‘Papuan Lives Matter’ energises calls for independence

Localised violence is spiking in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces amid fresh calls for independence.


Protesters have clashed with police in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua over the expiry of a law on special autonomy.


– Papuan independence movements are rallying behind the abolition of the special autonomy law and the ‘Papuan Lives Matter’ movement
– Many Papuans view the special autonomy law or Law Number 21 of 2001, which sought to provide autonomy and economic prosperity for the regions, as a failure
– As Indonesian President Joko Widodo seeks to push through the extension of the law, he faces opposition from Papuan pro-independence movements, which are gaining greater international prominence through the Papuan Lives Matter movement

Violence in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua has been a constant since the integration of the provinces into Indonesia in 1969. However, in recent months the conflict between indigenous Papuans and the Indonesian government has become more intense. Pro-independence groups such as the Free Papua Movement (OPM) have been responsible for the kidnapping and execution of construction workers. Indonesian soldiers, too, have caused violence and notably face accusations for the shooting and killing a Papuan pastor in September. Massive protests against racism were held in September, including in the provincial capital Jayapura, which forced the deployment of thousands of additional police officers.

The role of police violence in Papua and West Papua has led indigenous Papuans to link their cause to the global Black Lives Matter movement, sparking their own Papuan Lives Matter movement (PLM). This movement has generated greater international awareness of racism and human rights violations in the provinces and has generated some sympathy among Indonesians. These pressures have led to some concessions from Jakarta. For example, in June, seven imprisoned Papuan independence activists had their jail sentences reduced from 17 years to 11 months.


Photo: Sunu Probo Baskoro/Pixabay

The September protests were mainly concerned with the imminent expiration of Law 21 of 2001 On Special Autonomy for the Papua Province, a law passed during Indonesia’s post-Suharto period of reformasi. The law granted autonomy to the province of Papua, greater support in development and the upholding of human rights. The law stipulates that the central government retains authority over five key areas: fiscal and monetary policy, foreign policy, religion, defence and security, and judicial matters. All other administrations were devolved to Papuan provincial authorities.

Indonesia’s government is seeking to extend the law and continue providing funds to support the region’s development. However, Papuan pro-independence groups are against this extension as they believe that the law has failed in its goal of improving relations between the Papuan provinces and Jakarta. The law has, rather, become a symbol for a lack of Papuan sovereignty. The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, an Indonesian think tank, conducted a report on Law 21’s funding arrangements and found that funding has been predominately used to keep the provinces dependent on the central Indonesian government while also encouraging corrupt government practices.

Papuan elites, even those who are members of the Indonesian government, have expressed resentment to the Law. Papuan Governor Lukas Enembe has stressed that “the law has no teeth at all” and that it has failed to offer Papuans any sense of real political power. Enembe’s criticism, going against the grain of previous governors’ support for the law, reflects growing frustration amongst Papuan elites and some religious figures that Jakarta has failed to provide any meaningful positive change in the provinces.

Achieving support from Papuan elites is critical, as both Papua and West Papua hold significant economic potential for Indonesia. The provinces, which form a quarter of Indonesia’s total landmass, are rich in precious resources such as gold, copper, oil and natural gas. It is home to the Grasberg mine, one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world. Despite its abundance of natural resources, the regions contribute less than 2% to Indonesia’s total gross domestic product. This lacklustre economic output has, in part, been the result of poor infrastructure and corrupt local government practices. Jakarta has increasingly sought to take advantage of the region’s resources, including forcing the US mining company that runs the Grasberg mine to allow a majority Indonesian stake in the mine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased domestic tensions in Papua and West Papua. The provinces have been badly hit by the virus, owing to weak health infrastructure. As of late October, Papua has over 8,000 cases and West Papua has over 3,600, with testing being far lower than the World Health Organisation’s recommended rates. When local Papuan officials moved to initiate lockdowns and travel bans in March, Jakarta attempted to overrule them, declaring that local officials did not have the prerogative. Although a lockdown was indeed put in place, the perception of the central government as overbearing was only reinforced.


Photo: WAN-IFRA Media Freedom initiative

Indonesia President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has paid close attention to the Papuan provinces throughout his presidency. Since his election in 2014, he has visited the regions six times and has reiterated the importance of economic development in the Papuan provinces. Eyeing the regions’ potential for development, Jokowi has spearheaded multiple infrastructure projects that seek to use the region’s rich natural resources. While the pandemic has stalled these plans, Jokowi will likely seek to return to them once the pandemic is under control. According to Jokowi, the increased welfare and development brought by these projects are key to achieving peace in Papua. However, some of these development plans, such as the 4,330km Trans-Papua road project, are extremely unpopular with Papuans, demonstrating that Jokowi’s plan for peace through development is not certain to succeed. Nevertheless, Jokowi’s economic goals mean he will continue to have significant interest in the region and push to exploit its natural resources while attempting to reduce instability through economic development.

The pro-independence and separatist movements in the provinces are finding a new sense of energy through the PLM movement. Having gained greater international attention, the movement is likely to incite bigger protests. However, they still lack key international support, meaning a referendum is unlikely.  Nearby governments such as Australia see Indonesia as a close partner in economic affairs and regional security, making them ardent supporters of a united Indonesia. The concerns of indigenous Papuans will likely continue to be overlooked by Canberra in favour of its critical security relationship with Indonesia.

A lack of global solidarity and support from foreign governments could fuel further resentment of Jakarta by indigenous Papuans. This frustration will likely push the movement to organise bigger and more confrontational protests, such as the August 2019 protests across Papua that reportedly resulted in the deaths of over 30 people. Such large demonstrations will likely cause the COVID-19 pandemic to become even harder to control, which would pose a significant challenge to the regions’ under-resourced health systems. Jakarta could use the pandemic as an excuse to impose harsher restrictions and greater law enforcement. The government has made similar moves in the past to quell protests: during the August 2019 protests, a total internet blackout was imposed across the regions; it was not lifted for three weeks. Local frustrations will likely lead to increased support for more violent forms of resistance such as riots, creating greater instability. However, if PLM remains a largely peaceful movement, they could court greater international solidarity and support, similar to that seen for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

The recent increase in tensions suggests that the violence in the Papuan provinces will not end soon. Jokowi’s development plans have been disrupted by the pandemic and his plans for Papuan economic prosperity are in jeopardy. Indonesia’s preference for using military force to ensure control over the provinces will invite further acts of retaliation, whether in the form of protests, riots, or acts of terrorism. Now fanned back to life, the long-simmering conflict is unlikely to die down soon.