Paniai, West Papua: Politics of Displacement

Photograph Source: Junulius Thonak – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Dutch colonisers of West Papua thought the island of New Guinea looked like a bird, so called its northwestern tip Vogelkop (Bird’s Head). In what is now Indonesian-occupied West Papua, Paniai, an area of 6,525.25 km2 with a population of about 220,410, is nestled with its lakes in the middle of the “bird’s” shoulder girdle. It’s not a place that hits headlines although it ranks high in the annals of human tragedy. In a recent Indonesian military raid on Paniai, over 5000 Papuans fled their homes. Fifteen villages are now uninhabited. These 5,000 people swell the numbers of more than 100,000 West Papuans displaced since 2018.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, there are 75.9 million internally displaced people in the world, a figure that has soared by 50% in the last five years. Of the total, 68.3 million were displaced by conflict and violence, and 7.7 million by disasters. The numbers signal a grave human rights crisis but, focusing on humans alone, they perhaps hide the even graver crime of ecocide, against all lifeforms in different habitats. This happens when humans are massively displaced—often a crime against humanity (“committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”)—as an even worse crime usually caused by war, pollution, ravaging of natural resources, and industrial disasters (like Bhopal). Ecocide, which keeps increasing the numbers of displaced people, is happening in Ukraine (17 million displaced), in Palestine (5.138 million displaced, out of a population of 5.493 million), and in Congo (7.1 million displaced), to give three examples.

A chart of the UN World Migration Report lists the twenty countries with the largest displaced populations at the end of 2022 (so Israel’s displacement of 85% of Palestine’s population doesn’t appear): Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Columbia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, Türkiye, Mozambique, Cameroon, Azerbaijan, India, and Central African Republic.

The striking omission is West Papua. True, Indonesian statistics aren’t accurate, partly because of the rugged terrain (in which the people speak some 250 languages), and partly because slapdash statistics are one way to cover up genocide. Even so, it’s estimated that about 100,000 West Papuans (5%) have been displaced since 2018. West Papua should be among the countries on the UN chart. But it’s not. Why? Maybe because, first, Indonesia doesn’t allow international scrutiny of what it’s doing in West Papua (indirect confession of serious crimes) and, second, the UN itself is largely responsible for these crimes because, with its false “referendum” in 1969, it denied independence to West Papua’s Melanesian people and gifted the former Dutch colonial territory to Indonesia, a country of a totally different culture and peoples, basically so the US could exploit its natural resources. And perhaps the displaced West Papuans have been “disappeared” by numerically subsuming them into the Asian population of the occupying power of Indonesia (about 280 million) so, voilà, they become a tiny percentage.

In the age of algorithms, numbers are treated as if they explain everything. As a sole indicator they can be dehumanising because they give no insight into what actually happens, how, who’s responsible, why, and consequences. 5,000 here, 7,000,000 there (Syrian Arab Republic), nearly 5,000,000 there (Yemen) or there (Afghanistan): the numbers are numbing. They’re all displaced people but some are given more importance than others. But hath they not “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions …?” Aren’t they victims of the same crimes, human beings like everyone else? Imagine, us being exposed to high mortality rates, helplessly watching our babies and loved ones die, at risk of sexual assault and abduction, held hostage, denied shelter, food, and healthcare in extreme conditions, trapped in conflict zones, caught in crossfire, targets and human shields. All this happens to displaced people, more than half of whom are woman and girls. If you see a picture of a starving baby and feel grief, that grief should be multiplied by about 76 million. Without seeing numbers through the micro-prisms of all these stories, the macro-picture they hold out is mere, mostly meaningless statistics.

Paniai may be a small story by comparison with Palestine but it speaks volumes about the big picture. At 8 a.m. on 14 June this year, Indonesian “security” forces in ten trucks accompanied by four helicopters attacked villages of the Moni and Mee tribes. Thousands of people fled, from Bibida (443, 100%), Dama-Dama (482, 100%), Kolaitaka (486, 100%), Kugaisiga (453, 100%), Odiyai (416, 100%), Tuwakotu (394, 100%), Ugidimi (597, 100%), Amougi (289, 100%), Timida (318, 100%), Kopo (555, 100%), Wouye Butu (368, 100%), Uwibutu (47, 30%), Madi (26, 20%), Ipakiye (35, 20%), and Pugotadi (125, 40%). It’s no accident that the whole area had been closed by military and police checkpoints two days earlier.

Paniai represents what’s happening all over West Papua but also speaks of international politics. In the words of Benny Wenda, Interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) Provisional Government, “The displacement crisis in West Papua has reached every corner of our country, from the highlands, to the coasts, to small and isolated islands. Every week brings news of another mass evacuation, as terrified Papuans flee Indonesian military violence. Yet Indonesia condemns Israeli displacement in Gaza.” This criticism of Israel is clearly more about Islamic politics than human rights. But the displacement in West Papua is so little known, let alone denounced, that the barefaced cynicism of Indonesia’s criticism of Israel’s displacement of Palestinians goes uncommented in the media, as does Indonesia’s recent re-election to the UN Human Rights Council (186 to 192 votes) when it is actually committing crimes against humanity and genocide. How can anyone believe the UN is serious about protecting human rights?

As in Palestine, much of the displacement in West Papua is caused by settlers, but this time funded by the World Bank. Respectably called “transmigration” and officially lasting until 2015, this policy affects Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Maluku but, above all, West Papua because the transmigrants aren’t Melanesian, so the possibility of ethnic and religious strife is high. Touted as solving problems of overpopulation and poverty in Java, giving poor people a chance to prosper, it also provides a handy workforce for cheaper exploitation of natural resources, and strategic reinforcement in “buffer” zones, like the Papua New Guinea border zone and where big economic interests seem threatened. The result? Two notable effects are destruction of huge tracts of rainforest and Islamisation by numerical overwhelming of a nominally Christian country that retains its age-old beliefs and traditional rites.

Indigenous peoples have been displaced from more than a million hectares of cleared rainforest to make way for transmigrants. Forest dwellers have been expelled to malaria-infested lower altitudes. Their rights are annulled by law. Indonesia’s Basic Forestry Act (1967), enacted almost immediately after Suharto’s military coup, stipulates: “The rights of traditional law communities may not be allowed to stand in the way of transmigration sites”. Martono, the Minister for Transmigration, made the underlying aim clear in 1985: “the different ethnic groups will in the long run disappear because of integration … and there will be one kind of man”. Well, that’s one way of putting it. Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong come much closer to the truth in West Papua: The Obliteration of a People. Thanks to wheeler-dealing between the United States, Holland, and Indonesia in 1962, West Papuans are “confronted with the dispossession of their homeland. The result has been nothing less than a death warrant for Melanesian culture west of the 141 meridian.”

The statistics are telling. The 1971 census, two years after the UN handed West Papua to Indonesia with its callous “Act of Free Choice” (Act Free of Choice), recorded a population of 923,000 and 96% Melanesian. In 2022, the total population was 4.378 million (more than 50% transmigrants). West Papuans were dispersed and turned into minority groups. In the transmigration compounds, the rule was nine Javanese families for one Papuan family. The settlers brought diseases or contributed to them because of the deteriorated living conditions of the West Papuans. Yaws, measles, and whooping cough were epidemic and, in the Baliem Valley, a key transmigration zone, an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases impaired the fertility of the Dani people. Infant mortality here was said to be above 60%, and average life expectancy about 31 years. In 2024, 11.5 % of highlands children die before the age of five.

As the commercial sex industry grew around logging and mining sites, either controlled or (very lucratively) protected by the Indonesian military for foreign companies, HIV infection rates had rocketed by the late 1990s. A 2001 study found that a quarter of the prostitutes were infected. Men working in these exploited zones take the virus back to villages where there is no healthcare. West Papua, representing much less than 1% of Indonesia’s population, has about 40% of its HIV/AIDS cases. In 2008, with 3% of the population infected, West Papua had the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate outside Africa.

Many West Papuans believe they’re being deliberately infected. One doctor said that the real figures (in 2011) are much higher than those usually cited because, “many Papuans don’t go to the few clinics available as there is limited medication on offer, and others don’t trust local health officials”. She adds, “There’s a lot of deliberate infection of HIV by Indonesian medical services…” An Indigenous leader, Jakobus Yufu, says, “the military controls the sex industry in Papua and deliberately brings in infected sex workers to contaminate the indigenous population”. Of course, deliberate infection is difficult to prove, especially in such a closed country, but the (at least plausible) accusation should be properly investigated given the context. West Papua isn’t an example of peaceable coexistence. The accused institution, the Indonesian regime, has killed some 500,000 people in the sixty years it has occupied West Papua. So, why would it shrink from using a few Javanese prostitutes to infect many West Papuans with HIV/Aids?

The threat of expanded militia operations has grown greatly with the recent election of 4-star general Prabowo Subianto as president of Indonesia. This man is notorious, inter alia, for his ruthless use of militia groups in what was then East Timor. Militia groups in West Papua are documented by the Pro-Government Militias Guidebook. It cites an East Timor-style group called the “West Papuan Army”, many of whose members came from the Suharto regime’s Pemuda Pancasila movement, known for “semi-licensed thuggery” and savagery in East Timor. It was operating in West Papua in 2000 and again in 2006-2009, working with the Indonesian army and Kopassus special forces, of which Prabowo was once commander. Armed with M16s, SS1s and AK47s, it has burned down villages and displaced many people. Another group, the Laskar Merah Putih (Red and White Warriors) was active until 2006 under the brutal East Timorese militia leader, Eurico Guterres. This group, or a copycat “red and white” (colours of the Indonesian flag) gang was seen again in 2022 in several parts of the country, under the orders of Indonesian security forces, although nominally independent.

The West Papuans have always fought back. The OPM (Free Papua Movement), then mostly armed with bows and arrows, began guerrilla attacks against the Indonesian army and installations of international enterprises in the 1970s. The present armed wing of the OPM, the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB)—which has recently been in the news since it abducted a New Zealand pilot in February 2023 (one abducted New Zealand pilot is news, but 500,000 murdered West Papuans don’t cut it)—is now experienced, better equipped, and able to use social media to counter official narratives. In 2021, the Indonesian government raised the stakes and declared that all “armed criminal groups” (i.e. TPNBP and OPM) are “terrorists”, under Law 5 of 2018 on Counterterrorism, thus delegitimising all resistance to the violent occupation but also preparing the ground for Prabowo’s very own “unconventional” warfare that served him so well in East Timor. Indonesia, recognising that its forces can’t crush West Papuan resistance, has deployed more than 25,000 troops to West Papua since 2019, as well as planning, in 2022, to recruit 3,000 Papuan youths to serve in (or as militias for?) the police and army. In any case, intense resort to militia groups is all but inevitable.

An “early warning” report (2022) by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum foresees as a likely outcome that, “atrocities would be committed by militia, with tacit support or acquiescence from Indonesian security forces, in response to increasing protests and/or rebel attacks by Indigenous Papuans demanding independence from Indonesia”. This could mean large-scale killing of civilians with atrocities by imported and pro-Indonesian West Papuan militia backed by the military and police, or by organised transmigrant groups, also protected by “security” forces. As part of an official 2015 defence plan to amass 100 million militias by 2025, militia groups are being organised as a “total people’s defence” with “complete integration” of military and civil components under military command. In West Papua, military and police would claim to be confronting pro-independence “terrorists” but militias would indiscriminately target all West Papuans, as happened in East Timor. This would bring more displacement, more suffering, and more death.

This month has seen the launch of the West Papuan Peoples Liberation Front (GR-PWP), a new initiative in the struggle for West Papuan independence. Non-factional and uniting activists, students, religious organisations, Indonesian solidarity groups, the Alliance of Papuan Students, and the KPNPB, the GR-PWP will fortify “the ULMWP’s presence on the ground, supporting the cabinet, constitution, governing structure, and Green State Vision”. Since its aims include a monitoring visit to West Papua by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the ULMWP’s full membership in the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and an internationally-supervised self-determination referendum, this skilled, principled statecraft of West Papuan leaders is, for UN-human-rights-champion Indonesia, “terrorism”.

 The displaced people of Paniai tell us much about leaders of a global regime teetering on foundations of greed, violence, destruction, cruelty, and lies. But they also point to other, little known leaders like those of the ULMWP, with ethical, socially and environmentally responsible values like those expressed in its Green State Vision. Announcing the GR-PWP, Interim President Benny Wenda, invites “solidarity groups and supporters around the world to unite behind this new organisation”. It’s an organisation that’s attempting to respond to challenging questions raised by the overlooked displaced people of Paniai: do we want to profess, respect, and enjoy human rights? Or do we prefer a world where human rights defenders are “terrorists”? They’re questions about the future of humanity.