Review: Occupation and resistance in West Papua

by Sam Pietsch • Published 25 July 2020

John Martinkus, The Road: Uprising in West Papua. Black Inc., 2020.

The West Papuan independence struggle gained rare exposure in the mainstream Australian media in August 2019, when protests and riots shook the provincial capital Jayapura and a number of other towns across the occupied territory. The unrest was triggered when racist vigilantes attacked West Papuan students living in the Javanese city of Surabaya and Indonesian police intervened to arrest, not the perpetrators, but 43 of the Papuan students themselves. Video of the incident, including racist taunts hurled at the Papuans, circulated widely. As Martinkus writes, protests against Indonesian rule are nothing new, but in 2019:

The scale of the protest and the determination of the protesters not to back down in the face of the usual security services response were unprecedented. Thousands took to the streets. They were chanting calls for independence, waving the Morning Star flag [the symbol of independence], condemning the institutional racism in Indonesian society that had labelled their students in Surabaya monkeys. (Chapter 7, paragraph 5)

Government buildings were torched in multiple towns, while in Sorong 250 prisoners escaped from jail and the airport was briefly occupied by protesters. Dozens of people were killed in the riots and ensuing crackdown by the Indonesian police and military. Trials for treason of some of the activists arrested are ongoing at the time of writing.

For those wanting to learn more about the struggle in West Papua, Martinkus provides a short and readable account of the independence movement and the history of Indonesia’s occupation. The book’s style and content reflects Martinkus’ work as a journalist. This is mostly a positive. Martinkus has long embodied the best journalistic traditions and has previously written books covering the conflicts in East Timor, Aceh, Iraq and Afghanistan. In The Road, he once again pokes his nose into places the powers that be would rather remain obscured; bringing to light the oppression and violence inherent in Indonesia’s occupation; recording the resistance and courage of the West Papuans who fight back. There is no false “objectivity” here.

It’s the sort of journalism which all too rarely makes an impact in Australia. Partly this is due to the Indonesian government effectively banning foreign journalists entering West Papua. Martinkus himself has not been able to enter the territory since 2003.[1] Those attempting to report illegally face arrest and imprisonment, and Martinkus strongly suspects filmmaker Mark Worth was assassinated by Indonesian security forces for documenting the independence struggle. The fate of the Balibo Five, reporters murdered by the Indonesian military to cover up the invasion of East Timor in 1975, still serves as a warning to foreign journalists.

But the Australian media is to blame as well. Martinkus caustically recounts when he was reporting on East Timor that an Australian editor asked him dismissively “So what are your plucky brown fellows up to today?” Martinkus learnt that a body count of at least 10 was required before a story would be run; the daily violence and intimidation faced by those under occupation in places like West Papua is simply not considered newsworthy.

But The Road offers more than a collection of headlines. Martinkus usefully summarises the history of the conflict. When Indonesia won its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, West Papua remained under Dutch control. Indonesian nationalists campaigned to assume control of the territory in order, as they saw it, to complete the national liberation struggle. This included military incursions from the early 1960s. Seeking a way out, the Netherlands made preparations for West Papua to become an independent country. However, attempting to gain a Cold War ally, the United States backed Indonesia’s territorial claims. Under the guise of a United Nations agreement, Indonesia assumed full administrative control from 1963.

Incorporation was given a fig leaf of legitimation by the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”. For the benefit of United Nations observers, the Indonesian military selected just over 1,000 Papuans who publicly and unanimously voted to become part of Indonesia. The whole episode was an obvious sham, and West Papuans continue to demand a genuine act of self-determination.

Australia was one of the few countries which opposed Indonesia incorporating West Papua. Martinkus implies that this arose from principled support for decolonisation and recognition that West Papuans’ interests would be best served by uniting with fellow Melanesians in Papua New Guinea. In reality, Australia had long supported European colonial powers controlling the Indonesian archipelago as a bulwark against rival powers such as China and Japan. Maintaining dominance over Australia’s own colony in Papua New Guinea was considered vital. It was feared that if Indonesia, a rising Asian power in which the Communist Party was gaining strength, gained control of West Papua, Australia’s own position would be threatened.[2]

These fears were eased in 1965, when the right-wing dictator Suharto came to power in a bloody coup, killing perhaps a million Indonesians and destroying the Communist Party, welcomed if not materially supported by the US and Australia. The Australian government for decades now has strongly opposed any suggestion West Papua should become independent, fearing the destabilising effect this would have on the entire island of New Guinea, which continues to be seen as vital to Australia’s security interests.

But although the Netherlands was defeated, West Papuans themselves soon began resisting Indonesian control, including military action by guerrilla forces operating under the banner of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM, Free Papua Movement).[3] This prompted an intense military crackdown in the mid to late 1970s. The true death toll among West Papuans will probably never be known, but Martinkus cites estimates ranging from 100,000 up to half a million, most of them civilians prey to disease and starvation when they were displaced from their homelands.

Although at lower levels of intensity, the violence has never stopped. Even peaceful acts of opposition to Indonesian rule, such as raising the Morning Star flag, can result in arrest, imprisonment, torture or death at the hands of the security forces.

Fuelling the conflict is a struggle over who controls West Papua’s land and abundant natural resources, symbolised by the construction of the Trans-Papua Highway, “the Road” of the book’s title:

For the Indonesians it was a symbol of success and development, something to be celebrated. For the Papuans it was like a spear through the heart, killing their traditional life and claims on the land. (Chapter 3, paragraph 30)

Stretching from Sorong in the north-west peninsula to Merauke near the border with Papua New Guinea, the road facilitates access for Indonesian security forces and opens up the vast, mountainous interior of the territory to industries such as logging, palm oil plantations and mining. For West Papuans, it means dispossession, environmental destruction and poverty.

Such is the legacy of the giant Grasberg mine, located in the heart of West Papua’s central highlands. Now co-owned by the Indonesian government and United States company Freeport-McMoRan, Grasberg is the largest gold and second-largest copper mine in the world, generating turnover of up to $2 billion a year. But little wealth reaches the local population, who have been stripped of their traditional lands and who must contend with devastating pollution produced by the mine. Indonesian security forces are paid protection money to defend the mine from protesting locals or pro-independence guerrillas.

It is a pattern repeated across West Papua. So although out of 34 Indonesian provinces West Papua and Papua are ranked sixth and eleventh in terms of wealth generated per capita, they are the two lowest ranked in terms of the Human Development Index.[4]

The economic situation is compounded by an issue barely touched on by Martinkus: the very substantial migration into West Papua from other regions of Indonesia, sponsored by the central government. The 2010 census already recorded around one-third of the population as being from non-Papuan ethnic groups, with migrants and their families strongly concentrated in major towns and more developed lowland areas.[5] The growing number of settlers may soon constitute the majority of the population.

So West Papuans are caught in the classic double bind of the colonised. Forbidden their independence, they are also denied the full rights which should accompany their formal status as Indonesian citizens and are dispossessed in their own land.

Little wonder, then, that resistance springs up again and again, despite years of oppression. Martinkus charts the latest resurgence back to a round of pro-independence demonstrations held in 2016. Mass arrests and intimidation of activists followed. Yet by early 2019, exiled independence leader Benny Wenda was able to present a petition calling on the United Nations to relist West Papua on the committee for decolonisation and demanding a genuine act of self-determination. A claimed 1.8 million signatures were collected clandestinely and smuggled out of the territory.

Supporting such efforts and heavily involved in the protests and riots of late 2019 is a new generation of Papuan youth and student activists:

The students are part of a wave of empowerment of younger Papuans, who know their rights and are ready to stand up for and die for them, just as their fathers and mothers have before them. (Chapter 7, paragraph 38)

Against this background, the cover of The Road states “The war is not ending, it is beginning”. But what are the prospects for the movement? Here, Martinkus’ fairly impressionistic account leaves unanswered a range of questions. For example, he documents a revitalised military resistance, with better armed and organised guerrillas launching more effective attacks on Indonesian forces. But ultimately how effective is military action, and what is the relationship between the armed and civilian wings of the movement? There is likewise no detail on issues such as debates within the movement over strategy, organisational questions, or the role played by exiled activists as compared to those still in West Papua.

Martinkus frequently notes parallels with the East Timorese independence struggle, which was victorious in the context of a mass movement for democracy which forced Suharto from power. He highlights support for West Papuan self-determination from Indonesians such as human rights lawyer Veronica Koman and left-wing activist Surya Anta.

But such figures are isolated examples who face heavy repression from the Indonesian state, in the context of increasing attacks on democratic rights and freedoms within Indonesia itself. This trend is epitomised by the 2019 appointment as defence minister of Prabowo Subianto, a former general dishonourably discharged in 1998 for his role in kidnapping pro-democracy activists. Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party participates in a grand coalition government led by President Joko Widodo, who many had hoped would be a bulwark for democracy. In this context, what sort of politics could provide a way forward for democracy activists in both Indonesia and West Papua? A more analytical work would have begun to address such questions, without necessarily providing definitive answers.

Instead, Martinkus gives us a moving if somewhat schematic account of the West Papuan struggle, which continues against all the odds, and deserves to be better known and supported in the outside world. He sombrely concludes:

They can kill, jail and displace this generation, but there will be another one and another one. I hope I do not have to write this book again in twenty years, because if the Indonesians and the Australians and the UN continue their current policies in Papua, there will never be peace. (Chapter 9, paragraph 10)


Elmslie, Jim 2017, “The great divide: West Papuan demographics revisited”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 15, 2, 1, January 15.

Martinkus, John 2002, “Paradise betrayed: West Papua’s struggle for independence”, Quarterly Essay, 7, September.

Osborne, Robin 1985, Indonesia’s Secret War: The guerrilla struggle in Irian Jaya, Allen & Unwin.

Pietsch, Sam 2015, “Indonesian independence and Australian imperialism”, Marxist Left Review, 10, Winter.

Statistics Indonesia 2020, Statistical Yearbook of Indonesia, catalog 1101001.

[1] A more detailed account of his own time reporting from West Papua has previously been published in Martinkus 2002.

[2] For details see Pietsch 2015, pp132-133.

[3] Osborne 1985 provides details of the early years of the independence movement.

[4] Statistics Indonesia 2020, tables 4.6.7 and 15.2.5. Administratively, West Papua is divided into two provinces. The Human Development Index is a composite measure based on health, education and consumption levels of the population.

[5] Elmslie 2017.

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