Introduction to the West Papua’s Decolonization Agenda

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Indigenous people in Melanesia have been fighting for years to dismantle decades of colonialism. Fiji gained its independence in 1970, Papua New Guinea in 1975, Solomon Islands in 1978, and Vanuatu in 1980. Kanaky, often described in these pages, as well as West Papua continue to fight for their sovereignty against French and Indonesian occupations. In this text, West Papuan diplomat in Australia Ronny Kareni provides historical and legal keys to understand this struggle.

Article published in The Funambulist 33 (January-February 2021) Spaces of Labor. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

On the western border of the Pacific, the Indigenous Melanesian people of West Papua have been campaigning for a free and fair referendum on self-determination, ever since the 1969 so-called “Act of Free Choice” that saw less than one percent of the population vote, under coercion, for integration with Indonesia. This act not only subjugated West Papua’s nationhood to a genocidal discriminatory regime but also denied the fundamental right to full independence. It has formed the basis of today’s political impasse.

Kareni Funambulist 1
Free West Papua from Jakarta to Melbourne and The Hague. / Photos by Petisi Rakyat Papua (2020).

This stalemate has created unprecedented challenges of increased military deployment, partial human rights and environmental destruction. Not only that, the expansion of regencies under the so-called “Special Autonomy” silences our aspirational movement. Jakarta’s impeccably futile policy focuses more on its own failure of development in socio-cultural aspects than politico-legal issues. While infrastructural development is needed in West Papua, the lack of consultation with the local needs polarizes and delegitimizes any developmental programs. On top of this policy and the lack of consultation on development, the culture of impunity translates into military and police getting promoted, essentially awarded for incarnating the state’s most repugnant characters. Despite this implacable framework, West Papua seeks resolution beyond Jakarta’s structural violence project. Evidently, the unification of key political identities gave birth to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). The ULMWP is a consultative body that coordinates the nation’s independence program. Its diplomatic recognition at the sub-regional grouping of the Melanesian Spearhead Group unsettled Indonesia enough to respond with “Pacific Elevation,” a passive-aggressive approach, in July 2019. Regional observers question the motivations of Indonesia; what and who are they elevating? The answer is obvious: it is a political maneuver to drown out any support for the West Papua cause. Despite this move, West Papua’s liberation is actively supported by a coalition of Pacific states led by Vanuatu and an increasing number of 79 U.N. member-states from the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.