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100 years of West Papuan resistance

West Papuans know state violence. More importantly they know how to resist. West Papuans have survived three colonisers. First, they resisted the Dutch. Then came the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Now they are actively fighting Indonesian colonisation. This section outlines early West Papuan resistance against the Dutch and Japanese colonialism, then traces armed, diplomatic, cultural and civil resistance to Indonesian government rule across successive generations.

Early resistance

Indigenous Papuan nations have been resisting incursions from outsiders for centuries. From the 1850s to 1939, the Dutch colonialists, seeking to protect the spice trade, faced no fewer than 42 rebellions, both violent and nonviolent. Colonial imperial powers were continually repelled in West Papua. Religious-political movements, sometimes labelled as ‘cargo cults’ by anthropologists were often in reality early forms of Papuan resistance. At the same time some Papuan tribes, notably those on the north coast travelled extensively across Asia and the Pacific.

By 1911, twenty years before Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha in India, Papuan resistance leaders were urging followers not to pay taxes and to withhold labor from Dutch colonists. This home-grown resistance was entirely based on local beliefs and practices. These tactics were repeated during the late 1930s and early 1940s in a nonviolent movement based in Byak that was unmistakably nationalistic, both in terms of its geographic scope, and goals. Papuans under the leadership of Angganeta Menufandu, a Konor (indigenous prophet), called for self-determination and urged unity among diverse tribes. They articulated grievances and incited dissent through Koreri, an indigenous ideology from Biak Island that Menufandu infused with Christian symbols and rituals. A key tactic of the resistance was mass non-cooperation. Papuans refused to obey Dutch orders to participate in forced labor gangs. They collectively withheld taxes resistance and defied government and Church mission bans on wor (ritual singing and dancing). For Angganeta, a commitment to nonviolent discipline was central. Angganeta maintained that the shedding of blood ‘bars the way to Koreri’. The Dutch tricolor flag was inverted—a reversal of the colonial political order—and the Morning Star and a cross were added, symbolising a coming Papuan kingdom. Two decades later, this flag inspired the design of the Papuan national flag.

Early resistance against the Indonesian occupation and United Nations collusion

West Papuans are determined to be free. From the moment the Indonesian government tried to take-over West Papua, on the 1st of May 1963, West Papuans started to resist. 

On 15 August 1962, Indonesia and the Netherlands signed the New York Agreement, overseen and approved by the UN, promising a true act of self-determination to the people of West Papua. The Indonesian government was meant to act as a Trustee on behalf of the United Nations but they never left. A key condition of the United Nations trusteeship, which was administered by the Indonesian government on behalf of the UN, was that there would be a free and fair act of universal suffrage: one person, one vote. That referendum never took place. Instead, in August 1969 a thousand Papuans were selected to participate in an 'Act of Free Choice'. Under the close scrutiny of the Indonesian military, surrounded by guns, all one thousand Papuans 'elected' to remain under Indonesian rule. Multiple appeals to UN authorities regarding the Act, before, during and since 1969, have gone unheard. Protests remembering the 1st May takeover, the 2 August 'Act of No Choice', and the 15 August New York Agreement, are held annually. 

Protests over the United Nation's betrayal continue to this day.

During the 1950s and 1960s Papuans engaged in extensive diplomatic efforts to secure international recognition and independence. On 5 April 1961 a Representative Council was officially formed. Official delegates from England, France, Australia, The Netherlands as well as the Governor of Australian New Guinea, attended the official inauguration of the Council, the Nieuw-Guinea Raad. Meeting regularly, Council members debated the contours of a new state. Papuan representatives pushed for rapidly increasing education and to Papuanise the civil service. Leaders like Jouwe, Kaisiepo, Runawery, Sawor, Tanggahma, Womsiwor, Zonggonau and others intensely followed the diplomatic debates unfolding in The Hague, Washington, Canberra, New York, Rome and Jakarta, even as they became locked out of consultations between The Netherlands, the Indonesian Government and members of the United Nations.

Papuan leaders also travelled extensively, establishing diplomatic relations in West Africa, particularly in Senagal and Ghana, where political leaders were active members of an international movement against colonisation. Papuan nationalists, Clemens Runawery and Wim Zonggonau, even tried to travel to the United States to petition the United Nations in New York to allow universal suffrage and to protest violence by the Indonesian state. However, as they tried to board a light aircraft in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, Australian officials drove onto the tarmac and arrested the two Papuan leaders. The Australian patrol officers were acting under orders from Canberra. The sycophantic Australian government, in turn, was following a request to silence Papuan dissent from the Indonesian dictator, President Suharto.

West Papuans reached out to their kin in Oceania. In turn, Pacific leaders recognised that culturally, geographically and historically, West Papua was a natural member of the Pacific family. In 1950 West Papuan Leaders Marcus Kaisiepo and Nicolas Jouwe represented West Papua in the formation of a new regional organisation, the South Pacific Commission, the forerunner of the Pacific Island Forum. “Photographs from the time” writes journalist Nic Maclellan (Inside Indonesia 67: July – September, 2001), “show Kaisiepo seated beside Ratu Sir Edward Cakobau of Fiji, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands and Prince Tu’ipelehake of the Kingdom of Tonga.” In 1961, West Papuans were also present at the founding of the Pacific Conference of Churches in Malua, Samoa. The Christian Evangelical Church in the Land of Papua, Kingmi Papua Church, the West Papuan Baptist Church and the Gospel Church of Indonesia are current members of the PCC and the organisation has gone on to become an important ally in strengthening grassroots and diplomatic support across the Pacific, and internationally, for West Papua.

Cultural resistance

During the 1970s, Papuan activists challenged Suharto’s attempts to impose a hegemonic Indonesian identity. At a time when West Papua was an active military operations area, the cultural music group Mambesak, founded by Arnold Ap and Sam Kapissa, collected and performed songs and dances from all over West Papua, fashioning a pan-Papuan identity that transcended tribal differences. Mambesak initially framed their cultural action as a contribution to diversity in a unified Indonesia, but for Papuan audiences the implicit message of songs in their own languages, local dances, and other hidden transcripts kept alternative ideas and identities alive, evoking pride in being Papuan. Occasionally Mambesak were overtly political, as in 1977, when they danced naked to protest bloody Operasi Koteka. The military operation in the remote highlands was designed in part to forcibly stop the Dani wearing the koteka, a Lani/Dani word for the penis gourd worn by many highland men. Operasi Koteka turned the Baliem River red with the blood of Papuans and left thousands dead.

Photo: Andrew Kilvert

Inspired by Mambesak, Papuan performance groups proliferated in the early 1980s until a new wave of repression hit them. In November 1983, Ap was arrested and imprisoned, and in April 1984 he and another Mambesak member, Eddie Mofu, were killed, allegedly trying to escape. These murders were part of reprisals in the wake of a foiled attack by Papuan guerrillas, and the mass defection of scores of Papuan soldiers who had been recruited into the Indonesian military. To draw international attention to the grave situation some 11 000 Papuans took part in an organised mass exodus east to Papua New Guinea. Once again Papuan songs and dances were banned, and once again performing these became acts of civil resistance.

Arnold Ap and Eddie Mofu were killed by Kopassus special forces in 1984

Through music and dance Papuans came to see themselves as a distinct people with their own culture, different and separate from Indonesian culture and identity. Song commemorated suffering at the hands of the state – privations not officially taught but remembered and passed on orally by Papuan clans and tribes. As performances spread across tribal boundaries, Papuans began seeing their experience under Indonesian rule as a collective injustice and Indonesian rule as intolerable. Performing local dances, playing the tifa (a Papuan drum) and composing songs on the ukulele all became ways for Papuans to simultaneously express themselves and communicate that they are not Indonesians.

Another key leader in the early years of the nonviolent struggle was Dr Thomas Wainggai, a West Papuan intellectual, who studied Gandhi and looked to nonviolent struggle in South Africa as a source of inspiration. Dr Wainggai advocated a two-fold strategy of disruptive nonviolent action against Indonesia and creative human-centred development based on West Papuans distinct identity as Melanesians. Wainggai created discussion and prayer groups to initiate a movement designed to reorient West Papuans to think of themselves as Melanesians living on the western rim of the Pacific. On the 14th of December 1988, Dr. Wainggai, together with several hundred other West Papuans, organised and participated in an illegal but open flag raising, using a new flag: the flag of what he called ‘West Melanesia’, a vision of a united Melanesia that has been held by many Papuans, particularly since the 1950s. Wainggai was quickly arrested by the Indonesian authorities and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Several other leaders who helped organize the protest also received lengthy prison sentences. Dr Wainggai’s Japanese born wife was sentenced to six years jail for simply sewing the flag used in the demonstration. Dr. Wainggai died in prison in Jakarta in March 1996. The cause of his death is not known but many West Papuans believe that he was murdered by the Indonesian military.  

Thomas Wainggai was jailed in 1988 and died in custody 1996

The development of oppositional consciousness, and the cultivation of self-belief and self-confidence, in West Papua has been a necessary prerequisite for nonviolent action. The work of Arnold Ap, millenarian movements, and early nonviolent actions such as flag raisings helped reframe the private trials and tribulations of West Papuans as a national concern. In the process these actions and movements laid the foundations for later more extensive political actions.

Papuan resistance leading up to and after the fall of Suharto

When the Indonesian people overthrew the authoritarian military rule of President Suharto in a nonviolent uprising in May 1998 it lifted a lid on the repressed hopes of West Papuans. Any sense that this would mean a cessation of brutality by the state evaporated when the Indonesian police and military massacred over a 100 people in Biak City in July 1998. Despite the continuation of repression Papuan leaders used the political space created by the Indonesian reform movement to consolidate opposition and organise around human rights. FORERI, a group of West Papuan church leaders and human rights defenders gave rise to a series of informal dialogue meetings between a 100 West Papuan leaders and President Habibie. When these collapsed West Papuans went on to hold mass public meetings in 1999 and 2000, electing a Papuan Congress, with an executive and a panel of 500 grassroots leaders. The executive, or Papuan Presidium Council (Presidium Dewan Papua) as it was called, travelled extensively in the region to build popular support. Two mass meetings of around 50,000 West Papuans occurred inside West Papua. For a brief heady moment West Papuans felt again that the stood on the threshold of a new day.

This brief euphoria sparked in May 1998 ended in November 2001 after the assassination of Theys Eluay by Indonesian Special Forces. With renewed repression and in the absence of a strategy inside the country, the movement for independence led by the PDP collapsed. In its wake, Human Rights advocacy continued alongside civilian protests for independence. In an effort to stem rising civilian demands for independence the Indonesian government proposed a policy of Special Autonomy for West Papua. One part of the freedom movement rejected that and called for third-party mediated dialogue between Jakarta and the freedom movement. Incredibly the armed struggle, in dialogue with human rights activists, agreed to a unilateral ceasefire. Another part of the movement drafted a Papuan version of Special Autonomy, some of which made it to the final draft approved by the Indonesian government in Jakarta.

People of Kaimana joined a Papua-wide call to end 'Special Autonomy' and hold a referendum, May 2022

A few years into Special Autonomy it became clear that Jakarta’s policy was failing to stem human rights abuses or address the ways West Papuans were being systematically discriminated against. Significantly, first signs of mass noncooperation, occurred at this time. The Majelis Rakyat Papua, or Papuan People’s Assembly, a kind of senate designed to safeguard Papuan culture and rights which was established under Special Autonomy, declared publicly that Special Autonomy had failed. West Papuan civil servants have also protested from time to time and in some cases local government officials, such as the Bupati of Nduga, have resigned from their posts as a result of Indonesian government military operations.

Growing unity

From the beginning of the Indonesian government’s occupation West Papuans have worked to build unity; no easy task across a rugged geography with rich cultural diversity. Right from the start of the occupation the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papuan Merdeka was formed to coordinate action. In the early years that action focused on armed struggle inside the country and diplomacy outside the country. After the organisation split in the 1970s the Government of Vanuatu helped bring the two key leaders, Jacob Prai and Seth Rumkorem, together. By that stage military operations by the Indonesian state had taken their toll and armed resistance was sporadic, often involving illegal flag raisings and hit and run guerrilla operations, both of which were repressed heavily.

Protests take place with a heavy military and police presence

In December 2014, West Papuans from three large coalitions – the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation, National Federal Republic of West Papua, and the West Papua National Parliament – travelled to Vanuatu to form the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. The meeting in Vanuatu was supported by the Vanuatu Government, the Vanuatu National Council of Chiefs, and the Vanuatu Council of Churches. Members of the Pacific Conference of Churches facilitated the meeting. The ULMWP went on to win their first campaign: to become members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a sub-regional forum comprised of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands and the pro-independence party the FLNKS (The Kanak Front for National Liberation and Socialism, seeking to wrest New Caledonia away from the French control). At the conclusion of the six month campaign the five members of the MSG declared the ULMWP as observers. They also recognised the Indonesian Government as an Associate Member. At the time of writing the ULMWP are yet to gain the status of full membership. The Indonesian government has continued to try and strong-arm Melanesian governments to exclude the ULMWP from the MSG but Papuans have persisted, buoyed by unwavering support from Vanuatu. The ULMWP have maintained their membership. They continue to agitate for full membership and much to the chagrin of the Indonesian state, regularly sit across the table from the Indonesian Government, as equals.

ULMWP office, Timika, West Papua

The 2019 anti-racism uprising

On the 16th of August a mass uprising was sparked by racism from the Indonesian police, military and militia. Prior to the uprising, mass demonstrations were organised by the Alliance of West Papua University Students (Aliansi Mahasiswa/i Papua or AMP) and Indonesian solidarity activists from the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (Front Rakyat Indonesia untuk West Papua, known more by their acronym FRI-West Papua) protesting the 1962 New York Agreement. In response, Indonesian police, military, and militia mobilised against West Papuan students in Surabaya, Malang and Semarang, in Java. In Surabaya, on the 16th of August, the police, military and militia were filmed outside a West Papuan student dormitory threatening to ‘slaughter the students’, throwing stones and abusing West Papuans as ‘monkeys’ and ‘pigs’. Indonesian riot police then fired tear gas, bullets and broke down the door of the dormitory, arresting 43 students. The footage of the racist violence spread rapidly through social media, resonating with ordinary Papuan’s daily experience of racism from Indonesian security forces and constant abrasion by state institutions’ indifference to their well-being.

The footage triggered a series of nonviolent actions in 22 cities and towns across West Papua organised by students from local universities indignantly demanding equality. Protests began on the 19th of August but the demonstrators had long lost patience or trust in the state. Demands quickly escalated from protesting institutional racism to calls for a referendum and independence. In Manokwari, Fak-Fak, and Jayapura, government offices, banks, and some Indonesian migrant businesses were burnt to the ground. No Indonesian civilians were killed or injured. The Indonesian government responded by switching off the internet and sending in more than eight thousand extra police and military. The state mobilised nationalist militia groups who attacked West Papuans with machetes and clubs. Some Papuans – notably in Paniai – were shot dead. In Wamena a chaotic and angry demonstration erupted, after a high school teacher allegedly called Papuans monkeys. Papuans were shot dead as people started to riot. Parts of the town were set alight.  Tragically several people their lives when they got trapped by the flames.

The August 2019 uprising was expressed all over West Papua and in several Indonesian cities.

In the aftermath of the August and September uprising, the Indonesian police arrested scores of people including a journalist, University leaders, and several leaders of the West Papua independence movement, particularly the nonviolent mass-based groups struggling for a referendum including the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and the West Papua National Committee (KNPB). Many of those arrested were not involved in organising the uprising. Those arrested were charged with treason and rebellion. West Papuan human rights lawyers credit widespread solidarity – from within West Papua and from people inside Indonesian and international civil society – with the fact that those on trial were released shortly after the case went to trial.

Solidarity actions demanding the release of the 7 political prisoners were widespread.

The armed struggle

Anti-colonial resistance against successive occupations, and for liberation, in West Papua has always been threefold in nature: diplomatic, armed, and nonviolent. Nonviolent action, civil resistance, or people power, has also had differing expressions, from everyday resistance, to cultural action, through to strategic nonviolent action. Often these three approaches to change overlap and blur in a single organisation, community or even individual.

The armed struggle, which began immediately in response to a failed invasion by Sukarno in 1961, and then developed into a long and tenacious guerrilla war, has long held West Papuan’s imagination. For the most part that struggle has been waged in the remote and rugged jungles and mountains of the highland interior, although there are also pockets of armed resistance on the coast as well. Like other guerrilla struggles, resistance fighters have been supported by a dense network of kin. As a result, distinct armed groups have emerged in particular geographic areas, often bounded by strong attachment to territory and language. There is also a significant cultural dimension to this. By isolating themselves geographically fighters have preserved language and culture. Deeply felt ties to the land they are defending is both a source of strength and pride for guerrilla fighters, who for many years waged an asymmetrical war against the Indonesian military with bows and arrows, spears and a handful of firearms.

Speech by a resistance leader in Yahukimo

Following the Papuan Spring of 1999 and 2000, human rights activist John Rumbiak and members of the Papuan Peace Task force, a group of human rights defenders with ELSHAM, helped bring together different components of the armed struggle. Armed groups effectively agreed to a unilateral cease fire in the hope of giving international third-party mediation a chance. Tragically Jakarta failed to respond and in December 2018 armed conflict between Papuan guerrillas and Indonesian military and police flared up again.

The spark that lit the fuse was the Indonesian state’s attempt to push a road through Ndugama (Nduga Country). Sacred burial sites were disregarded. West Papuan guerrillas feared the road would bring an influx of Indonesian migrants and accelerate resource extraction. In December 2018 there was an altercation involving the raising the Morning Star flag. Papuans attacked a group of road workers, claiming the group also included Indonesian security personnel.

Since then the war in the highlands has worsened and expanded from Nduga into Intan Jaya, Puncak, Illaga and Yahukimo in the highlands, and Maybrat in the Birds Head region of West Papua. According to human rights activists in West Papua over 300 people have been killed since December 2018 (, 8 November 2021). There are currently more than 50,000 internally displaced people who have fled their homes. Thousands have also fled into neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

Refugee protest in Nduga

It is becoming increasingly clear that conflict is being sparked in part by extractive interests, particularly mining, with alleged links to government ministers and military commanders. This is especially the case in Intan Jaya (Blok Wabu, a substantial gold and copper deposit, possibly bigger than Freeport) and in Kiwirok (the Star Mountains). Mining companies depend on the Indonesian police and military to pacify, remove or displace Indigenous people. Arms companies are more than willing to sell the equipment, weapons and munitions to make this possible. This is the same colonial dynamic of frontier violence that has taken place in North America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand / Aotearoa, Asia and Africa. In some cases, the Indonesian military will sell weapons and ammunition to the guerrillas in order to justify military operations.

We need life, not industry

West Papuans are growing increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of diplomacy, promises of political negotiations followed by repeated failures of negotiations to materialise between Jakarta and the West Papuan liberation movement. And although the majority of West Papuans are committed to a path of peaceful diplomacy, human rights advocacy, and radical civil resistance, a significant minority support, or have renewed, armed struggle. Armed groups are now active across the highlands. In addition, several of the main pro-independence groups who are engaged in civilian based resistance maintain small armed groups for self-defence. Some factions of the West Papua National Liberation Army (Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat or TPNPB) have signalled their willingness to target Indonesians who they believe are collaborating with the Indonesian police and military. There are also occasional but persistent instances of horizontal conflict, sometimes with fatal consequences, often linked to vested economic and political interests. 

The emergence of an anti-militarism movement in West Papua

Although armed struggle continues to attract more media attention, there is a vibrant civilian based movement committed to self-determination through militant nonviolent action. The Papuan People’s Petition an alliance of more than 122 people’s organisations, has been organising to oppose Jakarta’s attempt to forcibly renew the Special Autonomy legislation. Now this has been pushed through there is also persistent talk of a general strike. In addition, there is a nascent anti-militarism movement. In Tambrauw, for instance, young people and community leaders have come together to reject the proposal to build military bases in a place that lacks adequate health care or educational facilities. And more or more, the hidden transcripts of everyday resistance are becoming visible. People display the banned morning star flag everywhere. They wear it. Stitch it into noken, the ubiquitous decorative string bags that Papuans wear, and paint it on their faces. Even in the highly militarised highlands you can see graffiti clamouring for freedom while songs in local indigenous languages sing the people’s longing to live without a jackboot on their necks.

Signing the Papuan Peoples' Petition in Wamena


Resistance in West Papua has now spread to all three domains of the anti-colonial self-determination movement: inside West Papua; inside Indonesia, and in the countries that the Indonesian state depends on. The movement for freedom and human rights inside West Papua is becoming deeper – better organised – and broader, drawing in more diverse people. In the last decade the movement has become more unified, gained some recognition at the international level and maintained a commitment to civil resistance based on Melanesian values. Even in the remote highlands civil servants like the Deputy Mayor of Nduga have publicly resigned in protest of military action by the Indonesian army and Police. In places like Dogiyai over twenty thousand people have gathered for mass public protests. Meanwhile solidarity outside West Papua is growing. Previously the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua, known by its Indonesian acronym FRI-West Papua, a mass-based organisation with chapters across the archipelago, were the only ones calling for self-determination. This is significant in itself. Now more and more people are questioning the status-quo. After the 2019 anti-racism uprising more and more ordinary Indonesians publicly ask why their government continues to oppress West Papuans? How did Indonesia go from a champion of decolonisation under Sukarno, to becoming a coloniser, they ask? The contradiction of the Government of Indonesia rightly calling for liberation of Palestine while maintaining violent extractive colonialism in West Papua, is becoming increasingly harder to defend and sustain. Outside Indonesia new solidarity is emerging. Anti-militarist activists from across the Pacific, South Korea, Colombia, Australia, and Europe are raising their fists and putting their bodies in the way of the war machine. We are targeting not only governments but arms companies, state militaries, and the collusion of foreign police who train the Indonesian police. As networks inside occupied West Papua, inside the territory of the occupier and inside the countries that support and profit from the occupation, join up, cooperate, sharpen their analysis, strategise together, and most importantly take action, the hairline fractures of the occupation widen a little more. As the late Desmond Tutu reminds us: “Nothing can stop a people determined to be free”.