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West Papua on the verge of further violence

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West Papua flag.

Western New Guinea, or West Papua, is part of the island of New Guinea, which Indonesia has controlled since 1962.

The nation lies 200 kilometres from Australia and borders Papua New Guinea. It is home to over 250 tribes, who all speak their own languages. West Papua has a range of mountains, forests and coastal mangrove swamps.

But West Papua is on the verge of a violent crackdown at the hands of the Indonesian military.

Dr Camellia Webb-Gannon is a lecturer at the University of Wollongong. She said the nation has been seeking independence from Indonesia for decades.

“The majority of the independence movement in West Papua are committed to achieving peace with justice and independence through non-violent means.”

Benny Wenda leads the independence movement, which seeks a peaceful transition to independence.

“About three weeks ago, the independence fighters were able to conduct a surprise attack and kill brigadier general Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha. He was head of intelligence in Papua.

“This is the biggest kill they’ve ever been able to do. The act was claimed by the liberation army as a victory but it infuriated Indonesia,” Dr Webb-Gannon explained.

However, this prompted a response from the chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly to the Indonesian military, Bambang Soesatyo.

“Destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later.”

This sparked serious concerns that West Papua may be close to another violent repression, at the hands of Indonesia’s military.

West Papua’s diverse environment

West Papua’s diverse landscape is also the home of the Grasberg mine, which has the world’s largest reserves of gold.

The mine reportedly has $40 billion in reserves and provides jobs for around 20,000 workers.

But Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo believes economic development and infrastructure will cease calls for West Papuan independence.

A highway from the highlands to the coast is one area that President Widodo is seeking to develop. But West Papuans currently retain control over these areas.

“He’s trying to build a highway in the hopes that this would open up West Papua to economic opportunities and try and solve some of the poverty.

“It’s simply not working. Economics are not at the crux of this, it’s politics,” Dr Webb-Gannon said.

Regional involvement

Dr Webb-Gannon said Australia and the broader region have a crucial role to play in de-escalating tensions.

“Australia needs to stop training Indonesian military forces until they can prove that they do worry about human rights.

“Vanuatu has always had West Papua’s back. Their government has said ‘we do not consider ourselves truly free and independent until the rest of Melanesia is’,” she said.

Costa is a news producer at ticker NEWS. He has previously worked as a regional journalist at the Southern Highlands Express newspaper. He also has several years' experience in the fire and emergency services sector, where he has worked with researchers, policymakers and local communities. He has also worked at the Seven Network during their Olympic Games coverage and in the ABC Melbourne newsroom. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Professional), with expertise in journalism, politics and international relations. His other interests include colonial legacies in the Pacific, counter-terrorism, aviation and travel.

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