Do Papuan lives matter?

Do Papuan lives matter?: Protesters in Australia (Free West Papua Campaign/Facebook)
Protesters in Australia (Free West Papua Campaign/Facebook)

The tragic death of George Floyd has revitalised the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement not only in the USA, but also in other parts of the world. In one of Australia’s closest neighbours, Indonesia, the BLM movement has helped place a spotlight on the long-running grievances held by those who identify as West Papuans and call for self-determination in Indonesia’s eastern provinces.

In West Papua, many indigenous Melanesians have been fighting against human rights violations – including unlawful arrests, violence against civilians, and violations against the right to peaceful assembly and association – committed by the Indonesian government since it took control of the territory in 1963. While international attention waxes and wanes, recent local conflagrations between militia and the Indonesian armed forces, as well as urban protests, have drawn international attention to West Papua’s struggle.

The renewed momentum of BLM has sparked the Papuan Lives Matter (PLM) movement, which has again helped highlight the ongoing concerns of those living in this troubled region. Photos and videos of protests and human rights abuses are shared over social media with the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter. Media companies around the world have in turn highlighted racism and human rights violations in West Papua (as seen here, here, here, here, here and here). Indonesian Human rights lawyer Veronica Koman suggests that there is now even greater “sympathy from Indonesian people towards West Papuans” than during the uprising last year.

Global and national concern evoked through the PLM movement has put pressure on the Indonesian government; this has resulted in the recent “victory for political prisoners”. Seven Papuan men, known as ‘Balikpapan Seven’ who participated in anti-racism rallies and were arrested last year, were found guilty of treason but were only sentenced to up to 11 months in prison, much less than the sentences sought by Indonesian prosecutors of 5 to 17 years. While a small victory in relation to the protestors demands – the end of racism, a referendum on independence, and intervention from the United Nations and the international community – “[t]he world-wide pressure, from civil societies to legislatures, made all the difference.”

Yet in the Pacific region, only a brave few have dared highlight the plight of West Papuans.

There is a natural empathy for the plight of West Papuans amongst many grassroots Melanesians, and high-profile Pacific leaders have spoken against violence and expressed their support for the West Papuan cause (for example, the governor of Papua New Guinea’s National Capital District Powes Parkop and Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Loughman). However, most Pacific governments remain more circumspect in regards to their support.

This is in part due to Indonesian efforts to undermine support for West Papua. For example, Indonesian diplomacy contributed to Nauru and Tuvalu softening their support for West Papua, despite the significant role they had played in gaining regional support for the cause (for example, through participating in the Pacific Coalition on West Papua since 2016).

Australia, a key donor to Indonesia and the Pacific, has taken a cautious approach to the West Papuan issue, despite some commentators accusing it of turning a “blind eye” to these grievances.

The biggest reason for Australia’s indifference is its close relationship with Indonesia and the benefits that flow from this relationship. Indonesia is predicted to become the fifth largest economy in the world by 2030, and has become a key trading partner for Australia. The two countries’ trade in goods and services was worth A$17.8 billion in 2018-19, which makes Indonesia Australia’s second largest trading partner in the Pacific following New Zealand, and the thirteenth largest overall. Australia’s efforts to maintain close economic ties are outlined in the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into effect in July 2020.

Indonesia’s growing influence in the Pacific also helps explain Australia’s silence. With China’s rising influence, some suggest it is crucial for Australia to keep Indonesia as a close ally to maintain its power within the Pacific. Hugh White suggests Indonesia is “the only one of our neighbours that’s strong enough to really work with us to help to secure the region.”

Moreover, Australia’s support for independence in Timor-Leste significantly strained its relations with its northern neighbour. Four years after Timor-Leste’s formal independence, Australia also created a furore when it granted temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers; Indonesia responded by withdrawing its ambassador to Australia and announcing that it would be “reviewing” its bilateral cooperation. This incident led to both countries signing the Lombok Treaty, which obligates them to have “mutual respect for the sovereignty”, making it even harder for the Australian government to act on the issues in West Papua.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further undermine global and regional attention. As the pandemic consumes news cycles, and nations turn inwards, international awareness and concern will likely wane.

COVID-19 also directly threatens Papuan lives.  West Papuans are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to limited access to health facilities. As of 30 September, there were 8,087 cases reported in West Papua and Papua provinces, though the rate of testing is well below World Health Organisation’s recommended rate. Despite this growing threat, West Papuans continue to protest; recently, en masse, they demanded the release of political prisoners, commemorated the 1962 New York Agreement against injustice and demonstrated against the extension of the Special Autonomy Law. In the provincial capital, Jayapura, many demanded a referendum on secession from Indonesia. Of course, such public gatherings risk spreading the virus more widely throughout the population (particularly as video footage suggests that mask wearing and social distancing are not strictly in place among protesters).

While responses to police brutality in the USA and subsequent PLM movement have helped focus attention on the plight of West Papuans, the COVID-19 pandemic might just prove to be yet another threat to West Papuan lives and another roadblock to self-determination. As the pandemic threatens to turn attention elsewhere, given ongoing human rights violations and a looming health crisis, it is now even more important that the international community and sympathetic Indonesians pressure the Indonesian government to help ensure Papuan lives really do matter.

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Arichika Okazaki

Arichika Okazaki is a Senior Program Officer at the Development Policy Centre.

Grant Walton

Grant Walton is an associate professor at the Development Policy Centre and the author of Anti-Corruption and its Discontents: Local, National and International Perspectives on Corruption in Papua New Guinea.


  • Conduct a referendum again. This time, it must be a genuine “Act of Free Choice.”. Let only indigenous West Papuans vote. This could be conducted by UN (keep Indonesian Military & West Papuan fighters out of it as much as possible). Let the West Papuans vote freely.

  • (sorry for my broken english) i am not smart person. it’s my personal opinion..

    why it’s not blowing up like BLM? i think it’s because the people who want west papua independence are all staying in foreign country. like the funder.. the elite.. the ones that stay in west papua are just villagers who get gun supply from the foreign elite. then they had small contact/incident with indonesian military.

    these villagers are so simple.. they just want a better life. so now after indonesian government keep developing west papua.. these military villager keep coming back every year from the mountain / join back to indonesia and turned over their gun..

    that’s why i think it’s impossible/not easy for them to get independence. there is no huge mass supporter in west papua just like in hongkong or taiwan. only small number but with loud voice. also there are lots of youth papuan that register themselves into indonesian military.. (??) even among west papuan itself divided.. some pro indonesian, some pro independence. if they want to get independence ALL people should unite.. if only some community or elite that want an independence.. it won’t work..

    wait.. east timor case.. it’s the elite that want independence. until now the power is always held by these people .. in my personal opinion, their condition isn’t better than when they were part of indonesian. they even become one of the poorest country now. the news i read recently.. lots of the kids there are stunting. until now they still depend on indonesia. i think it was just the greed of their elite.. while lots of the people keep suffering.. basically their nature are a savanna.. the land didn’t offer much except oil. but now there is no more oil.. the oil are only enjoyed by the elite and australia. now their people demonstrated and asked for help from Indonesia. no good.

    but west papua are different. they have resource. they can survive. everyone know they are gem. if they are not smart, they will be tricked by the country that help to get their independence.. just like eat timor..

  • I who live in Indonesia do not feel there as you say. Papua and West Papua are safe until today. the problem is the separatists who make noise so that the world community sees them as being persecuted. lets share about Papua issues with me, it’s my pleasure to hear you

  • The Real History – and solution
    During the 1950s two groups wanted West Papua, American businessmen wanted its mineral wealth which they could not risk getting a Dutch or Papuan mining license for (i.e. they needed Indonesia to capture the territory to obtain a reliable and favourable license), and President Sukarno who wanted the lands and was already using West Papua as political diversion to blame ongoing poverty and corruption on the Dutch rather than his own administration and military. And in May 1959 friends of Freeport mining proposed an illegal use of the International Trusteeship System (Charter of the United Nations chapter XII) a scheme which would use “a special United Nations trusteeship over the territory for a limited number of years, at the end of which time sovereignty would be turned over to Indonesia” – ref
    In late 1960 after the Australian and Malaysian governments refused to take part as the ‘temporary’ administrator responsible for asking Indonesia to then assume administration, it was decided that the United Nations itself would have to act as the ‘temporary’ administrator that would ask West Papua’s traditional enemy Java to assume administration. Making matters worse the Americans elected a John F. Kennedy who had had personal experience with the Melanesian of the Solomons during the Pacific and throughout 1961 Kennedy would not authorise the proposed acheme. None the less somebody, no doubt other friends of Freeport, told Indonesia of the proposal and by March 1961 Indonesian officials said they liked the plan so long as nobody called the trusteeship a trusteeship, ref

    For the UN trusteeship or ‘New York Agreement’ to function as a defacto contract of sale selling the Papuan population to Indonesia it was neccessary to conceal the agreement and UN authorisation from the Trusteeship Council, and to ensure the UN Secretiat would ignore article 85(2) of the Charter of the United Nations which creates a legal obligation for the UN and its members to ensure news of agreement such as the 1962 ‘New York Agreement’ which creates a trustee obligation is reported to the agenda of the Trusteeship Council. The problem in 1961 was that Dag Hammarskjold was the UN Secretary General and was opposed to colonial oppression.

    However Sukarno had two close allies a Burmese diplomat U Thant and India’s PM Nehru who had become friends during the 1955 Bandung Conferrence the first time that Sukarno attempted to get African votes to support his demands in the General Assembly for possession of West Papua. Burma has a sufficent issue with ‘separatists’ (populations who have never consented to be part of Burma) as did India and Indonesia but India and Indonesia also had additional territories they wanted to capture if the UN could be silenced. Dag Hammarskjold’s term was due to end at the start of 1963 and in 1961 the presumptive next Seretary General was Mongi Slim of Tunsia who in 1961 was standing for position as the 1961 General Assembly Preisdent, and Indonesia was providing the only alternative President candidate. Two weeks before the 1961 General Assembly, Sukarno and Nehru cosponsored a Non-Aligned governments meeting at it was proposed that U Thant should be the next UN Secretary General, and Indonesian two days before the Assembly announced it was withdrawing its candidacy thereby forcing Mongi Slim to accept the position as President when the world heard of Hammarskjold’s death on morning of the 1961 General Assembly and Indonesia procedured to withdraw its candidacy. With SLim unable to be nominated, and with Non-Aligned support the pro-Soviet U Thant became the new UN Secretary General.

    Also with Non-Aligned support a Security Council resolution authorised UN military action on behalf of the Congo government against the Katanga Republic that had declared independence, then India invaded Goa and Daman & Diu, and Indonesia invaded West Papua.

    Indonesia had invaded West Papua several times during the 1950s and during 1962 the Indonesian soldiers were arrested again awaiting deportation, but the new UN Secretary General asked America and others to help Indonesia get the Dutch to sign the ‘New York Agreement’ that the Dutch had not known had been previously negotiated during 1961. The Dutch signed the agreement on 15 August 1962 and the UN Secretary General U Thant publicly endorsed the proposal that asks our governments to authorise United Nations occupation & subjugation of West Papua, and includes a clear intent to then allow Indonesia to assume administration without UN supervision.

    Technically the ‘New York Agreement’ is legal complying with Chapter XII of the Charter of the United Nations although in apparant violation of article 1. Normally a General Assembly resolution must be provided at least 30 days before the vote; but on 19th September 1962 the Assembly was given two days notice that they were to address the matter on Friday afternoon 21st Sept 1962. Then on Friday afternoon, with U Thant personally attending watching members vote, the President of the 1962 Assembly told our governments to vote WITHOUT debate whether to authorise or oppose the new Secretary General’s plan for West Papua.

    As the UN Secretary General controls which items are on the agenda and in which order of all Security Council and other UN meetings, no nations wishes to offend or insult the Secretary General. In other words, our governments were being blackmailed to vote yes for UN General Assembly resolution 1752 (XVII) that is authorising today’s ongoing occupation & subjugation of West Papua.

    The only illegal aspect is that the UN issue of resolution.1752 has still not been placed on the agenda of the Trusteship Council, and therefore the Council can not commence the yearly UN reports (Charter article 88) about West Papua’s progress towards “self-government or independence” (Charter article 76(b)).

    Our government and every UN member as well as the current Secretary General have a legal obligation to place news of the UN invasion of West Papua and its authorisation General Assembly resolution 1752 (XVII) on the Trusteeship Council’s agenda without further delay.

    Please refer to our paper and some other historical links at

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