Indonesian Rule Weighs Heavy in West Papua

Indonesian Rule Weighs Heavy in West Papua

Papua National Congress, May-June 2000, calls for reconsideration of annexation by Indonesia.

Patsy Spier tells of campaign to investigate Indonesia's role in her husband's murder; John Rumbiak calls for independence for the island peoples.

West Papua is the little-known western half of the large island of New Guinea and a province of Indonesia. Its history and culture are dramatically different from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and currently there is a movement to separate from Indonesia and obtain independence.

This was the topic of discussion on May 24, 2004, when UCLA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies hosted the forum "U.S. Involvement in the History of West Papua and the Human Rights Situation Today." The speakers included John Rumbiak, a leading Papuan human rights defender and advocate for self-determination, Patsy Spier, a survivor of a West Papua ambush that took place in 2002, and Harold Green, a representative of the West Papuan Action Network (WPAN).

The highlight of the event was a screening of the documentary "Land of the Morning Star" produced by Australian journalist Mark Worth. The film was a comprehensive overview of the history of West Papua and included rare archival footage of both historical and more recent political events. Situated on the island of New Guinea located just north of Australia, West Papua is part of the second biggest island in the world and houses the world's only permanent glacier on a tropical island. A quarter of the world's known languages, some 800 dialects, are spoken in New Guinea. In 1883, the Dutch colonized the western half of the island. Later in the 1950s, under pressure from the United States, Australia, and Indonesia, the Dutch government was forced to relinquish control of West Papua.

The film demonstrated that in August 1962, after a series of closed-door negotiations known as the "New York Agreement" and held at the United Nations, it was determined that the Dutch would transfer sovereignty of West Papua to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). Ironically though, not a single West Papuan was invited to participate in these talks. Despite the agreement, in 1963 Indonesia seized control of West Papua and renamed it West Irian (Irian Jaya).

A Rigged Election Opts for Integration with Indonesia

Included under the "New York Agreement" was the "Act of Free Choice" wherein West Papua was slated to hold a national vote to determine whether West Papuans wanted independence or preferred "integration with Indonesia." Held between July 14 and August 2, 1969, the vote was clearly not representative since only 1,025 handpicked electors were allowed to vote under the observation of armed Indonesian militia. These electors allegedly chose "to remain with Indonesia" and since that time the political climate in West Papua has been both violent and tumultuous.

The film described some of the tensions that have built up since West Papua's incorporation into Indonesia. West Papua is a large territory and historically has been relatively underpopulated. Indonesia has taken advantage of this fact and currently it is estimated that 770,000 migrants have moved from other islands in Indonesia to West Papua. Many of them are Javanese that were either officially sponsored or encouraged by the Indonesian government, under the Transmigration Program, to relocate because of overpopulation on their own home islands. The Transmigration Program has put a tremendous strain on the people and the land of West Papua. There are continual culture clashes between the migrant Muslim Javanese and the indigenous non-Muslim Papuans. West Papua also suffers from widespread land encroachment, land clearance, and both legal and illegal poaching, all of which are quickly depleting the natural resources of the island.

The Indonesian government has continually used extreme measures to suppress the West Papuan dissent from their policies. Many of these measures are seen as blatant human rights violations bordering on genocide. For example, in 2001, the leader of the Papuan Intertribal Council, Theys Hiyo Eluay, was murdered. A trial for the murder found members of the Indonesian military elite responsible. The soldiers admitted killing Theys in order to prevent him from declaring Papuan independence. The Indonesian court gave the perpetrators a minimal sentence of only two years in jail.

A West Papuan interviewed in the documentary claimed that since Indonesian rule began almost all West Papuans have had at least one relative beaten, raped, tortured, or killed by the Indonesian Armed Forces. The official count of those who have died since the "Act of Free Choice" is 100,000 but likely estimates are somewhere near the number of 800,000. West Papua has the highest HIV rate in Indonesia and much of it is due to the ongoing harassment that Papuan women face from soldiers as well as the severe lack of health services in the region.

The Murder of Rick Spier

There are foreign casualties in West Papua that have fallen at the hands of Indonesia as well. Patsy Spier, a U.S. citizen, is a survivor of an ambush that took place in West Papua on August 31, 2002. Her husband Rick Spier and two other teachers, including the superintendent of the school where they taught, were killed in the ambush. Spier's group was picnicking in a mountaintop region where the mining corporation Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold operates. Freeport, based in Louisiana, is the world's largest gold and copper mine, and its presence in West Papua has taken a tremendous toll on the people. It is reported that the mine earns one million U.S. dollars per day and less than .01% of the profit is shared with the local communities. The mine itself has caused the destruction of traditional fisheries and local water sources. Meanwhile under the "Contract of Work," an agreement signed between Freeport and the Indonesian government, Freeport was granted "broad powers over the local population and resources, including the right to take land and other property and resettle indigenous inhabitants."

Since her husband's death, Spier has been working tirelessly to pressure the U.S. government to conduct a thorough investigation into the attack. She has had various meetings in Washington, D.C., and has talked with Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Spier said that "Washington really has no clue. They don't know anything," and "it's hard to get the U.S. to look at foreign policy. It's already a mire of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. So it's been frustrating work."

Despite the many challenges, Spier has already made tremendous strides in getting U.S. recognition and action. Since she began her educational outreach, the FBI has now visited Indonesia five times to conduct their investigation into the killings. In November 2003, Senator Wayne Allard (R-Colo) and Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis) drafted legislation that would prohibit Indonesia from receiving military training funding until the U.S. State Department determined that the Indonesian army has cooperated with the FBI in the investigation. Spier reported, "The Indonesian government is cooperating, although no one in Indonesia is currently conducting their own investigation."

Concluding her talk, Spier firmly stated, "There is something positive that has to come out of my husband's death. I don't know if the Indonesian government was responsible; that's why I'm pushing FBI involvement." As Spier explained, it's not only that she wants justice for her husband's death. Her real concern is what the Indonesian government "is doing to West Papua and the people in the villages. Unlike them, I have a voice. I can speak up. Through the investigation it will come out as to why it occurred and who commanded it and carried it out so that that we can stop it from happening again."

A month after Patsy Spier's UCLA talk, on June 25, the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations voted to endorse a bill that would extend the existing ban on military funding for Indonesia until the State Department determines that the Indonesian military and government are cooperating with the FBI's investigation into the August 2002 ambush that killed Rick Spier, another U.S. citizen, and an Indonesian in West Papua. The bill would also unconditionally continue the ban on foreign military financing of weapons sales and other assistance to Indonesia.

At the May UCLA forum, John Rumbiak defined the problem of West Papua as "an issue of human dignity." Rumbiak had just returned from an international speaking tour on the subject of West Papua, spending four months in Europe, traveling in Finland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. He was pleased to find interest in the U.K. because the country's biggest oil-producing company, British Petroleum, has a base in the area and is concerned about regional instability.

Rumbiak is determined to spread the word and to "transform suffering to victory." Rumbiak described some of the obstacles to a genuine democratic sounding of public opinion in West Papua: "There needs to be a process for West Papuans to talk amongst themselves since there are 250 tribes. We don't want an East Timor. It's a process of building trust and confidence among conflicting parties." As Rumbiak explained, the situation is tricky and only further complicated by the U.S. war against terror. "Right now it seems that the world community is a bit ambiguous towards the situation. One thing that would educate international decision making is exposing the brutality taking place."

The West Papuan Action Network is currently forming local chapters throughout the U.S. Interested parties can email WPAN at

Published: Friday, June 25, 2004