The looming 50th anniversary of a so-called referendum that condemned the two Papuan provinces to exploitation by Indonesia has coincided with a rising tide of militant activity that will bring international attention to the increasingly unstable corner of the archipelago.
The groups – the West Papua Revolutionary Army, West Papuan National Army and the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) – said they would fight together as the West Papua Army to be coordinated by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) – an umbrella group for separatists.
But there is some confusion about whether the new alliance will be watertight and whether its Oxford-based spokesman, Benny Wenda, really speaks for militants in the Papuan jungles.
One political organisation – the long-running domestic separatist group, the OPM, the political wing of the TPNPB – rejected the announcement as “lies and fabrication”.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) leader, Jeffrey Bomanak, said the groups “reject and deny the claims made in the political statement on the alleged military merger”.
He accused the ULMWP of fraud and deception, claiming signatures of regional commanders were fake and called for an immediate retraction and apology.
A low-level insurrection by indigenous Papuans, who now make up only half the population after years of migration from across Indonesia, has lasted for decades.
Jakarta maintains that resource-rich West Papua should remain part of Indonesia because it was part of the Dutch East Indies, which forms the basis of modern Indonesia.
Using former colonial boundaries to justify ongoing colonial-style rule is a particularly weak argument against the separatists.
Split into the ethnically Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, the region has some of Asean’s most valuable natural resources, but the two provinces remain among the country’s poorest.
The region was formally incorporated into the country after the August 2, 1969, “referendum” of tribal representatives and increased violence can be expected to greet the anniversary.
Guardian journalist George Monbiot said 1,026 men were seized by the Indonesian authorities in 1969, some of their families were taken hostage and they were told to vote in favour of occupation or their tongues would be ripped out. One man who refused was apparently shot dead. The rest unanimously voted in favour of joining Indonesia.
“That is the sole basis on which Indonesia claims proprietary over West Papua,” Monbiot, the author of the book Poisoned Arrows about the province, told the BBC.
Camellia Webb-Gannon, a West Papua specialist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, said a successful union between political and military groups would be significant.
“For the first time the armed wing has now said we are going to answer to the political movement, the ULMWP,” Webb-Gannon told the media. “It’s really important because they are showing … if we were independent, we’re not just going to be a military dictatorship. The military is going to answer to the political leaders.”
Papua has the world’s largest gold mine and its second-largest copper mine, Grasberg, which is run by US giant Freeport-McMoRan. BP also has a large natural gas plant in West Papua. The need to maintain access to Grasberg has dominated western policy towards Jakarta, including its morally bankrupt decision to ignore the butchering of millions of alleged communists in 1965–66.
Although it remains one of the bloodiest chapters in post-1945 history, the large-scale executions across Indonesia were largely ignored by western governments and the international media. As the Vietnam war raged, the west feared losing a key regional ally to communism or access to Papua’s plentiful natural resources.
Little has changed since then.
The resource-rich provinces generate massive tax revenue for Indonesia, with the Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg copper and gold mine delivering US$600 million in taxes per year.
Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan will guard its lucrative contract with Jakarta, allowing it to exploit Grasberg (pictured), in the knowledge the deal would be ripped up if Papuan militants take power.
In December, rebels attacked a road construction team in the central highlands, killing at least 17 people, and triggering a military crackdown.
Since then, around 35,000 civilians have been forced from their homes as the security forces attempt to drive the Papuan liberation forces from the mountainous forests.
The tough terrain, dense vegetation and vast areas mean Indonesian troops will fail to ever stamp out the insurgency.
But human rights will continue to be crushed.
Papuans caught flying the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan separatism, could face 15 years in jail.
Papua has the lowest life expectancy in Indonesia and the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates.
Clinics often lack staff and medicines throughout the ethnically distinct provinces, Human Rights Watch said.
As in so many other parts of the world, Papua is cursed by containing natural resources which make it too valuable to hand over to rebels groups. But while Papuan wealth is exported to the US and Jakarta and the people are left to rot in poverty, the insurgency will continue to grow.
Grasberg is offers nothing to the indigenous population. Picture credit: YouTube