When the issue of modern-day military occupations is brought up, most people immediately think of Israel and Palestine. The Republic of Indonesia is likely far from their minds. When Americans think about Indonesia, they probably picture the beautiful beach resorts of Bali, the jungles of Sumatra, or the populous province of Java. Most probably do not associate Indonesia with military occupations, coups, fascism and vicious human rights abuses. Since the 1965 U.S.-backed coup that brought General Suharto to power and ushered in a 33-year reign of terror that ultimately claimed the lives of roughly one million people, the Indonesian government has been hostile towards human rights.
The indigenous people of Indonesia have been the most abused. Some of the abuses include the 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of East Timor, which killed 250,000; the mass killings in Bali in 1965 which targeted Hindus and indigenous people; and the heavy-handed military campaign to suppress the independence movement in Aceh, a province on Sumatra. There is also the proposed move of the capital from Jakarta on the island of Java to the island of Borneo, which threatens to displace 20,000 indigenous people from 21 tribes. All of these incidents are connected to corporate profits: the Timor Sea is rich in oil and gas, and following the invasion of East Timor, Australia and Indonesia signed the Timor Gap Treaty, dividing up those reserves (incidentally, the government of Australia covered up and supported Suharto’s crimes against humanity). Suharto’s massacres in Bali paved way for the tourism industry in Indonesia, and Aceh is extremely oil-rich.
It’s also worth noting that the new capital’s proposed name is Nusantara, a Javanese name that Indigenous people of Borneo feel does not respect their culture. Indigenous people from Indonesia’s 2,244 tribes have faced extreme government brutality while resisting the takeover of their lands from private companies. They also face erasure from their leaders, with Indonesia in 2012 denying that any Indigenous people live in the country. But nowhere is this abuse clearer than in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua, known collectively as West Papua, which also happens to be where Black Indonesians are most concentrated.
West Papua makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, which it shares with the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. In order to understand the occupation of West Papua, however, we have to go back to World War II. Since 1677, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, but in 1940, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands, and the Dutch East Indies were handed over to Imperial Japan. After the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, the brutal Japanese occupation of Indonesia ended, and the Dutch wanted it back. Indonesians, however, felt differently, and many were killed in the process of securing their freedom from the Dutch. Indonesia became a nation, with nationalist leader Sukarno becoming president, but the Dutch still held onto West Papua. In 1962, a dispute over the land led to President Kennedy convincing the Dutch to relinquish control, and the territory was handed over to the United Nations. A referendum was planned to allow Papuans to choose if they’d like to be independent, or part of Indonesia.
The 1965 CIA overthrow of Sukarno threw a wrench in that plan, because General Suharto was far less sympathetic to the indigenous people of Indonesia than his predecessor. On Aug. 2, 1969, the referendum was held, and out of roughly 800,000 Papuans, 1,026 were selected by Indonesia to decide if West Papua should be independent or part of Indonesia. Held at gunpoint, every single delegate voted to be incorporated into Indonesia. This referendum was called the Act of Free Choice, dubbed sarcastically as the “Act of No Choice.” Aug, 2 of this year will mark 53 years of occupation; it’s been a particularly brutal 53 years for the Papuans. Although the government of Indonesia denies wrongdoing, an estimated 100,000 Papuans have been killed, and many thousands of others have been arrested, tortured, raped and kidnapped by the Indonesian police and military since 1965. Cultural expressions have been repressed, and Papuans are subject to racist laws and abuse, such as an incident where Papuan university students in Java were called “monkeys” by their classmates.
On top of the racism, there’s also, again, the resources problem. West Papua is rich in oil, coal, gas, timber and precious metals, and corporations like Phoenix-based mining company Freeport-McMoran want those natural resources. In the process of getting them, Freeport-McMoran has been polluting rivers, destroying forests and blowing up mountains. The largest gold and copper mining operation on Earth, the Grasberg Mine, is run by Freeport-McMoran in West Papua. From 1998 to 2004, Freeport-McMoran provided millions of dollars to Indonesian military commanders, much like Chevron, Exxon and Shell did during Nigeria’s military dictatorship.
The abuses have continued to this day. In August 2019, Papuans, fed up with the racism, occupation and police and military brutality, erupted in protests, which were met with more brutality by Indonesian security forces, and later that same month, the internet was shut down. It’s not surprising to see that the abuses against Papuans continue to this day, when General Wiranto, a Suharto ally who oversaw massacres in East Timor, serves Indonesian President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) as his top advisor. General A.M. Hendropriyono, the former head of Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, who was responsible for the Talangsari Massacre in Sumatra, is also an ally of Jokowi. General Prabowo Subianto, a fascist military leader responsible for genocide, killings and kidnappings in East Timor, Papua, Aceh, Jakarta and more, serves as Minister of Defense. Subianto is also General Suharto’s former son-in-law. Jokowi was supposed to be a civilian president, but these decisions show that he is afraid to stand up to the military.
The United States has continued to support these abuses. The previously mentioned Generals Subianto, Wiranto, and Hendropriyono, among others, maintain not-so-secret backchannels with the U.S. Government and were trained by the U.S. Military, according to Allan Nairn, a journalist who traveled to East Timor in 1991 along with Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman and was violently beaten by Indonesian soldiers while videotaping the Santa Cruz Massacre in Dili.
In 1965, the CIA destabilized Indonesia’s democracy, and the effects reverberate to this day. Although Suharto is long-dead, and Indonesia has a civilian president, the military still dominates political life. Kidnapping and torture are not distant memories for Indonesian activists, but an everyday reality. The United States is in a unique position to influence Indonesia’s government, as it is a top benefactor of the Indonesian army. Our government has the responsibility to decide between profits and geopolitics, or freedom and human rights.