Miro Sandev looks at the Indonesian military’s deadly new operation in West Papua—and how the Australian government helps its crackdown on the independence movement
A foreign power illegally invades. It administers a brutal occupation underpinned by war crimes. Its aircraft drop bombs indiscriminately destroying civilian infrastructure and its armies massacre civilians. Hundreds of thousands are internally displaced. Martial law prevails.
No, this is not Ukraine. It is West Papua. And the Indonesian government—with Australia’s full backing—is carrying out these atrocities as the mainstream media studiously ignore them.
While Indonesia has been violently occupying West Papua for 60 years, in recent months it has ramped up the killing and torture.
West Papuans have been fighting for independence and there are some militias involved in the struggle, including the West Papua National Liberation Army (WPNLA).
Liberation army forces took a New Zealand pilot hostage in February in response to what they said was a violation of a no-fly zone. They have offered to negotiate with the Indonesian and New Zealand government over his release. Indonesian ministers refused to negotiate.
Instead, in an act of collective punishment, they sent in heavily armed forces. In a shootout between Indonesian forces and members of the WPNLA, several Indonesian police officers and a senior spy chief were killed.
As revenge, the Indonesian government designated the WPNLA as a terrorist organisation and implemented martial law across West Papua.
It then launched a military invasion that it calls a “special military operation”.
“Jakarta is declaring war in West Papua”, said Amnesty International. “Already many Papuan civilians accused of being freedom fighters are killed by the military. Now Indonesian forces have new licence to kill them—as terrorists.”
Helicopter gunships have been deployed and over 4300 heavily armed soldiers have marched in.
The Indonesian military has unleashed savage violence on the civilian population.
In May, human rights groups reported on the shocking details of a raid on the village of Iliaga, situated in the highlands of West Papua. Indonesian air forces fired around 40 rockets on the village, devastating it and forcing the residents to flee into the surrounding jungles.
“In this attack, the Indonesia Airforces fired rocket bombs about 40 times on air attacks at local residents…The Indonesia Security Forces also were attack residents villages and burning down the local residents houses, and churches,” the OPM Free Papua Movement said in a statement.
Human Rights Papua has estimated that tens of thousands of villagers have been displaced by similar attacks since 2019, with at least 400 dying from health impacts as a result.
Last year Indonesian police and soldiers unlawfully killed at least 72 West Papuans, according to human rights groups. At least 12 of the cases involved torture.
Since April this year soldiers have been deployed to kill and to terrorise the whole population with arbitrary arrests and torture.
“Eight West Papuan civilians have so far become victims of torture and/or arbitrary arrest by Indonesian forces,” wrote human rights lawyer Veronica Koman. “Five of them are children, including one who was tortured to death.”
The crackdown has also extended to attacks on journalists trying to report the crimes and also on protests.
In Jayapura, university students organised peaceful protests demanding free education and an end to militarism in schools and unis in West Papua. The police responded by forcibly dispersing the students and leaving four injured.
The unfolding military assault by Indonesia is simply the latest in its bloody occupation of the region and the slow-motion genocide of West Papuans.
Indonesia invaded and seized West Papua by force in 1961 from its previous colonial rulers, the Dutch.
West Papua comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea. Unlike the rest of Indonesia its population is ethnically Melanesian, as is the eastern half of the island, formerly an Australian colony and now an independent nation—Papua New Guinea.
Following a national liberation war against the Dutch, Indonesia won its independence in 1949. The Dutch still retained control of West Papua until 1961, when Indonesian forces invaded and claimed all of the territory of the former Dutch colony.
The Indonesians called the region Irian Jaya and did not bother to ask the indigenous West Papuans whether they wanted their lands and nation to be integrated into the Indonesian state. Indonesia wanted the region for its natural resources and its geo-strategic importance.
In this period the Cold War was in full swing. The US was anxious to prevent Indonesia from leaving the Non Aligned Movement and joining the Soviet Union and China in the “communist” camp. So it sponsored the 1962 New York Agreement which legitimised Indonesian control over West Papua. Australia also backed it.
The agreement set up a referendum, overseen by the UN, where West Papuans would vote on whether the region would remain within Indonesia or become independent.
However this referendum, held in 1969, was a sham involving approximately 1025 government-selected delegates. The vote was by show of hands in the presence of the Indonesian military. The delegates unanimously supported integration with Indonesia and the UN General Assembly approved the vote.
After the seizure of West Papua, Indonesia launched a settler colonial takeover, sponsoring the migration of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians from Java.
In 1971 Papuans made up 96 per cent of the population but by 2013 this had fallen to just 50 per cent and has continued to decrease.
The Indonesian military is estimated to have killed half a million people in West Papua since the 1960s. The Australian Labor and Liberal parties have both supported this industrial-scale murder.
In July 1998 the Indonesian military massacred a group of unarmed West Papuan demonstrators on the island of Biak. Not long after, mutilated corpses began washing up on the island’s shores.
According to intelligence reports released last year, the Australian government received compelling evidence that the Indonesian military had fired live rounds into the protesters.
Australian officials ignored international calls for an independent investigation into the Biak massacre and did not release this evidence to the rest of the world. It has sat on it for 24 years.
The same report also details how West Papuans secretly handed over photographic evidence of the atrocity to an Australian intelligence officer, placing their own lives in danger by doing so. The film was distributed to the Australian Department of Defence but was never released publicly. It appears to have been destroyed in 2014.
Australia offered a very muted response to the reports of the Biak massacre, expressing concern but never outright condemning the massacre, nor calling for a United Nations investigation.
Despite these atrocities, the Australian Federal Police has continued to provide extensive training to the Indonesian army unit Detachment 88, which has been involved in torture and extra-judicial killings.
The Australian special forces unit the SAS has also helped to train Indonesia’s Special Forces—Kopassus. Indonesia unleashed Kopassus to terrorise East Timorese civilians in the lead up to their independence in 1999.
Australia also supplies weapons to the Indonesian military, including Bushmaster vehicles manufactured by Thales Australia that have been used in West Papua. Australian companies Electro Optic Systems and Northrup Grunman Australia have also contracted with the Indonesian military.
Australian government policy towards West Papua has been completely focussed on maintaining trade links and a stable political relationship with Indonesia.
In 2006 it signed a treaty with Jakarta giving a commitment that it would never “intervene in Indonesia’s internal affairs or undermine its territorial integrity”. This rules out any support for West Papuan independence.
The current Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in 2019 that Labor was “distressed by human rights violations”, but reiterated that the territorial integrity enshrined in the treaty “remains the bedrock of security cooperation” between the two countries.
Two-way trade between Australia and Indonesia has grown from $8.5 billion in 2005 to $18.3 billion in 2022, making it Australia’s 14th largest trading partner. Australian mining company Rio Tinto holds a 15 per cent stake in the Grasberg mine in West Papua, the largest gold mine in the world.
Even more important to Australia’s ruling elite is the fact Indonesia straddles vital sea routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Forty per cent of all shipping passes through the Indonesian archipelago.
Both the US, as the dominant imperialist superpower, and Australia, as a sub-imperial regional power, support Jakarta maintaining control over all of Indonesia to ensure stability for Western geopolitical and economic interests.
Both are concerned that an independent West Papua could be drawn under the growing influence of China in the region.
Last year the prospect of the Chinese building a military base in the Solomon Islands threw the American and Australian ruling classes into a panic and white-hot anger, with some US officials threatening military action.
With the growing tensions between the US and China, the US has been ramping up its courtship of Indonesia. In 2015 the US and Indonesia elevated their bilateral relationship to a “Strategic Partnership”, increasing cooperation.
The US and its allies have attempted to use tensions between Indonesia and China over maritime boundaries to draw the former into their policy of economically and militarily containing China.
Australia is very concerned to placate Indonesia given its criticism of AUKUS and Australia’s commitment to acquiring nuclear submarines.
We need to unequivocally oppose Australian imperialism and Indonesia’s domination of West Papua and call for Australia to end military ties with Indonesia, and for Indonesia to free all political prisoners. Socialists stand in solidarity with the West Papuan struggle for self-determination, and call for the borders to be opened to West Papuan refugees.