As the world closely watches Gaza and Ukraine, a source reaches out from another enclosed area of prolonged armed conflict: West Papua.

thediplomat 2024 04 04 180733

A supporter of the independence of the West Papua
wears headband with the colors of the banned
separatist ‘Morning Star’ flag takes a part during a
rally commemorating the 60th anniversary of the
failed efforts by Papuan tribal chiefs to declare
independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1961, in
Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana


By Klas Lundström
April 06, 2024

“I know what you think,” the source tells me. “That it’s fake. It’s not fake. It’s our life.”

It is a video of an act of torture in Gome, in central West Papua. It shows a man with his hands tied inside a water-filled drum. Men take turns beating and kicking the man, screaming racist slurs that have been an ominous ingredient of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua since the 1960s. 

The tied man is incapable of any form of resistance. He is alone, the perpetrators are plenty. A bayonet cuts the man’s back and the water turns red. There is no way out of the entrapment without the assistance of his surroundings. But no one in the beating party is there to assist him – nor is Indonesia present in West Papua to assist its people.

The man’s name is Definus Kogoya. He was arrested on February 3, 2024, suspected of arson – a suspicion that was swiftly written off by the police. By then, however, another suspect, Warinus Kogoya, had perished when he “jumped” from a police truck, trying to escape.

Collective Punishment

In the hands of the military, Definus Kogoya was subjected to the collective frustration of the Indonesian army, which despite its dominance in terms of military and technological equipment has proved incapable of breaking down a popular rebellion in West Papua, consisting of both armed and non-violent resistance

The torture video is a testament to the everyday violence, discrimination, and humiliation that Indonesian army personnel subject the West Papuan population to. Had the soldiers never eternalized their bestial act on video, it remains highly uncertain that any legal consequences would have eventuated – as is the case now. 

Thirteen soldiers from the 300 Infantry Raider Battalion, stationed in conflict-ridden central West Papua, have been arrested, accused of torture. In the wake of the video’s wide circulation, the Indonesian military openly apologized to “all Papuan people” for the event. Benny Wenda, a prominent West Papuan political leader in exile in London, stated in a video comment that “torture is such a widespread military practice that it has been described as a ‘mode of governance’ in West Papua.”

Severe and Rampant Deforestation

The act of torture is a haunting mirroring image of Indonesia’s colonial policy in West Papua. It is about beating the soil free of natural resources. Large-scale deforestation to pave the way for palm oil operations and mining sites is so severe and rampant that significant parts of West Papua’s virgin forests have been turned into “pockets,” like oases in a desert. 

“People are leaving their lands,” a source tells me. Where do they go? I ask. “Anywhere,” is the answer, another way of saying nowhere.

The controversial “Omnibus Law,” pushed through by outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo as a “policy of development,” includes the establishment of large-scale food estates to secure food availability for Indonesia, while also providing large areas of West Papua’s “unused areas” to mining, forestry, and infrastructure projects. All of these operations have been linked to continued deforestation, according to various environmental watchdogs who have also reported on a “significant underreporting” of methane emissions from Indonesia’s coal mines. 

“A lot of land use and land-based investment permits have already been given to businesses, and a lot of these areas are already prone to disasters,” Arie Rompas, a forestry expert at Greenpeace, told The Associated Press.

A New “Blood-stained” President

President-elect and long-time military potentate Prabowo Subianto, controversial due to his tainted human rights record, has not only promised to continue his predecessor’s development policy in places like West Papua; he inherits an armed conflict that since late 2018 has shown Jakarta (and the rest of the world) that large portions of West Papuans simply won’t accept being treated as second-class citizens anymore.

What’s clearer – and worse from Jakarta’s perspective – is that their claim and request for a U.N.-observed referendum on independence from Indonesia, to make up for the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, when a thousand “chosen” Papuans voted for “integration with Indonesia” at gunpoint, simply won’t go away despite Indonesia’s brutal military response. In Sentani, in northern West Papua on April 2, 77 people were sprayed with teargas and arrested for participating in a peaceful demonstration against the militarization of West Papua. Many were severely beaten, reported Human Rights Monitor.

The New Zealand pilot kidnapped last year and still in the hands of armed rebel forces is another political hand grenade for the president-elect. In February, the rebels said Phillip Mehrtens would be released, but did not specify when. Prabowo has proven more than capable of launching large-scale military operations in West Papua. In 1984, he ordered Indonesian special forces, the notorious Kopassus, to “clean up” outspoken independence advocates. Among the operations were various border crossings into Papua New Guinea in search of rebels. In the no-man’s land between PNG and West Papua, along Fly River, I interviewed displaced West Papuans who still recall the brutality and lack of mercy that Indonesian forces showed civilians during these mid-1980s military operations.

The IDPs Crisis Persists

The systematic brutality directed at West Papuans while in custody is mirrored by a total lack of presence when it comes to the more than 60,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Central Highlands. The Secretariat of Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church stated in a November 2023 report that the “IDP crisis persists” and that people have perished in poorly functioning refugee camps due to the lack of the most basic access to food and healthcare. Many of the dead are minors, who lived their entire short lives on the run, after seeing their lands bombed by Indonesian forces (allegedly using chemical weapons) or becoming victims of land grabs. Land is not infrequently confiscated by mining, logging, and palm oil interests, or integrated as “available lands” for Indonesian transmigrants from Java and Sulawesi. 

The existing infrastructure in the abandoned villages in the highlands has often either been demolished or damaged. Schools, churches, and health clinics are no longer places of education, collectiveness, and care, but instead turned into military headquarters, according to a 2023 Human Rights Monitor report. Humanitarian law is not respected, instead thousands of men, women, children, and elderly have been cast into a life “in subhuman conditions, without access to food, healthcare services, or education.” 

A Stand Against “Settler Colonialism”

Esther Haluk, a West Papuan democratic rights activist who was among those arrested in a May 2022 military sweep, looks to the future with fear. The conflict, she underlined in a speech, “is not about color television or 3G internet, it’s about indigenous dignity and a stand against militarism.”

“This is a real form of settler colonialism, a form of colonization that aims to replace the indigenous people of the colonized area with settlers from colonial society,” she added. “In this type of colonialism, indigenous people are not only threatened with losing their territory but also their way of life and identity that’s been passed down to them from generation to generation.”

The situation in the highlands resembles that which has lasted for decades along the border between West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Along Fly River, in a political and socioeconomic no-man’s-land, entire generations have been sacrificed due to the lack of schools, proper healthcare, and long-term-sustainable job opportunities. PNG authorities were – and remain – less than interested in facilitating social service for the refugees, let alone being a spokesperson for a just and secure reintegration of the displaced back into West Papuan society. The same goes for the world community.

“They kill the future by displacing the young,” one source tells me. “It’s a slow genocide that will pick up speed with time.”

The birth of a “lost generation” in the highlands, left to be cared for by local churches while Indonesia keeps the door shut for U.N. and independent reporters to document the short- and long-term conditions for IDPs, takes place in a world occupied with Ukraine and Gaza. To make matters worse, leaked lists of personal information and telephone numbers of local independent reporters and human rights activists underlines an eagerness to pester anyone who sets out to document the reality in West Papua with threatening calls and messages.

“The people of West Papua are constantly hit by the forces of Indonesian colonial weapons,” a source tells me. “But we will never back down, we have no choice but to keep fighting for our right to live.”

* Note on sources: All sources are anonymous due to safety concerns. To minimize the risk of exposure their individual expertise, geographical domicile, and job titles are not presented, but they include human rights workers, environmental activists, and politicians.