Dear UN.... re West Papua....
Port Moresby ‘cash-for-arrests’ idea was replete with danger

Is the West Papuan freedom movement doomed to fail?

Chris Overland
Chris Overland


ADELAIDE - West Papua and its future has recently been a hot topic of debate on PNG Attitude.

At least one correspondent has trenchantly defended the record of Indonesia in West Papua, maintaining that its occupation of part of the island of New Guinea is legitimate in terms of international law and recognised as such by the international community.

There also have been claims and counter claims about allegations that huge numbers of Papuans have been killed or displaced as the Indonesian government has sought to gain secure control over the entire province. The veracity or otherwise of these claims is clearly a hotly contested and very partisan debate.

The history of how Indonesia ended up taking over the governance of West Papua does not provide much solid evidence for claimed legitimacy.

There is the indisputable fact that the outgoing Dutch colonial power reluctantly handed control to Indonesia after its allies (notably the USA, Britain and Australia) proved unwilling to back belated efforts to prepare the province for independence.

And we know the allies were uninterested in offering military support in the event of conflict with the very belligerent Indonesian government of the day.

But was the Indonesian takeover of West Papua legitimate?

This history is relevant in so far as there are, politically at least, clear grounds to contest the legitimacy of Indonesian occupation even if the powers that be in Indonesia continue to insist otherwise.

The matter of interest to me is whether Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), the self-styled West Papuan liberation movement, is likely to be successful in its attempts to eject Indonesia and set up an independent West Papuan state.

On the face of it, a tiny group of relatively poorly armed and untrained guerilla fighters seem highly unlikely to prevail against Indonesia’s very formidable military. It really looks like a gross mismatch.

However, there are lessons for Indonesia from the history of the violent decolonisation processes that occurred in the mid-20th century including, of course, its own.

To my mind, Algeria is a prime example of how an initially very tiny minority of freedom fighters (or terrorists if you prefer) overcame the military might of France.

Algeria was a French colonial possession from 1830 to 1962.

In 1830 it was a tiny and impoverished country that had no capacity to resist the French army when it seized control. Over the succeeding decades many French citizens moved to Algeria until the population of these so-called pieds noire (literally, black feet) exceeded 1.0 million.

In 1947 the indigenous population of Algeria was granted full French citizenship and Algeria thus became regarded as an integral part of metropolitan France. This action was apparently both recognition and reward for the support Algerians had given to France in the two world wars.

The first stirrings of nationalist sentiment had appeared in the 1920’s but had been successfully suppressed (sometimes by extreme force) until the appearance of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954. The granting of full French citizenship did not diminish FLN members’ enthusiasm for independence.

The armed wing of the FLN launched an especially vicious terror campaign against the pieds noire. The French army and pieds noire irregulars responded in kind. All sides were guilty of very dreadful atrocities and the fighting was unusually ferocious and cruel.

The French government initially thought that the insurrection could be easily suppressed, just as had been the case in the past. This time, however, it badly miscalculated and by 1955 the situation was rapidly spirally out of control.

Eventually, France committed around 500,000 troops in its efforts to suppress the FLN.  Despite raids, road blocks, curfews, mass arrests and the routine use of torture to extract information, it could not prevent what became a relentless series of strikes, bombings and massacres.

Slowly but surely public sentiment amongst Muslim Algerians, who bore the brunt of the Army’s excesses, turned against France. The amount of blood and treasure being consumed climbed relentlessly. This fueled growing unease and dissent about the war in metropolitan France.

By 1961, France’s position had become politically and militarily unsustainable. President Charles De Gaulle offered Algeria a chance to vote on whether or not it should become independent. Just short of 70% of the population voted yes.

Within a year, 1.4 million pieds noire had fled to France and on 5 July 1962 Algeria became independent. The residual bitterness, anger and resentment about the Algerian War remain to this day.

One legacy is that some 3.5 million French citizens (5.8% of the population) claim Algerian heritage. Their often poor treatment and circumstances in France have been such that they continue to provide recruits for ISIS and other like terrorist bodies.

The principal lesson from the Algerian War is that a very powerful state can eventually be compelled to give up its control over a colonial possession if there is a liberation movement that is willing to commit itself fully to open warfare and then unrelentingly pursue its strategic aims regardless of the costs to itself or anyone else.

The FNL was a comparatively weak organisation in 1954 but became progressively stronger over the course of the war. It was utterly unscrupulous in its actions, as were its opponents. The longer the war went on, the weaker became France’s ability to exert its legal and, perhaps most importantly, moral right to govern Algeria.

France was not defeated by military means alone. As the USA subsequently discovered in Vietnam, even the world’s most powerful military can eventually be defeated if the political and moral will to fight is sufficiently weakened at home.

This brings me back to West Papua and the OPM.

Appalling as it is to contemplate, the Algerian War offers an obvious template for the OPM. There is no particular reason why Indonesia ought to be any more or less susceptible to the impact of a long term guerilla war of attrition.

As the French discovered, even a huge and powerful army cannot be everywhere at once, leaving the broader population always vulnerable to terrorist acts. Time always favours guerilla fighters, especially when fighting in their own country, amongst their own people, against an oppressive foreign power.

Mao Zedong famously said that in order to win it is merely necessary not to lose. He also said that revolutionary fighters must be guerilla fish in a people’s sea.

These two aphorisms neatly encapsulate important guiding principles for any successful guerilla leader. They have been successfully applied in Algeria, China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere besides.

Bearing this history and Mao’s aphorisms in mind, it seems to me far from impossible that the OPM can eventually achieve its aims.

By merely being in existence, the OPM offers a challenge to the Indonesian state.

Every action or atrocity by the Indonesian army (whether real or merely “fake news”) serves to erode its moral right to suppress what many clearly regard as the legitimate expression of dissent about West Papua’s status as a colony of a foreign power.

Every young Indonesian soldier sent home in a body bag is a silent but potent symbol of a war which many Indonesian families (like the Russian, American and French families before them) might be increasingly unable to comprehend, let alone support.

So, to those who say that the OPM must inevitably fail I say look to the lessons of history and beware.

The only successful anti-insurgency action by a colonial power that I can immediately recall is that of Britain during the Malayan emergency (1948-1960). It succeeded because, rather shrewdly, Britain offered Malaya independence at a time of its choosing and subsequently honoured its promise in full.

At one stroke, a huge amount of potential support for the guerillas evaporated and they fought a long but ultimately futile war against a British colonial regime that enjoyed at least qualified support from most of the population.

Significantly, post Malaysia becoming independent, British commercial interests were not greatly damaged and relations between Britain and Malaysia remain cordial to this day.

This suggests to me that Indonesia might be wise to consider offering West Papua independence, with an agreed timetable to be negotiated between the various interested parties, including the OPM.

I say this because it seems to me better to offer voluntarily that which might eventually be taken by force. There are several obvious benefits to be derived from this approach.

First and foremost, it avoids the very real possibility of a protracted, ugly, expensive, divisive and ultimately disastrous guerilla war of the type I have described in relation to Algeria.

Also, it will allow Indonesia to negotiate the preservation of its commercial, cultural and other interests within West Papua and, very probably, ensure that West Papua remains significantly integrated with the Indonesian Republic even if standing outside of its formal constitutional arrangements.

Importantly, this approach should create a large reservoir of goodwill between the new state and Indonesia that should remain an enduring feature of their relationship long into the future. The value of such an outcome ought not to be underestimated.

I do not think that I am being too idealistic in proposing this approach. History strongly suggests that pragmatism by colonial powers pays in the long run.

Certainly, it will require wisdom, goodwill, courage and forbearance by all sides to make it work but I cannot see any reason to prefer having a war in preference to a discussion in order to determine West Papua’s future.


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Chad Sherrin

Excellent analysis Chris, but OPM will need support and that doesn't appear forthcoming for much the same reasons that allowed the hugely unjustified invasion by Indonesia in the first place.

Indonesia is hedging its bets against a possible vote through the large numbers if Javanese being resettled.

Rashmii Bell

Hi Chris. Thank you for this detailed, informative piece. A bit of of history in there that I didn't know.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Thanks Johnny - my mistake.

Two very pleasant looking towns.

Johnny Blades

Phil, I believe Manokwari is the capital of West Papua province, not Sorong.

Sorong is the largest city in that province though.

Philip Fitzpatrick

For the sake of clarity and to avoid confusion it is useful to remember that there are two provinces in the western half of New Guinea governed by Indonesia.

West Papua is the smaller western province centred round what is known as the Birds Head Peninsula. Its capital is Sorong.

West Papua is essentially where Asia meets Melanesia and the cultural mix in the province reflects that fact.

The much large province to the east is called Papua. Except for a minority of mostly Javanese migrants it is entirely Melanesian. Its capital is Jayapura. This is the province where the greatest calls for independence from Indonesia originate.

The role of containing these calls is carried out by the Indonesian military, the TNI. Javanese membership of the TNI is disproportionate, largely as a result of population pressures in Java. Most of the transmigration to Papua and West Papua comes from Java.

The TNI has a fearsome reputation for brutality. It is also extremely corrupt and has business interests all over Indonesia and a big say in how Indonesia is governed.

The TNI was also a major part of the problem in East Timor before it gained independence.

As a patrol officer in Western Province in 1969 I witnessed some of the brutality carried out by the TNI. My son later saw the same thing in East Timor.

Part of our job as kiaps was supposed to be turning back refugees fleeing from the Indonesians. I don’t recall any kiap in the field actually doing this. In most cases we simple forgot to report incidents of border crossings.

The proponents of independence, including the OPM, are in a typical Catch-22 situation. To promulgate their cause they need a narrative of oppression but that oppression, courtesy of the TNI, is excessive.

Fighting the TNI is recipe for more bloodshed but if they don’t fight them they have no narrative to advance their cause. Because of TNI media suppression the alternative of peacefully bringing their cause to the world is simply not there.

This might be different if countries like Australia, New Zealand and the USA was supportive but they are not. They are too scared of waking the sleeping giant contained in Indonesia’s large Muslim population.

When 43 asylum seekers from Papua arrived in Australia by boat in 2006 Australia gave them refuge against Indonesia’s wishes. As a result a defence treaty, known as the Lombok Treaty, was agreed between the two countries.

As part of the treaty, both countries pledged not to support "in any manner" any activities that threatened the "stability, sovereignty or territorial activity" of the other, including separatist groups operating in their own territories.

The debate about the future of “West Papua” that has been running on PNG Attitude has tended to conflate both of the provinces under the one name and confuse the issue.

There might very well be a case for West Papua, the small western-most province, to be considered part of Indonesia but ethnically and culturally the larger Papua Province has a convincing case for independence.

To do that the OPM and others will have to continue their hopeless guerrilla activities against the TNI to maintain the narrative of oppression in the hope that the world will listen.

It is a sad and dispiriting prospect.

Paul Oates

There is however one immense sticking point Occidentals find hard to understand unless one takes an interest in the customs and culture of our nearest neighbours.

Loss of face in an Asian culture is an immense factor that most be negotiated around to ensure it doesn't happen. Just look what happened after the East Timor situation.

The crux of the matter is that those who hold the cards need to be involved. When Indonesia invaded West Papua, the US supported them over Australia and the Netherlands in what seems to have been a decision based on purely economic and strategic grounds.

Therefore, what has significantly changed from that situation over 60 years ago?

Simon Davidson

Chris - Thank you for the informative piece. Given the blood bath the Papuans are experiencing, the history of Algeria serves as a beacon of hope on the hill for the guerrilla fighters.

This mode to reach their dream of statehood can be possible given the UN's ineptitude to address poignant issues affecting universal rights of people achieve nationhood.

The second option is also viable to end the violence in a more peaceful way.

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