West Papua and The Act of No Choice

West Papua and The Act of No Choice

Passport? Check. Camera equipment? Double check. Preparation for incoming intercultural tension?


Flying into Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta in April, I was met with a swathe of humidity, durian ice cream and endless traffic jams. I found the city to be an attack on the senses in every way. It filled my nose with the smell of Balinese palm trees mixed with cigarette smoke, while my eyes feasted on the organised chaos that was my surroundings.

Looking back, however, my mind never flies far from a single incident that occurred on an otherwise unremarkable day.

It happened on a bus ride through the tuk-tuk riddled streets of Jakarta’s old Batavia town. My jovial tour guide, Hari, was telling us all about Indonesia’s 1945 independence, represented by the bronze Liberation Monument we passed.

Amongst the hustle and bustle was another statue that caught Hari’s eye. Its hands were adorned with shackles recently cut, stone legs standing wide apart, hands in the air. Urban historian Abidin Kusno, describes it as “bare-chested” and “wild-haired” with a “loud, screaming expression”.

It was a statue of a West Papuan man.

The sweat growing upon Hari’s brow (he was not alone there – it really was a very hot day) seemed to only add to his excitement as he professed, “Ahhh yes, this statue, the Liberation of Irian Jaya Monument! Very good statue; shows when we freed the people of West Papua from the Dutch. Known as West Papuans. Yes, when we saved them.”

The temperature of Jakarta that day was a sweltering 32 degrees, but sitting in that bus, my body’s never felt so cold. Around me, everyone was laughing, smiling and taking photos as my exhilaration turned to trepidation – to them, these were just words, passing through one ear and out the other. For me though, I wanted to say something. Hari’s rendition of events, his story, was something very different to the one I was told by my Melanesian family. Freeing the West Papuans? Do Indonesian people really believe this version of events? I had to find out more.


“In school, they don’t think much about Papua,” 20-year-old Namira, a friend from Jakarta who currently studies at a university in Australia, tells me. “But that is how vague history is in Indonesia, we do not cover much on things we think are taboo and mostly our history is about memorising, not analysing.”

“A week ago,” Namira adds, “I had a conference for Indonesian Students Association Australia and there was this guy from the embassy… according to him, Papua was already part of Indonesia since Indonesia’s independence, and it was officially reckoned by the Dutch in the 1960s.”

Every country has a national narrative, an ethnic politicisation of events, something that makes them feel proud to call their country home – that’s nothing new. The French have Bastille. The Australians have ANZACS. And for Indonesia, liberation from Dutch colonialism, including West Papua, is their national story.

The thing about these narratives, though, is that by telling and cementing perceived revisions of history as fact, a minority is always excluded. In this case, it’s the West Papuan people and their story.

“I don’t think the people from West Papua are represented enough, and we don’t learn much about them,” says 19-year-old Amila when I ask her about Irian Jaya.

“We do learn a lot about the independence history in general though.”

On that April bus ride, I held my tongue. You’re meant to be a journalist, I told myself. You’ve always been taught that when it comes to telling stories, objectivity is key. Right?

Or maybe I was just telling myself this because I was too cowardly to speak the truth, or the “West Papuan version of events”, for those who think differently to me. Cowardly because this story has so many times been trivialised on the world stage. By Indonesian ambassador Nara Masista Rakhmatia who, in response to allegations by Pacific Island delegations of human right abuses in West Papua, not only dismissed them, but accused the delegation of violating the UN charter of “interfering in other countries sovereignty.” By my own country, Australia, whose government with its history of sycophancy [read: sucking other countries’ dicks to get what they want] leads them to do nothing that might jeopardise their trade and defence relationship with Indonesia, including the street painting of the West Papuan flag in Darwin during 2016. Heck, by my lecturer of Indonesian Studies at uni who warned the class that a journalism portfolio on any issues relating to West Papua was a big “no-no”.

Well, while Nara might believe sovereignty should take precedence over basic human rights, I believe the opposite. So, here’s the underlying narrative, the alternate history – the West Papuan side of the story.

Coined by many — such as Jakartan Professor Budi Hernawan and Clemens Runawery — as a “slow-motion genocide,” the human rights violations in West Papua have been occurring since Indonesia successfully conducted its thinly-veiled invasion of the area in the 1960s.

It was the post-war era and imperial powers, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, were beginning to grow a conscience. The League of Nations were stepping up their game (under the spiffy new title “United Nations”), and that brought along with it this great novel idea called “self-determination” – the right to govern your own country and determine that country’s fate.

At first, the Dutch attempted to cede this right to West Papua, helping them create a government, national anthem, and the Morning Star Flag, before ultimately failing to implement independence under intimidation from Indonesia’s then very nationalistic Sukarno government. The Dutch also faced immense pressure from the United States to transfer governance from West Papua to Indonesia, whose deal with the latter to jointly-exploit the area’s resource-rich lands later came to fruition with the development of the Freeport Mine, which still runs today.

“By 1969, there was widespread resistance to Indonesian rule,” reads the website of liberation organisation Free West Papua. Since being pressured by the United States to sign a 1962 agreement with the Indonesians (called the New York Agreement), the Dutch had since left West Papua and things only grew worse from there. Within seven years, the Indonesian military “had killed and imprisoned thousands of Papuans since occupation – yet it was under these conditions that the people were supposed to exercise their right to self-determination.”

Things came to a head in 1969 when the United Nations called for an ‘Act of Free Choice,’ where all West Papuans would be able to vote whether or not become an independent nation separate from Indonesia. But it was really an Act of No Choice.

Indonesia had military might behind them, while West Papua had nothing – the vote was never going to be fair. Labelling the West Papuans as “too primitive” to be able to self-determine, the Indonesian government hand-picked 1,026 West Papuans out of a million and, under bribes or threats to murder their families, forced them to vote “yes” to remaining a province of Indonesia.

West Papua’s most prominent activist Benny Wenda experienced what happened in the aftermath of the Act of No Choice firsthand. Part of the Lani tribe in West Papua, Wenda and his family fled into the deepest recesses of the West Papuan jungles after witnessing family members being brutally raped or murdered, amongst other acts of racism and violence.

Even today, horrific stories continue to pour out of West Papua, including the death of an estimated 500, 000 West Papuans since 1969, cultural genocide, environmental devastation, the detention of foreign journalists and political activists – including children, and the purposeful introduction of transmigration, which locals fear will wipe out the West Papuan population indefinitely.

Even in mainland Indonesia, these stories trickle back through the carefully-censored media. Amila recalls, “If [West Papua] was on the news, it was often about the conflict with local military, and it would be related to the Freeport Mine.”

“I just remember there were reports about shootings, which are horrible.”

Switching back to Nara and her 2016 address to the United Nations, she said that in raising the issue of human rights violations to the UN, the Pacific Island nations (seven in total) “clearly reflect an unfortunate lack of understanding of the history, current situation, and progressive developments in Indonesia”.

By history, does she mean Sukarno’s human rights violations of minorities other than West Papua during the 1965 – 1966 Communist and ethnic Chinese massacres, not to mention the invasion of Timor Leste? By current situation, does she mean Australia, Papua New Guinea and the United States of America’s disinclination to aid the West Papuans due to vested interests in the area’s continuously-exploited, resource-rich mines? By progressive developments, does she mean the Indonesian government’s jailing of political activist Yanto Awerkion, deportment and censorship of journalists within Papua and the criminalisation of simply waving the West Papuan flag?

I don’t bring up these past events in an attempt to shame the Indonesian people, for I understand all the tabooed topics mentioned above are sensitive ones. Having been to different parts of Indonesia and made friends spanning from Bali to South Borneo, I’ve come to see that Indonesians are just as culturally diverse, intelligent and socially conscious as people from other countries. They have a beautiful culture and rich history – but that history has a dark side that needs to be addressed.

As a vehement believer in the preservation of all history, not just the parts that fit the story a country wants to tell, I feel that the voices of the West Papuan people have been silenced for far too long. People, not just Indonesians, need to understand what’s going on in West Papua if there’s to be any hope of resolution. What that solution is, I couldn’t tell you. But I know the first step is open communication between all parties.

Flash-forward to present day, and despite countless demonstrations, innumerable pleas to world powers and even violence on both sides of the debate, it would seem that progress’ biggest enemy is time. We’re coming up to 50 years since the Act of No Choice was signed at gunpoint, yet this traumatic event is slowly fading from historical memory. If you want proof, the biggest development to the West Papuan debate in most recent months was the election of Indonesia into the United Nation’s Security Council on June 8 – a council whose responsibility it is to maintain international peace and address human right violations.


I regret not speaking up on the bus that day. The West Papuans were never saved, Hari – they were abandoned, and their independence left to die at the hands of the Indonesian military. I regret not opening that line of communication with my jovial tour guide, however futile it may have been. I didn’t use my voice back then. But I’m going to start using it now.

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