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Timor's success, Papua's struggle
West Papua Report - September 2014
By noon of that day, most had chosen independence (in preference to an "enhanced autonomy"). As the United Nations announced the result, the Indonesian military and its militia proxies began their long-threatened wave of destruction and violence. This was meant both to punish the East Timorese for their choice and to send a message to other rebellious areas, especially West Papua and Aceh.
After a short period of UN administration, East Timor finally became the independent Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste on May 20, 2002. Timor's successful referendum inspired hopes for many in West Papua that they might also be able to choose their political status.
Indonesia's elite reacted to the "loss" of Timor-Leste by vowing never to let anything similar happen again. Many in the military were upset about the loss of opportunities for promotion and side income. In response, Indonesia combined grants of "special autonomy" with harsh crackdowns in Aceh and West Papua.
There are many parallels between West Papua and Timor-Leste and, as tellingly, substantial differences. First some of the parallels:
On the periphery of the archipelago, neither territory was part of Indonesia as it was established on independence. The colonizers of both had said that they would help them exercise their own rights to self-determination. Initially, the United Nations also agreed. In both cases, when Indonesia acted to annex the territories, major powers – especially the United States – actively supported Indonesia. (Indonesia's takeovers serve as bookends to Henry Kissinger's career at the highest levels of the US government. The annexation of West Papua was completed soon after he began serving as Nixon's National Security Advisor; Indonesia's invasion of Portuguese Timor was notoriously given the green light by President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger a little more than a year before Ford's term ended.)
The populations of both territories suffered massive human rights violations, from arbitrary arrests and systematic rape and torture to discrimination. Indonesian security forces engaged in mass murder, deliberate starvation, and massacres – some well-known, others little documented. Indonesia stands accused of genocide in both regions. Where the number of pre-invasion colonizers was relatively small, both places saw an influx of people from Indonesia under formal and informal transmigration programs. Children, orphaned by war or otherwise, were permanently removed to other islands. Underlying this was a paternalistic and racist attitude holding that the mostly darker-skinned peoples of Timor and Papua were too stupid or primitive to govern themselves.
No Indonesian generals or political leaders have been held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in occupied Timor-Leste. The same is true for West Papua. This impunity contributes to ongoing human rights violation in West Papua.
After a time, both territories were opened to tourism, but the Indonesian government worked to keep journalists, diplomats, and others from freely visiting to investigate conditions.
Importantly, as many insisted their causes were lost, both populations continued to insist on their right to self-determination. In the face of Indonesia's overwhelming force, aided by weapons and training from the United States and others, the armed opposition became less prominent and resistance tactics shifted to emphasize nonviolent opposition in the towns and cities and stepped up outreach and diplomatic efforts abroad. Indonesia's violent reaction to peaceful protest crucially highlighted the real nature of its rule over its unwilling subjects.
Now some major differences:
While Portuguese Timor was sometimes included in Indonesia's leaders' conception of a greater Indonesia, they never argued for any historic claim to the territory, instead they said that they were protecting their neighbor from civil conflict. On the other hand, West Papua – with its Dutch colonial heritage and its place in "the Indonesian nationalist imagination as 'the martyr place of the struggle for independence,' in the words of Sukarno" – was always seen as an important piece of a unified Indonesian state.
Timor's petroleum and other limited resources are mere drops in Indonesia's bucket compared to the great mineral and other natural resource wealth of West Papua.
Critically, while Timor's self-determination was never considered fully settled until it gained independence, the United Nations views the issue as closed for West Papua. Despite its well-documented flaws, the 1969 "Act of Free Choice" was accepted as valid and West Papua was taken off the UN agenda. (The Indonesians tried a similar gambit after invading Portuguese Timor. In November 1975, representatives of four Timorese political parties signed the Balibo Declaration, supposedly inviting Indonesia annexation. The declaration was written hastily in Bali, not the Timorese border town notorious for the pre-invasion murder of five Australian based journalists.)
Unlike West Papua, Timor remained on the UN agenda, even after Indonesia formally annexed Timor as its 27th province in 1976. The UN Security Council quickly, though ineffectually, condemned the invasion in two resolutions (on December 22 1975, and April 22, 1976) and the General Assembly passed annual resolutions supporting Timor-Leste's right to self-determination, beginning on December 12, 1975, through to November 1982, when the issue was placed under the good offices of the Secretary-General. The Committee of 24 on decolonization held annual hearings on Timor up until it was removed from the UN's list of non-self governing territories on independence in 2002.
Even some staunch Suharto supporters like the US government were not ready to unconditionally endorse how Timor became part of Indonesia. State Department officials were always careful to say "We accept Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor without maintaining that a valid act of self-determination has taken place." When asked about West Papua, the response has no such nuance. It is usually some variation of these remarks by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from September 2012: "Regarding the very important question on the situation in Papua, we support the territorial integrity [of Indonesia] and that includes Papua and West Papua provinces. We believe strongly that dialogue between Papuan representatives [and] the Indonesian Government would help address concerns that the Papuans have and assist in resolving conflict peacefully, improving governance and development." This is usually followed by support for the "special autonomy" many in West Papua have rejected and a statement deploring violence without identifying Indonesia's security forces as the main perpetrators.
To reinforce its diplomatic efforts, the Timorese resistance had the support of Portugal and the Portuguese-speaking African countries. Portugal as an EU member vetoed certain forms of cooperation with Indonesia and acted for the Timorese resistance in UN-sponsored negotiations. The Dutch government has shown no interest in advocating for West Papua, and Vanuatu has been its only consistently supportive government.
Once Suharto fell, there were many – inside and outside governments and the United Nations – poised to seize the opportunity to press for Timor's self-determination. And seize it they did. Building on past activism and advocacy, US policy changed to an explicit call for "a valid act of self-determination."
The above is history and government policies. What about movements for change?
Awareness of West Papua is certainly growing, as is the number of people acting as advocates. West Papuans, often at great risk, continue to resist and demonstrate within the territory and Indonesia proper. And Papuans are traveling the globe to advocate for themselves. Grassroots global support is important, but outside of Portugal support for Timor was never a mass movement except for a few weeks in September 1999. Changes in US policy were the result of targeted advocacy mostly aimed at ending US support for the Indonesian military in response to growing congressional concern about the violations of human rights.
In the 1990s, the Timorese resistance was clearly unified, both within the country and abroad, under the umbrella of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT). Its positions were clear, as was its main request to international solidarity activists: change your own government's policies to end support for Suharto and the occupation. The multiple messages and lack of unified leadership from West Papua is difficult for supporters to navigate.
Post-Suharto Indonesia is now a member of the international community in good standing, despite its ongoing rights violations in West Papua. Indonesia is seen as a democratic example to the Muslim world, a bulwark against China, and important front in the "war on terrorism."
Overcoming the many disadvantages relative to Timor's struggle, international efforts for West Papua will need to generate greater public support and more targeted campaigning to ensure an effective international response to Indonesia's 50-year rule over West Papua.
[John M. Miller is National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN). In 2012, ETAN received the Timor-Leste's highest honor, the Ordem de Timor, for its role in liberation of the country.]
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