It is a region rich in natural resources, the biggest source of tax revenue for the fourth most populous country in the world and, under de-facto military rule, it is a place where activists are jailed, tortured, disappeared and assassinated.
So why doesn’t the world know more about West Papua?
Quite simply, because Indonesia’s restive, easternmost region is home to “one of the least covered armed conflicts in the world,” said Bob Dietz, Asia-Pacific director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of the more than 50-year conflict.
There are no official statistics but estimates put the number of Papuans killed by Indonesian authorities at anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people.
Four decades of heavy restrictions on media and human rights groups’ access to West Papua has resulted in a near media blackout.
Linked to all this is a United States-based mining giant, Freeport-McMoRan.
Though its Phoenix, Arizona headquarters is almost 15,000 kilometres away from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, it is the country’s largest taxpayer.
In 2014, Freeport contributed a massive US$1.5 billion to the Indonesian state coffers.
Not surprisingly, a huge percentage of its profits and revenue depends on its Papua operations – and this has wider implications.
“Freeport needs a lot of government security support to operate,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“In remote areas like Papua, this means less monitoring and more potential rights abuses taking place in their mining operations.”
In fact, national police and military are in charge of ‘maintaining order’ so that copper and gold can be safely extracted, and tax revenues can flow into Jakarta.
“I like to joke that even if Jesus Christ wanted to visit [West] Papua, I don’t think he would get a permit,” said Harsono, noting that official permission requires signatures from 18 separate ministries and security agencies – an impossible task.
“Any bureaucracy that requires so many signatures to get a permit means there must be something terribly wrong in the area they want to enter.”
A history of oppression
West Papua (known by the Jakarta administration simply as Papua) forms the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half being the independent nation of Papua New Guinea) and has long been a crown jewel for aspiring global powers.
It has, at various times, been controlled by Germany, The Netherlands and Australia, before it was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 in a military-run election in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote for ascension.
West Papua was then ruled with the strongest of iron fists during Indonesia’s ‘New Order’ era under General Suharto.
“Suharto was a brutal dictator who savagely treated Papuans like animals and ordered many bombings and massacres in West Papua,” Benny Wenda, leader of the Free West Papua campaign told Equal Times.
These attacks were aimed chiefly at destroying the region’s independence aspirations and forcing its people to become Indonesians.
Wenda currently lives in exile in the United Kingdom, travelling around the world to raise awareness of the brutal atrocities committed by Indonesia against his people.
He witnessed this personally, when, as a child, the Indonesian military bombed his village and killed members of his family.
Natural resources have played a crucial role in the trajectory of Papuan history.
Just four years after its annexation, Freeport arrived, marking the beginning of a long relationship which has proved prosperous for the company, the Indonesian government and few others.
Meanwhile, the people of West Papua have endured great pain and suffering.
There was hope when Suharto’s dictatorship fell in 1998, bringing free elections to the archipelago, and even an independence referendum in East Timor, which was itself invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975, and faced similar, bloody oppression.
It turned out to be false hope for West Papua.
“It looked as though an independence referendum was imminent but the new Indonesian government became incredibly scared of losing West Papua,” said Wenda.
“So [Papuan independence leader] Theys Eluay was murdered by the Indonesian authorities, and ever since then, the situation in West Papua has only declined. There have been no real attempts to help with human rights or self-determination from any Indonesian government since.”
What has changed, however, has been an even greater investment in resource development, and the continued inflow of migrants from Java and Sumatra, Indonesia’s two most populous islands, into West Papua to manage resource development.
“Indonesia’s in-country migration is coming close to making Papuans a minority in their traditional homeland,” said Dietz.
Of a population of 3.5 million, only about half are from the hundreds of Melanesian Papuan ethnic groups, with the remainder of the population coming from Javanese, Sundanese, Malay and Madurese migrants, nearly all of whom have arrived since 1969.
Moreover, Indonesia plans to further exploit Papua by expanding palm oil plantations into traditionally-held forested land, and increasing downstream mining revenue by building smelters and other industrial facilities along the coast.
“I’m concerned with how the government uses [all this] tax money,” said Eric Samudra, a Jakarta-based governance researcher. “Is it being used for the good of the people, especially Papuans? The answer, obviously, is no.”
Despite the news of police killing four protesters in December, many Indonesians remain silent on their government’s occupation of a minority, mostly non-Islamic people who have been waging a low-level insurgency for freedom and justice.
“The problem is most people choose not to do anything about it, while some others believe that nothing can be done,” said Samudra.
However, recent documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing are slowly opening Indonesians eyes to the country’s troubled past, which includes a bloody repression of its nascent Communist Party in the 1960s.
John M. Miller, the National Coordinator of the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network, who publishes a monthly update on the situation in West Papua, believes that while public awareness is growing, it still has a long way to go before real change can occur.
“The silence is beginning to be broken, but a broad understanding isn’t there yet.”
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to bring greater development and autonomy to Indonesia’s outer islands, and the December killings brought Papua to the forefront of his administration’s efforts.
But questions remain about whether he will really be able to change the Papua situation.
“We believe President Jokowi would like to make a difference in Papua, and he has already made some moves to do that,” said Harsono, pointing to the president’s pledge to visit Papua frequently and listen to local concerns.
“But moving the security and civilian bureaucracy over [West] Papua is not easy.”
That is one reason why many Papuan activists, including Wenda, are tired of empty words and want a referendum.
“We do not believe that any outcome other than full independence for West Papua can ever be a solution.”
On the ground, government policy seems to be going in the opposite direction.
A case in point: the recently-announced smelter, to be operated by Freeport and an Indonesian partner, will be built on traditional Kamoro lands in the Arafura coast, south of Freeport’s existing mining operations in the region.
The smelter was negotiated directly between the Indonesian government and Freeport, with no say or consultation from the local people.
Not surprisingly, locals groups oppose the smelter, which they fear will further pollute their lands and destroy their traditional way of living. If plans move forward, tensions will likely rise.
Dominikus Mitoro, acting chair of the Kamoro indigenous consultative organisation leadership council, stated publicly that “Freeport or any other investor will encounter endless problems,” and that “no business will run smoothly until it leaves [our lands]."
According to activists, now more than ever, media access to West Papua is crucial in order to bring global attention to the planned smelter, and to give the world a true understanding of the human rights situation in the region – and Freeport’s role in it.
But that access seems unlikely for now.
“Indonesia’s leaders appear determined not to lose another part of its far-flung archipelago by having troublesome reporters, international or Indonesian, expose what is happening in Papua,” said Dietz.
Freeport McMoRan declined to comment on this story.