‘We will be free’: on the West Papua Movement

The young man raises the megaphone to his mouth.

‘PAPUA!’ he screams.

‘MERDEKA!’ the crowd roars in reply.

‘PAPUA!’ he yells again.

This call-and-response refrain continues while the next speaker makes her way to the microphone at the top of the steps, to address those assembled.

The young man sees me approach with my camera poised and decides to ham it up a little for me. He tips his head back and opens his mouth wide in a frozen yell, lifting the megaphone to his lips once more.

He is part of a solidarity rally for the Free West Papua campaign, being held on the steps of the Victorian state library. The hundred or so participants present are a mixed bunch. Most of the Papuans are wearing the colours of the Morning Star flag, or the traditional feathered headdresses of their tribes. There is a large contingent of Indigenous Australians, one of whom takes to the microphone to express solidarity with the Papuans. There are attendees of all ages and backgrounds. Two people hold a sign that reads No Asian pride in genocide.

Free west Papua rally

Free West Papua rally, 15 September 2019

A little later, the man with the megaphone approaches me and introduces himself. His name is Yudha. He tells me he is a survivor of the Biak massacre. I’m aware of this incident, where more than 150 unarmed protestors are said to be have been killed, their bodies dumped in the sea by the Indonesian Navy. Yudha points out several others in the crowd who were also present on that day in 1998. I suspect that there are few Papuans over the age of 20 who haven’t witnessed such atrocities. He asks me who I am, and who I represent. The Papuans I have met so far are a friendly bunch, but they are not shy about asking you what you want with them.

After an hour of speeches and songs, the crowd is ready to march. A large flag-adorned canoe on wheels is boarded by scores of children. A portable loudspeaker is also loaded onto the boat; it blares out traditional Melanesian music as the mob moves forward.

Free west Papua rally

Free West Papua rally, 15 September 2019

Members of the crowd chant enthusiastically as they walk down Swanston Street. Hand drums are beaten, people sing their traditional songs and dance together. It’s a real party atmosphere. The leader of the march calls out to bemused bystanders, urging them to take an interest and find out more about West Papua and their campaign for independence.

Free west Papua rally

Free West Papua rally, 15 September 2019




West Papua was a colony of the Netherlands until 1961, when an agreement was reached that granted the Indigenous population of the western half of the island of New Guinea their independence. The following year, Indonesia occupied the region, but after negotiations with the Dutch government, they consented to hold an independence referendum for the Papuans.

The referendum was eventually held in 1969. The outcome was a unanimous decision to remain part of Indonesia. Many Papuans regard this referendum as a sham, however, as only 1026 of the 814,000 strong Indigenous population had been permitted to vote, and there are suspicions that many did so under duress.

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, as they are now called, have experienced regular peaks of unrest ever since, as Papuans continue to campaign for a second referendum. One does not have to search too hard to get an inkling of why they are so aggrieved. Poverty rates in West Papua are three times the national average. Infant and child mortality rates are the highest in the country. Racism against ethnic Papuans is rampant. And Indigenous communities continue to be deprived of traditional lands, as Indonesian and multinational companies seek to profit from the rich natural resources that abound within the region.

The most obvious example of this is Grasberg – the largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine in the world – which is located within Papua province. The Indonesian government recently took on majority ownership of the mine. Environmental groups say that the immense volume of tailings produced by mining operations have polluted the soils and rivers in the surrounding area. Deforestation in the name of palm oil plantations is also widespread. In a recent interview with Mongabay, Sophie Chao describes how corporations learn the customs of traditional land owners, so they can manipulate deals and the selling of land. Chao, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney, says it’s frequently the case that local people are ‘surrendering their land without understanding the terms of the contract’.

It’s been claimed that racial taunts slung at Papuan students were responsible for kicking off a fresh wave of unrest in the region in August and September 2019. Credible claims from both sides indicate that hoax material is being used to spread misinformation about the conflict on social media. In early September, investigative journalist Benjamin Strick of Bellingcat uncovered compelling evidence that bots on social media platforms are spreading pro-Indonesian government propaganda, painting Papuan protestors as extremists. A video depicting a policeman attacking a patient lying in a hospital bed, which some say was taken in Papua, has been challenged by fact check website Mafindo: they state that the footage was filmed in Thailand. Internet observatory Netblocks.org published confirmation that internet access was disrupted in Papuan towns on several occasions in August and September, coinciding with peaks in violence between the military and Papuan protestors.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who was this year returned for a second term, secured 78% of the vote in Papua by running on a platform promising economic growth and infrastructure investment in the region. Jokowi, as he is commonly known, insisted in a New York Times interview earlier in the year that his ‘government is about harmony and opposing extremism’. Over the past two months, he has repeatedly called for calm, amid escalating tensions between Papuans and military forces.

At time of writing, however, the protests are ongoing, as buildings burn, jails fill up and the West Papuan body count continues to climb.



A week after the solidarity rally, I again stand on the state library steps, meeting Jacob Rumbiak for an interview. We have only met in person once before, but he greets me warmly, embracing me as he plants a kiss on both cheeks. His hair is grey, but his face looks youthful and kind.

Rumbiak is celebrating 20 years in Australia. Originally, he was an academic at Cendrawasih University in Jayapura, but was arrested after he became involved in the Papuan civil resistance movement. He was sentenced to life in prison for treason but was eventually released to house arrest. After volunteering to be a UN observer during East Timor’s independence referendum, Rumbiak escaped on an Australian RAAF plane to Darwin. He received Australian citizenship in 2006.

We sit at a table in the café around the corner, sipping mochas. Rumbiak’s friend Tommy Latupeirissa sits with us. He scrolls through social media on his phone as Rumbiak and I converse, but it’s clear he is listening intently to every word. Every now and then he offers his opinion.

Rumbiak disputes claims made in the media that the Free West Papua campaign is fractured, saying that the different separatist groups are now united. He sets out in painstaking detail the organisational structure of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Chaired by the charismatic Benny Wenda, who lives in exile in London, the ULMWP was formed by three founding bodies: the Republic of West Papua Federation State (NFRPB), the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), and the West Papua National Parliament (PNWP).

‘During the Reconciliation and Unity Summit for West Papuan Leaders in Vanuatu in December 2014, an inclusive, representative, united body was formed to carry the independence program in the diaspora,’ reads the statement that Rumbiak later sends me. Rumbiak is the international spokesperson for the ULMWP and tells me that they are ready for the transition to independence.

When I ask how they think events will unfold in the coming months, Rumbiak and Latupeirissa make me aware of two upcoming milestones that they say will have an impact on the Papuan struggle for independence. First is that West Papua is hoping to be granted full membership at the next meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. While optimistic that this is another step towards independence, Latupeirissa tells me he is worried that violence will escalate as a result, as the Indonesian government may seek to quell a reinvigoration of the campaign from within the country.

There is also the upcoming independence referendum in Bougainville in November, which Rumbiak believes will also have resonance for his people, if Bougainvilleans choose independence from Papua New Guinea.


Jacob and Tommy

Jacob and Tommy

The success of the Free West Papua campaign depends on active support from three main actors, Rumbiak says: the Papuan people themselves, the Indonesian population and the international community. When I ask whether he thinks any of these actors are lacking in support, he responds emphatically: ‘The international community. They need to speak out.’ He believes self-determination can be achieved through non-violent action ‘when the three actors work closely’.


When I interview Jason MacLeod from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney a few days later, he agrees that the movement must have co-operation from within and without to be successful. MacLeod has studied secessionist movements in several different countries as part of his research. ‘Self-determination struggles are much more complex than a traditional pro-democracy struggle,’ he says. ‘Because it has to be waged in those three domains.’

Rumbiak, discussing the current escalation of conflict in the region, told me, ‘I believe Indonesia can’t hold West Papua for long.’ He is certain, as are many journalists, politicians and activists that I have spoken with, that a tipping point has been reached, and progress for the Free West Papua movement is likely. MacLeod says that he too has noticed a shift in how the movement is being perceived, especially within Indonesia. ‘Something that was seen as an individual grievance is now seen more as a systemic, institutional problem,’ he says. He adds that ‘the solidarity we are seeing from Indonesians is impressive and positive’.

Repeated attempts have been made to bring the plight of the Papuan people to the international community’s attention. In January 2019, Wenda presented a petition signed by 1.8 million Papuans to UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, requesting that she investigate human rights abuses in the provinces and uphold their right to self-determination. Despite an immediate undertaking by the Indonesian government to allow a UN delegation into West Papua to investigate these claims, arrangements have still not been made to facilitate this.

Notwithstanding, the human rights violations committed against Papuans by the Indonesian military and militias are now well-documented. In the most damning incident yet reported, convincing photographic evidence was published in December 2018 by The Saturday Paper, depicting what appear to be chemical burns on the bodies of Papuans. The authors claim that the banned chemical weapon white phosphorus was used by the Indonesian military in an attack on locals, illustrated by the accompanying images of burn victims and yellow-tipped bombs.

When I meet with one of the authors of that article, journalist John Martinkus, he shows me additional, unpublished photographs documenting the injuries sustained during that attack. These photos were presumably too gruesome to publish. One depicts a man who has evidently been hit in the head with a phosphorus projectile. It takes me a while to realise what I am looking at, as the man’s face is almost unrecognisable as such. Martinkus sees my look of shock, and says ‘Yeah, well that’s what it looks like when they cop one in the face’. His tone is matter-of-fact, yet solemn – the voice of one who has seen too much death. He does not doubt the veracity of the chemical weapon reports. He personally witnessed the effects of white phosphorus attacks during his years reporting in Iraq. He also visited West Papua himself in 2002 and heard firsthand the accounts of torture and executions carried out by the Indonesian authorities. They are the stuff of nightmares. Martinkus is a veteran of conflict reporting, having covered eight wars over the course of his career, including Timor Leste’s push for independence. As we talk, he outlines many similarities between the secession struggles of Timor Leste and West Papua, including the tactics used by the Indonesian military. Many of the military figures he mentions, some of whom were found guilty of war crimes during the conflict with Timor, are also involved in the current West Papuan conflict.


Despite West Papua being situated a mere 240 kilometres from Australian’s northern shores, the current crisis has barely raised a mention in federal parliament. Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale is co-convenor of the Australian chapter of the Parliamentary Friends of West Papua (PFWP). He has on several occasions tried to raise human-rights violations in West Papua in parliament over the past year. His attempt to table a motion in December 2018 was met with an objection by another senator, and thus was never formalised or discussed. Di Natale mentioned the matter again in February 2019, during a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee meeting, referencing the claims of white phosphorous use made by Martinkus and co-author Mark Davis. It was indicated to him that the Australian government had accepted the Indonesian government’s denials of chemical weapon use, and there were no plans to investigate the allegations further. Attempts to raise the issue in parliament from within the government’s own ranks have also failed. Jane Prentice, a former Liberal MP and co-chair of PFWP, expressed her frustrations on this matter in her valedictory speech in April 2019, stating that ‘we cannot continue to ignore the human rights abuses in West Papua – indeed, what history will regard as genocide on our very doorstep.’

In 2015 it was revealed by Green Left Weekly and several local newspapers that a Papuan campaigner, Peter Elaby, had unofficially met with then Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop while she was visiting Darwin. According to Elaby, Bishop agreed to speak with him on the condition that the meeting would not be recorded. ‘The Australian government can’t do anything about human rights issues in West Papua because we respect Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua,’ she reportedly told him.

Di Natale and independent MP Andrew Wilkie received a delegation of Papuans, including Rumbiak, in Canberra on 9 September 2019. They were handed a petition signed by 17,000 Australians calling on the government to support West Papua’s right to self-determination. Di Natale tabled the petition in the Senate, referring to the intergenerational conflict as a ‘slow-rolling genocide’.




Music is a topic that comes up again and again in my conversations with Rumbiak. He says it is a subject close to every Papuan’s heart, integral to culture and identity. Papuans are ethnically Melanesian, and this is evident in their music and customs.

‘As long as we are still singing, we know that we are still alive,’ Rumbiak tells me. He describes how the Papuan liberation movement was re-united after splitting in 1976. ‘There was only one way to bring people back and unite them,’ he explains. ‘With music.’ He regularly performs traditional songs with other Papuans in the Black Orchid Stringband, which he says is a way to remain connected with his culture.

The following weekend, I am invited to attend a concert of Pacific Island music at Brunswick Town Hall. It’s the launch of a CD called Joy of Freedom: Songs of peace, hope and freedom, featuring songs of solidarity with the Free West Papua movement from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Kanaky, Samoa, West Papua and Australia. The album also features a song by Australian musician David Bridie, who is an outspoken advocate for the movement.

The event opens with a performance from the Papuan Cendrawasih Dancers. Cendrawasih is the Indonesian word for the bird of paradise, arguably the most spectacular avian species native to the region. Adorned in traditional grass skirts and body paint, the dancers mimic bird movements as they act out the oppression of the Papuan people. Later in the evening, Rumbiak strums his guitar and sings with the Black Orchid Stringband. At one point, they invite the audience to take part in the performance. One by one, people of all ages stand up and move to the front of the hall. The kids are first and then the adults follow: dancing and clapping, laughing and holding hands, they spin and shuffle around the room.

Witnessing the exuberance of this small group of Papuans as they vocalise their dreams of freedom for their people, I reflect that the optimism of this community may be their greatest strength. Although the movement in Australia is small, it seems unlikely that the diaspora here will ever quit in their campaign for self-determination. I am reminded of a comment MacLeod made to me on the nature of social change movements: ‘Change always comes from the margins … you don’t need a majority to win’.


Image: West Papua / Papua New Guinea flagmap / flickr

Sarah Jacob

Sarah Jacob is an Australian freelance writer. She has a background in conservation science and education and writes on environmental and human rights issues.

More by Sarah Jacob ›

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  1. The irony of course is that the vast array of islands known as ‘Indonesia’ was itself not so long ago campaigning for its own independence: from Holland. And was happy to see the Dutch colonists humiliated by the Japanese in WW2.
    But, like the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia, what the new regime took over was not one country, but an empire containing a multitude of peoples of diverse languages and cultures.
    Thus ‘Indonesia’ is a misnomer. Today it is in reality the Javanese Empire, with West Papua as its final, richest but most unruly aquisition. History shows that all such situations remain unstable, and generally too much to swallow for the predatory colonisers.
    Just as it did in the case of East Timor, ‘Indonesia’ maintains strict control on information flowing out of West Papua. No prizes for guessing why. This is politically its weakest point. It should be everywhere challenged on it; also the pathetic complicity of Australia’s pro-Indonesian politicians and ruling elites as well.
    Australia still pays ‘aid’ to Indonesia in the hundreds of millions. In reality it is protection money. Australia buys Indonesian ‘friendship’. Simple as that.
    As neighbours and so culturally different, Australia and the Javanese Empire are not natural allies. Far from it.

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