The conflict between West Papuan separatists and the Indonesian Government has posed a perennial headache for Jakarta for nearly 60 years. This commentary will neither explore the conflict or its merits but rather what role international organizations have played in its intensification from November 2018 until the present. In so doing the effect external international initiatives have on encouraging violence and provocation upon the internationally-recognized sovereign territory of Indonesia will be examined.
Throughout the contemporary era (from 1991 until the present) international standards have favored preservation of existing territorial status quo over extending recognition to ostensible new states, with only 3 widely-recognized exceptions, namely East Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan. While over the same period, a handful of de facto states arisen primarily along Russia’s external (western and southern) borders these are seen as puppets larger countries rather than bona fide nations.
Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua is not disputed with only three nations, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Senegal withholding recognition or recognizing West Papuan separatists. On the whole, the international community has refrained from creating, let alone recognizing/supporting the formation of new states/nations owing to the dangerous precedent devolving autonomy/independence poses to global stability.
Kosovo is acknowledged by slightly more than 100 other nations yet is held frequently by the Russian Federation as an example of western hypocrisy, and its resulting “precedent” has been used to justify the creation of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics on the territory of Ukraine, as well as the armed annexation of Crimea. In short recognizing new states is a foreign policy taboo, at least for the community of nations and contrary, if not outright disadvantageous to bilateral as well as multilateral frameworks.
International Organizations – Footsoldiers in ‘New War’
Despite widespread international consensus regarding both the dangers of declaratory and constitutive acts of independence, non-state actors/organizations have demonstrated greater flexibility in providing support and recognition to aspiring states/entities. Historically, this can be divided into three phases; the various national and ethnic movements and associations created in the 19th and 20th centuries (up to the First World War), those of the interwar period (1918-1939) and finally the period from 1945 up to the present.
Within this grouping, a distinct shift has occurred in the wake of the Cold War, as the third-sector (civil society) has continued its rise and stepped out from the shadow of state subordination to relative freedom/independence of action. Non-state actors/organizations, particularly non-governmental ones can and indeed do enter areas undergoing crisis, conflict or strife en masse and operate without consent, or even approval of central authorities, paying attention only that they not be ejected.
This trend is a key element of what is referred to as “new war”, despite conflicts involving or among non-state actors having a long history, stretching back to at least the 19th century. New wars “are not occurring at the historical moment of new nation-state formation […] rather [they] are occurring at a moment of state crisis, fragmentation and failure” and it is precisely at this juncture that civil society organizations “deploy”. Following this logic, the incessant strife and disharmony on West Papua are categorized in this study as synonymous with those of ‘new war’.
More broadly/directly, non-state actors even possess the ability to foment war, as attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups against India illustrate. This is important as non-state actors have the potential to provoke two states (or more) into open military conflict, however, within the constraints of this analysis only the former, indirect role is evidenced.
Adapting these rubrics to non-violent, non-state actors it becomes possible to trace how international organizations operate on West Papuan and determine what role, if any, they play in encouraging separatists/insurgents implicitly or explicitly into action against Indonesian Security forces. To structure this analysis, major international announcements, press releases, conferences or events have been collated and set alongside accompanying outbreaks of violence in Papua referring to them as “cycles”, in a manner already used in favor of the separatists/insurgents in a previous study.
For all cycles featured, the genesis can be traced back to September 2017 when a 1.8 million signature petition (equaling 70% of the West Papuan population) was smuggled to the United Nations Decolonisation Commission by exiled West Papuan separatist leader and United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) Chairman Benny Wenda. From this point forward, international attention has been focused at times more intensively than others upon West Papua.
In November 2018 a group of UK Parliamentarians, among them Jeremy Corbyn, delivered the above-mentioned petition to the Foreign Office. On 13.11.2018, the Australian Green Party asked its members to fly the “Morning Star” West Papuan flag on December 1st, West Papua’s ‘national’ holiday. Not to be outdone, the International Red Cross published a report that month highlight growing violence in the Papuan Highlands Regencies and “called on the military and police forces to withdraw from this area to allow the Papuans to return home.” No mention was made of separatists/insurgents also withdrawing.
Shortly thereafter, on 01-02.12.2018, 24-31 construction workers were killed by separatists/insurgents of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) in Nduga. As an Indonesian army unit responded, they were fired upon and 5 soldiers were killed. The TPNPB separatists/insurgents had made a tactical error though as the construction workers were civilians, and not, as was assumed at the time, Indonesian soldiers. Nevertheless, the first cycle closed with the ‘Nduga massacre’, occurring on the West Papuan ‘national’ holiday.
Following the ‘Nduga massacre’, separatist/insurgent violence/potential war crimes needed to be reframed and rhetoric dialed back (this will occur again during the fourth cycle below). In late December 2018, the Australian Saturday Paper published a lengthy exclusive report arguing that the Indonesian Army used banned white phosphorous against West Papuan separatists/insurgents in response to the Nduga attack(s). White phosphorous is alleged to have been utilized in the first weeks of December 2018, however, was vociferously denied by the Indonesian government as well as by the Rt.Hon. Mark Field MP who responded following an official parliamentary inquiry in February 2019 that “We have been in touch with NGOs and others who have looked into the allegation; they have not found any evidence to support it.”
The ‘positive’ thrust of the second cycle was directed towards further propagation of the 1.8 million signature petition, which was clandestinely delivered again with the help of Vanuatu to UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in late January this year.
Less than 3 days after the petition was delivered to the UN Human Rights Commissioner, separatists/insurgents launched an attack against an Indonesian army airfield at Mapenduma, in Nduga, killing one Indonesian soldier and injuring two others. In response, on the 30th of January, the UN demanded access for Human Rights commissioners to West Papua, which Indonesia granted in principle although as of the time of writing despite renewed calls in August, none have requested admission.
The next “cycle” began around a week later, on the 8 February 2019. To start the cycle, Human Rights Watch demanded that the Indonesian Government free three Papuan activists imprisoned on treason charges in December 2018 (ostensibly for advocacy in the mining town of Timika).
During the middle of month, UN Human Rights experts called for a “prompt and impartial investigation” into an incident on 06.02.2019 when Indonesian police are alleged to have used a snake to mentally torture a boy accused of stealing a cellphone into confessing. The same experts described the incident as “symptomatic of the deeply entrenched discrimination and racism that indigenous Papuans face.”
Around the same time, the “Humanitarian Volunteers for Nduga” NGO issued a report claiming that Indonesian soldiers were raiding villages and scaring schoolchildren into jungles, prompting widespread evacuations off Papua. The Australian Green Party’s “Genocide in Nduga” campaign kicked off as well, classifying the dead Nduga construction workers as “Indonesian soldiers in civilian clothes” and all but justifying their deaths. None of these initiatives made mention of the 30.01.2019 attack on the Mapenduma airfield while the sparse references made to the December attacks fail to lay the blame on any of the three main separatist/insurgent groups.
In early March 2019, international media, including the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization began to report on the large deployment (600 soldiers) of Indonesian Armed Forces to finish construction of the Trans-Papua Highway, which had been halted following the Nduga massacre in December. Barely two days later, on the March 7th, 50-70 armed West Papuan separatists/insurgents, attacked a contingent of 25 Indonesian soldiers (part of the deployment announced less than 48 hours earlier). All told 3 soldiers were killed with a further 12 insurgents believed killed.
In this cycle, UN and HRW releases and demands come less than a month before a significant military operation was launched against a new/unannounced deployment of Indonesian Armed Forces, with international media coverage focusing on the Indonesian abuses which caused the attack, rather than the ambush and attack against Indonesian security forces.
The fourth cycle began in March/April and lasted until June, and can be divided into two external phases. During the first, an “overview” of the catastrophic situation on the ground was provided. This was done by the Irish NGO, “Front Line Defenders” via a report claiming first that 30,000, then 32,000, and finally, 35,000 people had been displaced across Papua since intensification of the conflict in December 2018. The report makes special note of damaged or destroyed schools and hospitals (all at the hands of the Indonesian Army via helicopter bombs), civilians perishing of dehydration and poor hygiene in refugee camps, and at least two children killed. The report was presented to Amnesty International in Jakarta on 29.03.2019.
It is worth noting that Front Line Defenders was the 2018 winner of the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights prize. Owing to the inability (or unwillingness) of that office to dispatch representatives to West Papua, Front Line Defenders may be seen as their de facto surrogate. It is little coincidence that the director of Front Line Defenders, Andrew Anderson, was previously in the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.
The second phase highlighted aspects of desperation, as well as unification within the TPNPB. Desperation was demonstrated via the utilization of child soldiers (in clear contravention of UN and international conventions) and incredibly, cast as admirable by NGOs such as the Humanity Volunteer Team, the same group which had published the March/April study. Father John Djanga, a Catholic priest working with Front Line Defenders stated “This child’s trauma can be a cycle of revenge. It will be more terrible in the future”
Unification is embodied from the beginning of July with the “Vanimo Border Declaration” which claimed to create the “West Papuan Army” from three disparate separatist/insurgent group, the West Papua Liberation Army, the West Papuan National Army, and the West Papua Revolutionary Army. Importantly, in the Declaration, the West Papuan Army called on any and all international support and assistance. The Indonesian Army, as well as some officials within the three groups rejected the claim of unification or collaboration. Despite these rejections Benny Wenda doubled down and described the West Papuan Army as a “state in waiting”. Less than two weeks later, he received the “Freedom of Oxford”.
Following Wenda’s award ceremony, less than 3 days later, an attack was launched against the Indonesian Army on Papua, and an Indonesian soldier killed guarding a bridge-building site over the Yuguru River.
The final cycle to be analyzed began in August, with the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and announcement that West Papua would be a chief topic alongside climate change for discussion, largely at the insistence of Vanuatu (and purported consternation of Australia). On 12.08.2019, an Indonesian police officer was kidnapped and summarily executed in Papua with a hunt for his killers undertaken. Benny Wenda was invited to the PIF and attached to the Vanuatu delegation. Here, despite a British Parliamentary rejection of the matter in February, the topic of white phosphorous was resurrected, nearly 9 months after first publicized by the Australian Saturday paper. Ultimately, the PIF agreed on the 15th August 2019 to encourage the UN to make good on its promise (likewise from nearly a year prior) to visit Papua and for Indonesia to remove hindrances in this.
The very next day, on 16.08.2019 with the PIF closing, an Indonesian Army convoy was ambushed, and a soldier killed by separatists along the Trans-Wamena Road. Protests on Papua, in reaction to incidents taking place in Java on 19.08.2019 overshadowed this attack, and unleashed a wave of international interest in Papua, as well as condemnation of Indonesia’s control over its territory. Indonesian authorities have since announced that Wenda’s presence at the PIF (and in the region) gave great impetus to unrest on Papua.
The above record allows several conclusions to be drawn. First, there appears to be a strong correlation between international initiatives, reports, conferences, statements, or press releases, and outbreaks of separatist/insurgent violence on West Papua over the past year. None of the violent incidents from November 2018 until the present occurred without some international initiative, event or group making headlines with West Papua/displaying support for West Papua, 2-3 days before an attack.
Second, the overlap and coordination among non-governmental organizations evidences a high degree of sophistication in what can only be described as a long-term media influence campaign/operation. Particularly the work of Front Line Defenders in what appears to be a surrogate role for the UN Human Rights Commissioner is noteworthy as well as its receipt of a prize from that body in 2018, and personal linkages between it and Amnesty International.
As an aside, the BBC reported in 2014 that some of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement demonstrators attended the Human Rights’ Foundation’s ‘Oslo Freedom Forum’ (referred to variously as a “School for Revolution” or “Davos for Dissidents”) already in 2012 and 2013. It is interesting to note that from 2012–2014 Benny Wenda was imparted with several honors and speaking opportunities by the OFF as well as the HRF, however the gap of 5 years must be scrutinized further as data on West Papuan attendance at ensuing OFF conferences or functions has not been assessed.
Finally, the role of Vanuatu as facilitator and de facto backer of Benny Wenda highlights a sort of proxy war being waged between Port Valu and Jakarta. Owing to Vanuatu’s own foreign relationships, it would not be surprising to find Canberra and/or Beijing pulling the strings as an effective (and cheap) way to debilitate Jakarta and sabotage what is an economically-rich region. Necessarily, the West Papua issue is framed by genuine humanitarian concern, however, its present inflammation, particularly following President Jokowi’s nearly unanimous support in the recent presidential elections (94% of the West Papuan population voted for him, with voter turnout of 88%) and his conciliatory policies, suggests that the issue has been hijacked by regional or geopolitical power struggles.
 Thomas Davies, NGOs, A New History of Transnational Civil Society, Oxford, 2014.
 Routledge Handbook of NGOs and International Relations, Thomas Davies (Ed.), Abingdon-on-Thames, 2019.
 Michael Humphreys, New Wars and the Therapeutic Security Paradigm, 59-70, in: Rethinking Insecurity, War and Violence: Beyond Savage Globalization? Damien Grenfell, Paul James (Eds.) Abingdon-on-Thames, 2008. Here, 61.