Human Rights Abuses

Indonesian soldiers murder Yustinus Murib then pose with his body
Indonesian soldiers murder Yustinus Murib then pose with his body

“What is absolutely certain is that anyone who tends towards separatism will be crushed by the TNI [Indonesian military]…In the interests of the Republic of Indonesia, we are not afraid of human rights. We are quite prepared to imprison anyone, or dismiss them from their posts, whatever is in the interest of Indonesia…If I meet anyone who has enjoyed the facilities that belong to the state, but who still betrays the nation, I will honestly destroy him.”

Indonesian military commander – Jayapura, West Papua, 2007


West Papua has been the site of some of the longest-running and most widespread human rights violations of the post-WWII era. They range from systematic torture, periodic mass killings and arrest without trial to intensive surveillance, carpet bombing and campaigns of terror. International media, human rights observers and NGOs are routinely barred from the province, making information gathering and confirmation notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, significant efforts by human rights workers, Papuan groups and academics has created a large body of documentation on abuses in Papua. Estimates of the total numbers of civilians killed as a result of the Indonesia occupation since the 1960s range from over 100,000 (Anderson, 2015: 14) to as high as 500,000 (Elmslie, 2007).

Mass Killings

The exact extent of mass killings in Papua may never be known. Even today, unconfirmed reports of massacres deep in Papua’s highlands occasionally make their way into the Western media. Nonetheless, there are several well-documented instances of mass atrocities committed by Indonesian security forces:

Military Operations in the Central Highlands, 1977-8
Launched in response to uprisings during the 1977 elections in the West Papuan highlands of Wamena, the military operations are estimated by an extensive 2013 study from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to have killed an absolute minimum of 4,146 people. The true figure is probably well in excess of 10,000, and the AHRC describes it as ‘The Neglected Genocide’.

Operation Clean Sweep, 1981
This military operation was “used to force Papuans off their lands in the border regions to vacate land for incoming transmigrants” (Human Rights Watch, 2007, p.12). Transmigration was a long-running Indonesian government policy of transferring Indonesian peasants from the rest of the archipelago into West Papua, giving them indigenous land and setting them to work on resource extraction projects. Transmigration continues unofficially today. Operation Clean Sweep was accompanied by the military slogan: “let the rats run into the jungle so that chickens can breed in the coop”, alluding to the removal of indigenous Papuans in order to make way for Indonesian migrants (Anderson, 2015: 15). It is estimated that between 2,500 and 13,000 people were killed during the operations (Capriati, 2016a: 16).

Biak Massacre, 1998
On July 5-6, shortly after the fall of then-President, General Suharto, Indonesian troops opened fire at a flag raising ceremony at a water tower on the Papuan island of Biak. Dozens were killed and taken out to sea where they were dumped and left to drown. Others were taken to what Australian writer Jason MacLeod describes as ‘rape camps’ (Macleod, 2015: 113), where women were subjected to extreme sexual violence, including the severing of sexual organs.

The water tower upon which protestors raised the West Papua flag
The water tower in Biak upon which protestors raised the West Papua flag

American academic Eben Kirksey happened to be staying in the town during the massacre, and heard gunshots and reports of the killings at the time. He later returned to Biak in 2003 and recorded some of his finding in Freedom in Entangled Worlds (2012). In 2013, the quasi-judicial Biak Massacre Citizen’s Tribunal was held in Sydney, which heard testimony from experts and survivors of the massacre.

One woman described what happened in the prison camps: “They cut with a sharp bayonet, then they pour acid. When I scream they burn me with cigarettes on both hands. I also heard my friends screaming. They said ‘we don’t want to get raped, we don’t want to be raped’. So this official opened wide the legs of this woman and they brought candles and they burn out the candles then they put it inside, penetrate into the vagina” (Elmslie, 2014: 48).


“torture and ill-treatment are still commonly used by security forces in all regencies of West Papua.” – International Coalition for Papua (2015: 37)

According to the most extensive study of the use of torture in Papua, torture is used as a ‘mode of governance’ by the Indonesian security services (Hernawan, 2015). It is used as a public display of domination, designed to cower the audience – the wider Papuan population – into submission and dampen independence aspirations. Based on an examination of 431 confirmed cases of torture in West Papua since 1963, as well as interviews with Indonesian officials, intelligence officers, Papuan survivors and third parties, Hernawan concludes that ‘Most victims […] are innocent civilians and have nothing to do with pro-independence movements’. Torture is a systematic policy used to invoke terror in the indigenous population.

In 2010, graphic videos of the torture and abuse of Papuan men was leaked to Youtube and commented on by Fairfax, Channel 4 News and others.

Reports of torture continue to filter out of the region at an increasing rate (Hernawan, 2015: 205; ICP, 2015: 37). The fall of Suharto and Indonesia’s transition to a limited form of democracy appear to have failed to stem the systematic use of torture. Tapol, a London-based Indonesian human rights group, reports that, “Torture has become embedded in the functioning and culture of the state security apparatus after the transition to democracy” (Tapol et al. 2015: 17).  

Extrajudicial assassination

My role was to identify and arrest OPM [Free Papua Organisation] members and took them to Kodam. What I did was simply ask them to take a walk with me and they would disappear.” – Indonesian intelligence officer deployed in Papua in 1967 (Hernawan, 2015: 200).

Disappearances, killings and assassinations are routine across Papua. The International Coalition for Papua documented over one extrajudicial assassination every month from 2013-4 (ICP, 2015: 10). Prominent civil resistance leaders are liable to be the victim of targeted killings, protesters are at risk of being shot dead at rallies, and civilian bystanders are sometimes subject to attacks by the military which are subsequently blamed on Papuan insurgents and used to justify lucrative security relationships with foreign corporations (McKenna, 2015: 370). The world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper reserve is Freeport and RioTinto’s Grasberg mine in West Papua. 

Theys Eluay
Theys Eluay

In 2001, as the hold of Suharto’s dictatorship was in thaw across Indonesia, Theys Eluay, head of the Papua Presidium Council, was leading the ‘Papuan Spring’ (Chauval, 2002). A period of relative openness was beginning, led by Indonesian President Gus Dur. By the night of November 10, 2001, the reaction of the Indonesian deep state had truly commenced. Theys Eluay was strangled to death in a car after a party by members of the Indonesian special forces, Kopassus (Kirksey, 2012: 120-3).

Praised as ‘heroes’ by now-President Jowoki’s current Minister of Defence, General Ryamizard Ryacudu, the soldiers received light sentences for the murder (Crouch, 2010: 173) – nonetheless a rarity in Indonesian politics. The case is a prominent one, but such incidents remain a daily reality for Papuans.

Political prisoners and restrictions on free expression

Papuans Behind Bars, a respected monitoring group, names 38 political prisoners currently residing in Indonesian jails, often for peaceful flag-raisings, ‘treason’ or ‘incitement’. Human Rights Watch estimates there are around 70 Papuan political prisoners still imprisoned (Human Rights Watch, 2016: 306).

Expressions of West Papuan identity and history are severely repressed by Indonesia. Demonstrations that coincide with significant days in the collective Papuan memory, such as May 1 and Dec 1, are often violently broken up by the Indonesian police and military (e.g. ICP, 2015: 15). In 2007, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono introduced PP 77, which is used to jail those who raise the West Papuan independence flag (Elmslie et al. 2011: 13), the Morning Star, for up to 15 years. Filep Karma, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was imprisoned for 10 years for raising the flag and released last year. An academic study of restrictions on the right to free expression and protest in 2015 details the litany of abuses: “sweeping operations that result in rampant human rights abuses, the use of torture to extract information and force confessions, and the imprisonment of peaceful protestors based on trumped up charges of treason and conspiracy” (Harvey, 2015: 172).

Under President Jokowi, unlawful mass arrests have become the strategy of choice for dampening Papuan resistance. Watch group LP3BH documented 8,000 arrests of Papuans throughout 2016 at non-violent demonstrations, with several international human rights organisations recording over 4,000 from April-June alone. The day before Jakarta hosted World Press Freedom Day, Indonesia reportedly arrested 200 non-violent demonstrators, with police beating several, including Papuan journalist, Yance Wenda.

Surveillance and strategies of control

The focus of Indonesian military operations in Papua goes far beyond the relatively small group of OPM rebels and includes a broad swathe of Papuan political, traditional, and religious leaders, and civil society groups” – Human Rights Watch, 2011

Operations inside West Papua:
A series of leaked military and intelligence documents over the past decade have given an insight into the techniques of control deployed by Indonesia in Papua. From extensive surveillance of the civilian Papuan population, tailing of foreign journalists and visitors and infiltration of Papuan media outlets, to an extensive effort to penetrate undercover agents inside Papuan civil society organisations (Elmslie et al. 2011: 24-5), the Indonesian security apparatus takes the Papuan resistance movement incredibly seriously.

Eben Kirksey, a West Papua specialist, discovered an anthropological manual from the Indonesian special forces, Kopassus, which “outlines methods for using local cultural beliefs in psychological operations and campaigns of terror” (Kirksey, 2012: 116), including spreading rumours of murderous draculas in Papuan villages, and carrying out operations as black-clad ‘ninjas’ – the latter technique used extensively by the unit during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor (Aditjondro, 2000: 172)

In 2011, documents from the TNI (Indonesian military) and its special forces, Kopassus, were leaked and analysed by Human Rights Watch and the West Papua Project at the University of Sydney. They documented a “pernicious system of social control [that] has created a pervasive atmosphere of terror amongst the Papuan population as their lives are manipulated by state actions and threatened with ‘black operations’” (Elmslie et al. 2011: 2). The documents repeatedly emphasised that, to the Indonesian state, the non-violent independence movement is a greater threat than the relatively low-level armed insurgency, since they have “reached the outside world” with their “obsession” with freedom, and have been “propagating the issue of severe human rights violations in Papua”.

A representation of Indonesia’s feared ‘red berets’, Kopassus. Image: AK Rockefeller via Flickr
A representation of Indonesia’s feared ‘red berets’, Kopassus. Image: AK Rockefeller via Flickr

In early 2016, a powerpoint from the main Indonesian intelligence agency, the Badan Intelijen Negara (BIN), was leaked to Fairfax media. It lists “target” Papuans involved in the independence movement, and details their alleged “weaknesses”, including “alcohol and women”. It states potential tactics as “divide and rule the movement” and “fragment movement opinion”.

International operations

The reference to the international stage in the 2011 documents betrays a real fear on the part of Indonesia that international pressure and solidarity will impact its rule in West Papua. In response, Indonesian intelligence and diplomatic corps have stepped up an overseas campaign to intimidate and silence both diasporic Papuans and foreign solidarity activists.

A 2016 article in Lacuna documents a “concerted [Indonesian] attempt to undermine the overseas independence campaign”, particularly in Australia. Techniques include photographing demonstrators, threatening Papuan students on Indonesian government visas, and pressuring academic institutions.

Benny Wenda, a West Papuan leader with asylum status in the UK, reports that, “Sometimes I receive telephone calls from people pretending to be Papuan. But they are not really Papuan. When I ask their name and which tribe they are from they never answer my questions. I have also felt threatened through the blogs and email. Pro-Indonesian blogs have run slur campaigns against myself and my family” (Elmslie et al. 2011: 29-30). After escaping from prison in Papua for his political activities, Wenda was the subject of an Interpol red notice issued by Indonesia, subsequently dropped for being politically motivated.

Western involvement

The Indonesian government’s legitimacy and ability to rule in West Papua is heavily dependent on these external sources of power: political, economic and military support willingly provided by the Indonesian government’s elite allies” – Jason Macleod (2015: 76).

Major Western states, including the US and UK, have long-supported Indonesian sovereignty in West Papua and built strong economic and military links with Jakarta. When the 1969 ‘Act of Free Choice’ was noted in the UN, all Western countries voted in favour of the resolution despite knowing the farcical nature of the referendum and the brutality of Indonesian rule (Saltford, 2003).

Today, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark and the US all train the Indonesian police’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) (Capriati, 2016b: 34-5). Detachment 88’s human rights record has been described as “appalling” by Human Rights Watch, the unit has been implicated in torture and killings, and is deployed as a counter-insurgency force in Papua. Australia is the largest contributor to the Centre, followed by Britain. As with Western training of Kopassus, the Indonesia army’s special forces unit, during the occupation of East Timor, the training both implicates Western nations in abuses in Papua and gives them material leverage for promoting human rights through withholding the training and funds. Several countries still engage with Kopassus, the Indonesian unit accused of the most severe human rights abuses (Aditjondro, 2000).

‘Members of Detachment 88, the Western-trained Indonesian police counter-terrorism unit. Image: AK Rockefeller via Flickr
Members of Detachment 88, the Western-trained Indonesian police counter-terrorism unit. Image: AK Rockefeller via Flickr


“A strong argument can be made that the conduct of the Indonesian government toward the people of West Papua over the last forty years has involved the requisite intent or mens rea to constitute genocide.” (Brundige, E. et al. 2004: 74)

The pattern of severe abuses against the West Papuan population has led several scholars to investigate whether Indonesia’s actions meet the criteria for ‘genocide’ under the 1948 Genocide Convention (Ibid; AHRC, 2013; King & Wing, 2005). Whilst they have often floundered on the thorny issue of intent to eliminate, a growing discourse has coalesced around the notion of a ‘slow-motion’ or ‘cold’ genocide (Elmslie & Webb-Gannon, 2013). The latter doesn’t require intent to destroy the target group: only that actions which will foreseeably produce their elimination are carried out. Cold genocide occurs when the demise of indigenous groups is seen as inevitable by colonisers; “where the disappearance of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is gradual and incidental, rather than rapid and intentional. Such cases are still genocidal in the sense that the perpetrating group knowingly performs acts that contribute to the eventual destruction of a group” (Anderson, 2015: 19).


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