On September 23rd, reports of at least 20 dead from protests in West Papua appeared as second-page articles on major news sites around the world. West Papuan students were protesting the incursion of the Indonesian government in their ethnically-distinct province when security forces opened fire. This death toll is the largest reported yet in a long string of fatal clashes between the government and the inhabitants of West Papua, which began on August 18th when 43 students were arrested for allegedly throwing an Indonesian flag in the sewer on Independence Day. After several weeks of the current wave of unrest incited by the student arrests in August 2019, the Indonesian government sent in over 1,000 ground troops to enforce a security lockdown and total communications blackout in West Papua. While Indonesia has repeatedly defended its recent actions as an assertion of its sovereignty, outside observers and internal advocates describe it as a “silent genocide”. With the territory cut off from the world, the Indonesian government may not need to keep its actions quiet much longer. As its most influential ally, the United States must push for an impartial observational or peacekeeping mission in West Papua in order to increase international scrutiny and prevent an outright tragedy. While the U.S. should not be the vanguard power demanding oversight, it should still support whatever state or organization does.
If the need for international involvement seems overzealous, it is important to note that these stories almost certainly convey only a small fraction of the violence happening on the ground. Any piece of information coming out of the region is second-hand by default, as the Indonesian government officially prohibited any foreign media from entering West Papua and its neighboring Papua province, collectively known as ‘Papua’, for years. President Joko Widodo promised more access and a new approach to Indonesian-Papua relations beginning in 2015, but little has actually changed. Journalists even suspected of intending to report on conditions in Papua are blacklisted or detained, even if they do not attempt to enter the region. Given the history of the region, this new phase of total occupation is extremely concerning. Indonesia has been fighting insurgent Papuans for decades, ever since the former Dutch colony was acquired through a dubious 1969 referendum where 1,025 Papuans selected by the military ‘voted’ for incorporation. Since then, evidence of a horrific campaign of murder, abduction, rape, torture and destruction perpetrated by the Indonesian National Armed Forces has slowly emerged from the region. Legal scholars claim that there is incontrovertible proof of crimes against humanity, deliberate ethnic cleansing and a strong body of evidence to support the case for genocide.
The international community has been largely unresponsive. Regionally, Australia has been petitioned by Papuan activists for help in advocating against their plight as the closest influential and ostensibly liberal power geographically close to Papua. These efforts have been strongly rejected by Australia, which tends to maintain absolute support for Indonesian sovereignty over its provinces in accordance with the 2006 Lombok Treaty.
Internationally, the nations comprising the Pacific Islands Forum, excluding Australia, have been vocal about their condemnation of the situation in Papua. One of its members, Vanuatu, is conducting a long-shot effort to petition the nations of the world to vote for a United Nations General Assembly resolution categorizing Papua as a ‘non-self-governing territory’. This would allow the region to be subject to the decolonization process as outlined in the charter.
Gaining the support of international powers outside of smaller states may prove challenging. There is a broad Western coalition led by the United States that is unlikely to support any diplomatic action that would damage relations with Indonesia, for at least two reasons. The first and by far more significant reason is strategic: Indonesia is one of the countries overseeing security in the Straits of Malacca, where approximately 40% of the world’s trade—and more importantly, 80% of China’s oil imports—pass through each year. With fears of increasing Chinese influence in the region, the U.S. is unlikely to do anything that would make Indonesia feel as though its internal sovereignty is under attack, and its allies will probably do the same. The second is economic: Papua is home to some of the largest precious mineral deposits in the world, which simultaneously profits both the Indonesian government and US-based mining companies with partial or majority ownership of the mines. West Papua contains the American co-owned Grasberg Mine, the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world, worth billions of dollars alone. If the United States makes the imposition of a human rights regime on Indonesia a primary goal, it may find the Southeast Asian country to be less cooperative on economic and security fronts in the future.
There is a broad Western coalition led by the United States that is unlikely to support any diplomatic action that would damage relations with Indonesia
The position this situation puts the United States in is not easy. There is a well-founded expectation of the United States to at least confront perpetrators of blatant human rights abuses, let alone alleged genocide. At the same time, the focus on curbing any and all Chinese advantage in the Asia-Pacific region for fear of losing hegemonic status is real and palpable.
The absolute safest option for the material and political interest of the United States is to do nothing, with the caveat that a failure to intervene during an active genocide could severely damage the reputation of the United States, especially as it is condemning a similar lockdown against Uyghur separatists in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. Evidence of hypocrisy from the traditional leader of the ‘liberal world order’ is a potent propaganda tool for the major adversaries of the United States, particularly Russia.
The riskiest course of action is to suggest any kind of support or preference for Papuan independence or autonomy, as Vanuatu has petitioned for. Indonesia has gone to extreme lengths to maintain control of the province, up to and including crimes against humanity. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect that any gesture towards independence or autonomy will be met with outright hostility by the Indonesian government. This would in turn incentivize a stronger relationship with China, which has no qualms about suppressing an insurrectionist population. Consequently, independence and autonomy should only be supported if the United States is prepared to back the notion up with military intervention or let its sentiments fall completely flat and likely sabotaging its relationship with Indonesia in the process.
The best course of action is therefore to push for international oversight in the region, with a goal of drawing public attention to Indonesia’s crimes against ethnic Papuans. The United States or another authority from the West cannot lead this charge, lest it be accused of some sort of disguised neo-colonialism. It would be better if the initial call to action came from a wide coalition of pacific states, including the Pacific Islands Forum. The U.S. can then vocally support this initiative and use Indonesia’s desire for security assistance against an expanding China as a powerful incentive.
Consequently, a comprehensive policy recommendation package should include:
- Introduction and promotion of a third-party peacekeeping or observational mission in Papua, led by a non-Western state or coalition of non-Western states;
- U.S. Support of this official oversight via the promise of further military cooperation, particularly as it relates to security in the contested Natuna Sea;
- A concerted effort to discredit any public narrative suggesting military intervention or criminal investigation into the conduct of the Indonesian government in Papua
These recommendations aim to balance the strength of a strategic relationship with Indonesia with the need for the international community to act where it can against the abuse of populations around the world.
Hunter Graff is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy and Africa. He holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.