty and before the Indonesian government’s forced occupation of Papua. It has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars towards the costs of the Indonesian army’s operation. Freeport, which owns the world’s largest gold mine and the world’s third-largest copper mine, is also Indonesia’s largest taxpayer and has maintained close ties with the government.

Apart from mining companies like Freeport, many other giant natural gas companies from the UK, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Japan have exploited Papua’s resources for corporate profit. British Petroleum recently announced a giant liquid natural gas (LNG) project which is producing over 7.6 million metric tons of LNG a year in Tangguh, West Papua. Efforts to double the volume of this production have already begun.

In recent years, a number of Indonesian giant corporations have started to own and invest in the mines and the natural gas rigs in Papua. But the billions of dollars of profit produced are enjoyed only by the wealthy capitalists and business owners. Part of this profit is also spent on military operations and other government apparatus, which, in return, guarantees a smooth ride for these giant companies.

The resulting profits from the Papua region are the main cause for violent actions by the Indonesian authorities over any movement demanding national liberation and the right for self- determination by the people.

Oppression of the people of Papua

Papua is bursting with natural resources, but is Indonesia’s poorest region. The poor live in abysmal conditions, struggling to survive. Toxic waste is dumped by giant corporations that destroy the environment, undermining health and livelihoods. Massive deforestation and uncontrolled mining creates enormous levels of pollution.

Even before the recent outbreak of struggle, Indonesian government oppression over Papua has increased in recent times. According to one report, nearly 6,400 people were detained as political prisoners, in 2016, alone, many being brutally tortured. Thousands more have been detained and harmed in the ongoing demonstrations. The people of Papua have continually been subjected to severe persecution and have suffered racist attacks from right-wing nationalist organisations that support the Indonesian ruling class.

The incident which sparked the mass demonstration by the Papuan masses not only reflects anger against oppression and racism. It also signals the aspirations of the people to fight for their right to manage their own economic and political affairs.

Papuans have long understood that the Indonesian government is a willing collaborator in the free market and capitalist imperialism. The regime operates exclusively for the benefit of the rich capitalists and not for the good of the common people.

On 19 August, demonstrators took to the streets in Jayapura and after that the movement quickly spread to the towns of Manokwari, Fakfak, Timika and Nabire. Young demonstrators held signs with messages, such as: “Papua merdeka, itu yang monyet inginkan,” or “Free Papua, this is what the ‘monkeys’ want.”

By 26 August, thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in the highland areas of West Papua. By the end of the month, demonstrations had taken hold in almost 30 cities inside and outside West Papua.

Protesters have been beaten and jailed and there have been persistent allegations of the authorities using the banned chemical weapon white phosphorous against civilians.

Just as in previous conflicts, the Indonesian Army has attacked protestors in the streets violently and mercilessly. The ‘morning star’ flag, a symbol of Papua’s national struggle, has been banned and many activists who have flown the flag have been sentenced to 15 years in prison. Nevertheless, protesters from all over Indonesia have launched mass protests by waving the flag and chanting the slogan ‘we are not red and white’ (Indonesian flag colour), voicing their protest against the Indonesian occupation of Papua.

There have been reports of a rally of 5,000 people around the city of Timika, near the Freeport gold and copper mine. According to eye witnesses, demonstrators threw rocks at the local parliament building and tried to tear down its fence.

Emphasising its hard-line approach to putting down the protests, Chief Security Minister, Wiranto, warned against international political interference, restating that “Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia’s internal affairs. No other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them. We firmly oppose the intervention of Indonesia’s internal affairs in whatever form.”

Simultaneously and in a classic demonstration of using the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, President Joko Widodo urges restraint. He begs people to forgive each other “as fellow countrymen” instead of getting angry, while pledging to look after the “honour and welfare of all people in Papua and West Papua”. “My brothers and sisters in Papua and West Papua, I know you feel offended,” he soothes. “It’s okay to be emotional, but it’s better to be forgiving. Patience is also better.”

Due to the internet shutdown across the remote provinces, it is hard to verify what is currently happening. But the statement from Widodo that calm has been restored is clearly a lie aimed at disheartening the activists and reassuring international capital.

The struggle for the right to self-determination

In the last 50 years, nearly 500,000 people were killed by state military violence while struggling for the right of self-determination from Indonesia.

The indigenous population of West Papua are Melanesian, ethnically distinct from most of the rest of Indonesia. They are more closely linked to the people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.

In 2017, an illegal petition that called for an end to Indonesian annexation and full independence for West Papua was signed by 1.8 million people (about 70% of the Papuan population). It was secretly transported around the provinces and eventually it was presented to the UN’s decolonisation committee, and the human rights commissioner.

At the recently held Pacific Islands Forum, Benny Wenda, the exiled leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), sought support among the representatives for a re-examination of the 1969 Act of Free Choice that legitimised Indonesia’s rule over Papua.

Explaining that “We have never exercised our right to self-determination that has been denied us. We are not seeking violence, we seek our rights peacefully, to decide for ourselves our future”, Wenda asserted, “Papuans will not stop fighting until we achieve equality, self-determination and a referendum on independence.”

Other Pacific nations, particularly Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, which share Melanesian ethnicity, are supportive of West Papuan Independence. The Australian capitalist class remains resolutely opposed and upholds Indonesia’s right to rule over the province. This reflects its fears that independence would endanger Australia’s economic interests and destabilise geo-political relations in the area.

There can be no trust placed in rival imperialist powers, nor their servant, the United Nations, to resolve the national question in West Papua. Intergovernmental bodies, such as the UN, are easily swayed by the interest of the free market. They have ignored the ongoing human rights abuses in Papua for decades.

Various NGOs and human rights organisations have filed petitions containing millions of signatures on numerous occasions, only to have their humanitarian appeals continually rejected. This exposes the weaknesses and failures of NGOs that limit their efforts to find solutions only through global institutions controlled by the capitalists.

Through its arbitrary arrests and military operations, Jakarta seeks to cow the masses into submission. Simultaneously, through migrating other non-Papuan Indonesians to the province to alter its ethnic make-up, it is attempting to alter the ethnic and religious composition of Papua. Wenda warns this is a form of “slow-motion genocide”.

A free Papua cannot be established under the existing capitalist system that is based on the interests of the super-rich exploiters. It is necessary to fully support the struggle of the people of Papua to determine their own destiny and struggle alongside them in ensuring that their dreams are fulfilled after they gain their independence.

Marxists recognise, however, that an independent Papuan government would only be sustainable if it was prepared to resist the pressure of international capital and adopt socialist economic planning measures to ensure an equitable distribution of wealth. Such a government of workers and peasants would rule through a democratically accountable system, based on workers’ control and management of state-owned resources. Such a regime would need to reach out to Indonesian workers and workers across Asia and beyond, with a class appeal of solidarity and internationalism.

Indonesia’s government also oppresses millions of Indonesian working class and poor people by leaving the country’s economic management under the control of domestic and foreign capitalists. The struggle of the people of Papua to determine their own fate should be viewed by Indonesian leftists and working class fighters as a class struggle. This necessitates standing up to the same enemy of all oppressed people – capitalists who are hiding behind politicians like Jokowi or Prabowo.

Industrial actions, like the general strike, can have a profound impact on foreign and local capitalists and weaken their grip on Papua. The organised action of the working class and the masses has the power to not only undermine the national economy. At the same time workers action also undermine the existing government and also gain support from the working class of Indonesia and around the world.

Mass actions involving organised working class will provide the experience and awareness for millions of workers about class unity and its role in the social movements. The organised working class that has control over production is the only social class capable of establishing a government that truly represents the interests of the people.

A socialist alternative

Socialism is the only solution that can solve the problems facing the people of Papua who are trapped within the economic framework of capitalism. However, the struggle for socialism requires a leadership with clear direction, able to build support through socialist programmes that uphold the aspirations of the oppressed, and secure democratic values that gives working people the opportunity to participate in politics.

The masses involved in social movements need a clear leadership to find a solution. Millions of working class and working people exposed to the reality of life under the capitalist system will be excited by the idea of a socialist economy. It will bring large production centres, such as mines, factories and oilfields, under public ownership, which will be democratically controlled by the working class and the oppressed majority.

By taking ownership of all the natural resources and the economic tools from the control of giant companies owned by a small number of individuals, the value added in social production by the working class can be used to enhance the social welfare of the majority.

If Papua’s working class manages to bring about a planned economy under democratic control of the common people, this will not only impact upon the working class struggle from the ASEAN region, but will have international reverberations.

Workers are the victim of the economic crisis, which occurs without their involvement or control, and is caused by capitalists who adore the free market system. Millions of poor people have to bear the burden of recessions through debt, poverty and unemployment, while capitalists seek ways to increase their wealth through ever-deeper methods of exploitation.

To bring about socialism, the existence of a revolutionary organisation is very important. The party must recognise that the working class is the only revolutionary class capable of leading the whole community towards social change. Therefore, a revolutionary organisation should always try to build a working-class leadership that can consciously oppose the capitalist system to achieve socialism.

Although the organised working class already exists in large numbers in Papua and Indonesia, no political leadership has been able to unite them to struggle towards a systemic change with a clear socialist programme. The Democratic People’s Party (PRD), which played a key role in overthrowing Suharto’s dictatorship, has sunk into parliamentary politics and failed to maintain any support from the working class. Existing trade union leaders do not show any political clarity and simply limit their attention to the welfare of their respective members’ work-related demands.

Young people and the working class in Indonesia and in Papua, who are conscious of the need for a socialist alternative, must immediately establish a revolutionary organisation based on the struggle of the working class. A mass party comprised of organised workers and local community organisations should be built with a strong socialist programme.

We call for:

We support the struggle of the people of Papua for their right of self- determination. We also demand that the violence of the authorities against the struggling Papua people should be stopped, immediately. All members of the Indonesian National Army and Indonesian government authorities should be withdrawn from Papua. We also call on all working-class organisations, youth groups and left-wing organisations to raise the issue of Papua and protest against the oppression the masses face.

  • Support the right of the people of Papua to govern independently, under the control of the people and workers’ democratically.
  • Withdraw military powers stationed in West Papua, which are oppressing progressive movements of the working class, the youth and social activists.
  • Call on the people not to be seduced by racial or religious divisions and to stand in solidarity with any civilian, student and activist community in the struggle for the right to self-determination of the people of Papua
  • Call on trade unions and workers from both Papua and Indonesia, as well as Southeast Asia and internationally, to stand in solidarity with the struggle of the people of Papua.
  • Prepare strikes and mass movements to weaken the capitalists and the Indonesian government power in Papua.
  • Fight for a socialist alternative for the people of Papua and Indonesia, to break free from the shackles of oppressive capitalism and to establish a confederation of socialism in Southeast Asia and internationally.

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September 2019