Papuan Fight for Independence Could Sink Indonesia

Resembling a jigsaw-puzzle of giant rugged islands, Indonesia is crowned with rainforests and fringed with reefs. Straddling the equatorial belt between Asia and Australia, such geography inevitably results in a unique spectrum of species and a flourishing of distinct human cultures.

The Indonesian state encompasses irregular and historically disjointed chunks of these landmasses, which today leads to a cultural amalgamation of ethnicities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Indonesia's eastern-most province of Papua, which comprises half the island of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island and most ethnically diverse region. In Papua, resentment of Indonesian rule and exploitation has led to anger, protests, and violence. Often unknown to the rest of the world, these struggles are fuelled by cultural rifts, which could ultimately lead to Papua's seceding from Indonesia; this could initiate a disintegrating geopolitical domino-effect across the archipelago.

Indonesia is part of Asia, yet geographically, biologically, and ethnically, New Guinea is part of Oceania. This is clearly shown by the people, who are not Asian, but Melanesian, a race that includes peoples of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji. These people, named after the dark pigmentation of their skin, have a heritage that dates back some 10,000 years, which has almost no historical or cultural connections with Indonesia.

Incredibly, the 7.5 million inhabitants of New Guinea speak over 1,000 languages, and culturally range from the Kaningara, whose male initiation ceremonies involve scarring the bodies of adolescent boys so that they resemble crocodile hide, to the Korowai, who build and live in tree houses – cultures unique to New Guinea. Today, the predominantly Christian and Animist island is politically divided: The eastern half is Papua New Guinea, independent since 1975; the west, however, was controversially integrated with Indonesia in 1969.

Many peripheral regions of Indonesia want change, including northern Sumatra, central Sulawesi, and East Timor, which caught headlines with its bloody independence struggle in 1999. Papua has been fighting for independence since the 1960s; though unlike East Timor, Papua is rich in oil, gas, minerals, timber, and fish, all critical to Indonesia’s economy. Despite this, Papua is undeveloped, with extensive deforestation initiated by Indonesia and limited social-opportunities for indigenous communities. Resentment of Indonesians, who today represent around half of Papua’s population due to government implemented trans-migration schemes, led to the foundation of the Free Papua Movement, known locally as Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM). Established in the early 1960s, the OPM is one of many independence movements in the archipelago, indicating the bitterness many outer Indonesian islanders feel toward a nation under Jakarta's control.

The OPM aims to use violence to overthrow Indonesian rule in Papua; over the past 50 years, there has been low-level fighting across the region. Indonesians, who often dismiss Papuans as uncivilised and backwards, call the OPM a terrorist organization, while the Papuans accuse Indonesia of human rights abuses. With fiery temperaments, knowledge of their jungle-clad lands, and yearning for change, the OPM are an intimidating group. Although fragmented and poorly armed, with many combatants wielding bows-and-arrows crafted from forest materials, the OPM wants change and justice and are willing to fight to preserve their ancestral lands, threatened languages, and unique cultural heritage. The main motto of the organization is: We do not want modern life.

It is illegal to discuss the OPM in Indonesia: A prison sentence for treason can be issued for those that do. In the provincial capital, Jayapura, the influx of Javans is furthering frictions between Papuans and Indonesians. Lately, strikes and more protests have erupted in the region, and there are alleged talks of an independence movement set for 2012. According to locals, if such requests are dismissed or rejected, an outcome could be civil war. Due to such concerns, there is already an exodus of Papuans illegally crossing the border to neighboring Papua New Guinea; in 2010, 13,500 Papuan refugees were living in exile.

New Guinea is particularly abundant in geological and biological significance, which allowed for the establishment and diversity of the Papuan people and their varied cultures. Papua’s size and wealth, however, are a blessing and a curse: huge potential – easy exploitation. Such diversity puts an alluring price-tag on the region, which after Indonesian incorporation has become a prized possession in the nation’s periphery. Papuan persistence, possibly prompted by the Arab Spring, is as strong as ever; yet it is not known whether Indonesia can maintain control on its most remote territory. In this era of global change and quests for freedom, is it not time that some of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world stand up for their rights? If successful, Papua could even lead to the breakdown of Indonesia into its original form – disconnected, jungle-covered islands – allowing this exceptional part of the world to maintain the elements that make it so special.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons