May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Not just another disaster

Not just another disaster

Papuan claims of genocide deserve to be taken seriously

Jim Elmslie

Inside Indonesia presents the first of two different views on the question of demographic change in Indonesian Papua. For many years, critics – both inside and outside Papua – have accused the Indonesian government of pursuing genocidal policies in the territory, in part by swamping it with migrants from other parts of Indonesia. We invited two writers to present their analyses of the situation. In this piece, Jim Elmslie argues that the accusations of genocide deserve serious consideration. For a very different take on the issue, see the article by Stuart Upton.


What is happening in West Papua is a matter of profound disagreement. Nobody who deserves to be taken seriously can deny that many human rights abuses have occurred there since West Papua was forcibly incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia in 1962 by a mixture of military aggression and diplomatic manoeuvering. But the nature and extent of these abuses, the character of the Indonesian military occupation, and the implications of the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants into the territory raise even more serious possibilities.

Demographic catastrophe

Many West Papuans, such as Reverend Sofyan Yoman, head of the Baptist Church in Papua and an outspoken critic of the Indonesian government, believe that West Papuans are suffering genocide at the hands of the Indonesian state. Other observers, particularly the Indonesian government itself, dismiss this possibility out of hand. Who is right?

Part of the answer lies in looking at the demographic transition of the population. This is more complicated than merely glancing at the latest Indonesian census figures (2000). The census figures give the ethnic breakdown of the province (which then included both Papua and the new province of West Papua – I refer to them collectively as ‘West Papua’) as being 32 per cent non-Papuan migrants (708,425) and 68 per cent Papuan (1,505,405) with a total population of 2,213,831 (the latest projected population for the province(s) is 2.65 million in 2005). However, many Papuans do not believe these figures. After decades of lies and abuse from the Indonesian government, Jakarta has little credibility on the ground and many Papuans view any government statistics with scant regard, considering them to have been manipulated.

After decades of lies and abuse from the Indonesian government, Jakarta has little credibility on the ground and many Papuans view any government statistics with scant regard, considering them to have been manipulated

There is some evidence that West Papuans have good grounds for being doubtful of the 2000 census figures. There were only 1,697,984 responses to the census; a further 306,743 were ‘enumerated’ and there were 209,104 ‘non-responses’ to make up the total population of 2,213,831. Thus, nearly a quarter of the census was derived from extrapolation. During the collection of the census data in 2000, West Papua was in a state of political upheaval. This was the period referred to as the ‘Papuan Spring’ following the downfall of President Suharto, when long repressed feelings of West Papuan nationalism surfaced spectacularly. Mass gatherings of West Papuans advocated and planned for independence under the more lenient presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid. In this situation collection of data was affected; some areas were considered unsafe to enter and many people viewed the exercise with skepticism or hostility and refused to participate. Nonetheess, most analysts take these figures at face value.

However, key Papuan observers ignore the Indonesian 2000 census figures. Leading intellectuals, such as Leo Laba Ladjar and Neles Tebay, perhaps Papua’s most respected contemporary social critics of Indonesian policy, quote figures from the Papuan Provincial Administration showing that non-Papuans in 2002 numbered 1,145,965 out of a total population of 2,387,427 or 48 per cent. In these figures Papuans make up only 52 per cent of the population at 1,241,462. I have been unable to independently verify these alternate figures but refer to them here as well-informed West Papuan commentators, like Tebay, use them and therefore believe them to be accurate. This in itself shows the level of distrust, and even disconnect, between the debate over demographics coming out of Jakarta and Jayapura. These are substantially different figures from the official Indonesian census, but add weight to claims that the West Papuans are being swamped – so much so that a ‘slow motion genocide’, in the words Clements Runawery, an early proponent of West Papuan independence, is underway.

Regardless of which set of population figures one believes, the same trends are evident. A demographic catastrophe is happening in West Papua and this is the basis for the genocide claim. In the 1971 census there were 887,000 indigenous Papuans (‘Irian born’) out of a total population of 923,000 – or 96 per cent. Migrants made up just four per cent of the population, yet only three decades later they comprised 48 per cent (or 32 per cent if we believe the census figures). Most of this increase is from inward migration from the rest of Indonesia.

Demographic swamping does not constitute genocide, but it does lay the foundations for it

As this trend continues it is quite obvious that Papuans will be a shrinking minority in their own land; they are already a minority in urban areas. In fact the inward flow of migrants seems to be increasing as up to six large passenger ships now arrive each week in Jayapura, the province’s capital city, to deliver thousands more migrants. Demographic swamping does not constitute genocide, but it does lay the foundations for it.

Genocidal rule

Papuans claim that the way Indonesia has ruled over them since 1962 constitutes genocide. Using the 2000 Indonesian census figure for the Papuan population of some 1.5 million represents an annual population growth rate since the 1971 census (887,000) of about 1.83 per cent. This is actually higher than the Indonesian overall population growth rate of 1.18 per cent, but Papua New Guinea, a comparable Melanesian society on the eastern half of the island, has an annual average population growth rate of 2.6 per cent per annum. If that rate had been experienced in West Papua the Papuan population would have been 1,867,226 in 2000. There are some 362,000 Papuans ‘missing’ from the Melanesian population if it had grown in step with its cousin next door in PNG. This is using the Indonesian government figures; if the Papuan Provincial Administration figures are used there are even less Papuans and an even lower growth rate.

What has happened to cause this decline in fertility? There are many factors that may have influenced the fertility rate in West Papua, including widespread contraceptive programs, a poor general standard of health, and the disruption caused by military operations and resource extraction industries.

In West Papua, as in other parts of Indonesia, the government (with the backing of the UN and other international agencies) has for decades implemented family planning programs that try to limit population growth. In West Papua, however, these programs have been conducted with minimal explanation by authorities or understanding by recipients, and with little other health services provided.

In the Baliem Valley, the heavily populated region in the mountainous interior of the country, people have suffered for years from high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, both of which cause infertility if left untreated. Yet, even today, under the contraceptive program, these diseases are not treated, but sufferers are instead given long lasting contraceptive injections, such as Depo Provera or Norplant. Together, these two factors dramatically lower fertility.

West Papuans suffer the poorest health standards of any Indonesian citizens and receive the lowest level of health care. In the highlands, with a population of over 400,000 people there is only one hospital with 70 beds. There are only 15 other health centres where a doctor is supposedly in attendance. Infant mortality rates, as reported by AusAid, are 98 per 100,000 in the highlands region (compared to the Indonesian average of 40 per 100,000), although other reports have put this figure as high as 250 per 100,000. The life expectancy of women is only 50.3 years compared to an Indonesian national average of 62.7 years. A relatively new looming problem for the Papuans is HIV/AIDS. For example the combined HIV/AIDS rate in 2002 was 40 times higher than the Indonesian average. A recent AusAid study found that, on current projections, over seven per cent of West Papuans will have the disease by 2025. The health and fertility challenges that West Papuans face are only growing worse.

Since the Indonesian takeover in 1962 West Papuans have also had to contend with ongoing military operations against ‘separatists’. Up until today Indonesian troops have conducted ‘sweeping operations’ in pursuit of separatists, burning villages, destroying gardens and shooting pigs in the process. Troops have also shot, tortured and raped many villagers. A death toll of 100,000 is routinely quoted, although some commentators put the figure much higher. Nobody knows for sure what the true figures are as the research has never been done. Village populations are forced to live as refugees in their own land with little food and inadequate shelter in the cold mountains. Much traditional land has also been destroyed by widespread logging and mineral extraction operations, as well as loss of land appropriated by incoming migrants. This has made life for many Papuans much more difficult and led to higher mortality rates and a lower level of natural increase.

It is the obligation of the signatories of the UN Convention on Genocide to investigate claims of genocide – an obligation that signatories of the convention have yet to honour in the case of West Papua

Does all this amount to genocide? The 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide defines the crime of genocide as the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ by acts directed at that group which include: killings, causing serious mental or physical harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction of a group, and imposing measures to prevent births. It is hard to argue that these acts have not occurred in West Papua. The defence offered by those who deny that genocide has occurred is that the above acts have not been intentional, that is, part of official Indonesian government policy. It is impossible to know if the above acts have come about through official government intention, or through poor government and maladministration, but the claims of West Papuans should be taken seriously until disproved. It is the obligation of the signatories of the UN Convention on Genocide to investigate claims of genocide – an obligation that signatories of the convention have yet to honour in the case of West Papua.

Future trends

Besides the difficulty in ascertaining population statistics that are widely agreed upon, and the impossibility of proving whether or not genocide has occurred in West Papua without further investigation, the demographic figures do clearly point to more trouble ahead. The cities and urban areas of West Papua are now predominantly Asian communities peopled by recent migrants from other parts of Indonesia. The Indonesian census showed that 66 per cent of the urban population is non-Papuan; anecdotal and personal observation would confirm it as self-evident that West Papuan towns are now dominated by outsiders. But the situation is completely reversed in the rural areas of the territory. This is where 86 per cent of the Melanesian Papuan population lives; they are the overwhelming majority throughout the mountainous highland regions and in the swamplands to the north and south of the island’s central spine. It really is a tale of two countries; two very different countries.

In the urban environment West Papuans are already very much a minority. The reality is that the towns are Indonesian with a smattering of black faces. But out in the bush the West Papuans live in villages on their traditional lands, speak their own languages and still follow many of their ancient ways: it is Melanesia. To these West Papuans the Indonesians are an occupying force, and they dream of freedom in the form of independence. This dream has not diminished with time but actually seems to have strengthened. No meaningful opinion poll has ever been undertaken – how could it? – but any observer who has travelled through the region and talked with West Papuans cannot be left with any doubt of their wishes: independence is a sentiment that is universally and openly expressed, even if the achievement of that dream might seem almost impossible.

In the towns the Indonesian migrants focus on personal and family advancement. The Melanesians in the bush might live on another planet except for the souvenirs dangling from the awnings of the market stalls. For the Indonesian town-dwellers, proponents of independence are ‘separatists’ and viewed with the animosity befitting ‘traitors’. The military and police wage a continual program of suppression and surveillance, monitoring the West Papuans with a vast network of spies and intelligence operatives. Periodic military operations in the interior keep the province in a constant state of military alertness, almost on a war footing: the enemy is the West Papuans.

This stark chasm between the Indonesian towns and the Melanesian bush provide a profound dilemma for Indonesia. The schism between the two populations, indigenous and migrant, fuels conflict and military repression. The military remain unaccountable and largely autonomous from civilian control. Human rights abuses are common. As more troops are brought in and more command posts established, conflict only escalates. This process has a momentum of its own and has the potential to destroy Indonesia’s international standing. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and the largest Muslim nation. It is widely lauded as an emerging democracy which has made great gains in the rule of law and respect for human rights, but this is clearly not happening in West Papua. Just as East Timor blocked Indonesia’s emergence onto the world stage for 24 years, the growing crisis in West Papua may block Indonesia’s current transition and has the potential, like East Timor did, to dominate the international image of Indonesia.

It is impossible to prove that what is happening in West Papua is genocide without further investigation. To really know the answer, teams of investigators would need to comb through official records, interview ordinary people and search for evidence in the bush. None of that is going to happen while Indonesia remains in charge. Certainly many West Papuans, people living under Indonesian control, feel and think that what is happening to them is genocide. It is an obligation for signatories of the UN genocide convention to investigate these claims, and Indonesia should allow this to happen. Without major changes to government policy over West Papua, Indonesia faces an open-ended military occupation that threatens to poison the country’s own development and sabotage its international image at a crucial stage in Indonesian history.     ii

Jim Elmslie ( is co-convenor of the West Papua Project at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. His Ph.D. thesis, 'Irian Jaya Under the Gun: Indonesian Economic Development versus West Papuan Nationalism' was published by the University of Hawaii Press.

See also Jennifer Robinson's A man on a mission, Inside Indonesia, 96: Apr-Jun 2009.


Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009{jcomments on}

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