Time for a New U.S. Approach toward Indonesia and West Papua 

By Edmund McWilliams (retired US foreign service officer)

Originally published in Flowers in the Wall (download free pdf)

There are few places in the world where U.S. human rights policy is as disingenuous as it is in West Papua. The bankruptcy of U.S. posturing regarding respect for fundamental human rights, including protection of the physical security of civil populations, human dignity, equal application of the law and racial equality is nowhere more evident than in West Papua. U.S. advocacy for fundamental democratic principles such as self-determination, civil control of the military, and the accountability of security forces before the law simply does not extend to West Papua.

The U.S. Government, for decades, has consistently failed to address the widely acknowledged systematic abuse of human rights in West Papua. The U.S. State Department’s annual exercise of compiling human rights reports for every country is no more lacking in candour and honesty than in Indonesia where U.S. interest in preserving military-to-military ties and in protecting opportunities for U.S. corporations dictate broad sanitizing of any genuinely critical commentary especially with regard to West Papua. As a participant at a senior level of these annual exercises and as both a U.S. Government, and subsequently as an independent reviewer of the reports on Indonesia, I have been witness to the compromises with the truth that consistently shield the Indonesian government and especially its security forces from deserved criticism.

The genocidal policy of “transmigration” which has rendered the Papuan population a marginalized minority in its own land was rarely broached and never seriously criticized in the U.S. State Department reports. Moreover, these reports and statements by U.S. officials consistently avoid language critical of the Indonesian military that might jeopardize expanding U.S. military-to-military cooperation with the Indonesian military. This sanitizing of the Indonesian Government record in West Papua, and especially the conduct of its security forces was especially important during periods when U.S. Congressional scrutiny of such military aid raised the prospect that U.S. military assistance programs might be curtailed by Congressional action. That prospect has faded as even U.S Congressional concern over human rights developments in Indonesia and especially in West Papua has diminished.[1]

In late 2015 State Department’s testimony before Congress regarding West Papua, two senior State Department officials misrepresented the human rights environment in Indonesia and especially in West Papua.[2] Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and James Carouso, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Maritime and Mainland Southeast Asian Affairs, spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.  During their remarks on the region and in specific comments about human rights observance in Indonesia, the officials failed to address the brutalization of Papuan civilians and demographic policies, especially transmigration, that amount to genocide. Moreover, neither mentioned the many outstanding cases in which Indonesian security personnel have not been held accountable for egregious human rights abuse committed against Papuans, such as the Paniai massacre in December 2014, in which five Papuan youths engaged in peaceful protest were gunned down by Indonesian military personnel.[3] The same two officials also ignored continued restrictions on access to West Papua by the UN Special Rapporteur, international journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian assistance personnel.

Instead, the officials commended Indonesia for its “press freedom.”  These officials did note restrictions on press freedom in Malaysia and Vietnam, making their failure to note the same rights violations in West Papua all the more glaring.  Moreover, their refusal to acknowledge the restrictions on press freedom in West Papua was in stark contrast to a late-2015 report by Human Rights Watch.   In a report entitled “Something to Hide“, HRW detailed the many ways that Indonesia has hindered the media and others from monitoring the situation in West Papua.[4] Based on interviews with journalists, humanitarian workers, government officials and others, the report found that “Past restrictions have far exceeded what is permissible under Indonesia’s international law obligations.” The report summarized and added details to the instances when Jakarta hindered international NGOs, journalists and human rights investigators from reporting from West Papua. It also provided an important service by providing details on the threats and other barriers locally-based journalists face in carrying out their work. These include beatings, detention, and the placement of intelligence officers in newsrooms.

Underscoring the determined obliviousness of the US Government to rights abuse in West Papua was a similarly contemporaneous report by the International Coalition for Papua which descried conditions in West Papua as “one of the regions in Asia most seriously affected by human rights abuse violations and an unresolved, long standing political conflict.  The living conditions of the indigenous Papuan peoples are in stark contrast to those trans-migrants from other parts of Indonesia.[5] Amnesty International, exhibiting candor absent from US State Department accounts, noted the arbitrary arrest of at least 264 Papuan political activists for “peaceful protests when President Joko Widodo’s visited the province.”[6]

Pressure on U.S. Administrations and on the U.S. Congress to minimize criticism of the Indonesian Government and its security and intelligence forces, for years, has been mobilized largely by the “U.S. – Indonesia Society” (USINDO), a Washington-based lobby organization comprising U.S corporations with  interest in Indonesia and retired senior U.S. officials with Indonesia experience and interests.  This cabal, originally formed to counter broad criticism of Jakarta, which developed following the 1991 “Santa Cruz massacre” in East Timor, and has long since benefited from informal collaboration between current and former senior U.S. officials and U.S corporations with interests in Indonesia. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, for example, has worked with USINDO to prepare travel for U.S Congressional staff and even Members of Congress, with the intention of building Congressional support for policy initiatives that expand U.S.-Indonesia ties at the expense of human rights concerns.

Corporate Influence over U.S. Policy

U.S. corporations, working through USINDO and sometimes unilaterally, have long exercised strong influence over U.S. policy towards Indonesia. The protection and furtherance of these corporate interests in Indonesia, as elsewhere, are largely co-mingled with genuine U.S. national interests so that U.S. policy is developed in conjunction with and at the behest of U.S. corporations.  At times these corporate interests so dominate the policy focus as to undermine broader U.S. policy concerns and interests. This is seen most frequently when corporate interests are in conflict with human rights concerns with the latter invariably getting short shrift.

The archipelago’s vast natural riches have drawn the interest of those U.S corporations in the oil and gas sector especially, and other extractive industries. Among the corporations that early on developed interests in Indonesia were oil companies, notably the forerunners of Texaco, Chevron and Mobil as well as other extractive industries.

U.S. corporate interest in West Papua and more generally in the Indonesian archipelago is also extensive in the area of forest product and palm oil production.  These industries have had devastating impact throughout the archipelago where logging and creation of palm oil plantations have come at the cost of destruction of virgin forest.  While palm oil production and exploitation of forest products has most severely affected other parts of the archipelago, notably Sumatra and Kalimantan, that activity is becoming more common in West Papua where burning of virgin lands reached unprecedented levels in 2015.  Indonesian military involvement in the harvesting of wood products, sometimes illegally, is a matter of long-standing record in West Papua.  The full impact of these activities on the livelihood and health of Papuans is not yet fully calculated.  US Government pressure on the Indonesian government to abandon these destructive practices has fallen short of efforts by various European governments such as those of Norway.  It is unclear whether U.S. corporate interest in palm oil and forest products has or will mitigate U.S. policy action to limit the impact of such destructive “development.”  It is noteworthy, however, that human rights concerns arising from the Indonesian government’s drive to “develop” West Papua have not yet precipitated significant U.S. Government comment.

Freeport and West Papua

By far the most dominant U.S. corporate player in West Papua is the U.S. mining giant Freeport McMoRan which operates the world’s largest copper and gold mine in south-central West Papua.  Freeport’s mining operation has been the source of decades of human rights abuse meted out by the Indonesian military and police against the Amungme and Kamoro peoples who are the traditional land owners in the upland and coastal areas, respectively, of the sprawling mining operation.

Freeport’s displacement of the local population, especially the Amungme who have lived in the principal mining area for generations, has generated periodic tensions and protest among the Amungme.  Freeport has long relied on the Indonesian security forces, especially the military, and within the military, the Special Forces or “Kopassus,” to repress and intimidate the local people.

Freeport’s relationship with the Indonesian military has long amounted to a corrupt bargain and at times has been contentious.  In one instance, in 1996, the relationship transformed into one of naked extortion as the military, unsatisfied with the level of “support” it received from Freeport, organized violent demonstrations among Papuans that threatened Freeport personnel and property.  The U.S. Embassy was informed by Freeport of the nature of this extortion, but failed to report this to Washington because it feared that Washington would take steps against the Indonesian military and the Suharto dictatorship which depended on the Indonesian military to retain control in West Papua and elsewhere in the archipelago.

Generations of Papuan people have suffered extrajudicial killings, torture and incarceration without trial at the hands of the security forces, and at the behest of Freeport. U.S. military-to-military ties with the Indonesian military have functioned to enable the activities of the Indonesian military, rendering the U.S. complicit in the abuse targeting Papuan civilians.  In the 1980s, the U.S. military provided air-to-ground combat aircraft which were deployed against remote Papuan villages with devastating effect. The same aircraft, OV10 Broncos, were also employed by the Indonesian military in efforts to suppress popular resistance in East Timor, which Indonesia occupied from 1975 to 1999.

In addition to persistent human rights abuse, Freeport’s mining operation has been responsible for grave damage to Papuans natural resources, damaging the ecology of the region and presenting serious long term health risks for the Papuans. For decades Freeport’s mining operation has polluted the region in which it operates and beyond. Its deposition of mining tailings in the Ajwwa river system, a previously free-running riverine system on which local people depended for fishing, bathing and transportation, has transformed the river into a wasteland. Decades of tailings deposition have created a delta of toxic waste that extends for miles to the Arufura sea. That delta is virtually devoid of life and includes dangerous quicksand pits. Freeport has constructed some dikes to channel the tailings but these dykes periodically are topped, allowing the tailings to flow into surrounding forest where the tailings smother extensive stretches of trees, notably the sago palm which is an important food source for local Papuans. The tailings deposition extends to the sea coast where tidal action has pushed the tailings west and east along the coast. As these tailings are deposited along the coast by the tides and coastal currents, they have killed the mangrove forest that protect the coast and provide habitat for many aquatic species.

The mining operation also has polluted ground water for miles at and below the mining site with acid mine drainage. Even the ground water in Timika, some 25 miles below the mine, has been polluted.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta for many years worked with Freeport to limit public awareness of the devastating impact its operation was inflicting on West Papua and its people. The U.S. Embassy routinely refused to assist journalists, even U.S. journalists, who sought to travel to the Freeport site. The Embassy worked with the Indonesian Government to block travel to West Papua by a U.S. citizen lawyer seeking to represent Papuan clients in a U.S. court in the late 1990s. Even travel by U.S. Embassy officers was tightly monitored by Freeport.

Concerned that reporting by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta was revealing the plight of Papuan victims of its mining operation, Freeport in the 1990s prevailed on the then U.S. Ambassador to cease all reporting on the important region. The silence about developments in West Papua persisted for over a year and ended only when the Ambassador who had agreed to embargo all Embassy reporting on the region departed. Subsequently, as elements within the Embassy sought to report on developments there, there were strenuous efforts by the Defense Attaché Office and the Ambassador and his senior deputy to quash or refute this reporting. At the same time, as a new team of officers were transferred into the Embassy, and it became clear that these officers were inclined to report more candidly about West Papua, files available to these officers were stripped of records that revealed years of collusion between the Embassy and actors such as Freeport and the Indonesian military.

U.S. Administrations Pursue Similar Policies towards West Papua

Successive U.S. administrations, despite their strikingly different foreign policy outlooks, have adopted effectively identical positions with regard to West Papua. The administrations of both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have refused to acknowledge the genocidal dimensions of Jakarta’s assault on Papuan human rights. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have ignored Jakarta’s pursuit of transmigration, as well as its policy of malign neglect/marginalization targeting Papuans, including persistent failure to provide minimal health, education or other basic services for Papuans. Both administrations have ignored the historic transformation, inherent in these policy choices by Jakarta, which have rendered Papuans a minority in their own land. Rather than developing a meaningful policy to address this genocide, both the Bush and Obama administrations have confined their policy response to tinkering with Jakarta’s failed “Special Autonomy” formulations which manifestly do not, and have never, addressed the ongoing tragedy afflicting Papuans.

U.S. government unwillingness to pursue policies or initiatives that might address Jakarta’s genocidal policies vis-à-vis West Papua should not be perceived as simply a failure to act responsibly. Sadly, since the 1962 U.S-engineered “New York Agreement” which effectively transferred an incipient independent West Papua to Jakarta control, the U.S has conspired with Indonesian regimes, notably the Suharto dictatorship, to solidify Indonesian control in West Papua. The U.S. provided military equipment and training for Suharto’s military for decades, and thereby facilitated the brutal military efforts to repress the two most serious challenges to its repression, namely in East Timor and West Papua. U.S. complicity in this repression is not in question.

That two remarkably different administrations as those of George Bush and Obama would pursue policies that equally failed to reflect meaningful, effective policy concern over systematic human rights abuse, the absence of security force accountability and effective civil control of the military, the fettering of free media and most importantly, the genocidal implications of Jakarta’s approach to ensuring control of West Papua, is perplexing.  In particular, how could the Obama administration, which has postured as sympathetic to human rights and promotion of democratic principles, come up so short with regard to protection of human rights and democratic values in West Papua?  Any meaningful assessment of the weight of human rights-related goals and objective in the formulation of foreign policy within the Obama Administration awaits a comprehensive analysis.

Nevertheless, a review of U.S. policy vis-à-vis West Papua, along with consideration of the Obama Administration’s security cooperation with regimes ranging from those of the coup-birthed government in Honduras or the human rights abusing regimes such as in Uzbekistan and Vietnam, suggest that human rights may sometimes have been sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik. In this, neither the Obama nor George W. Bush Administrations has veered significantly away from the post WWII U.S. model.

The Possibility of A More Enlightened U.S. Approach Vis-à-vis West Papua

Given this record of complicity in Jakarta’s repression of West Papua, is there any conceivable hope that U.S. policy might be directed toward addressing the desperate plight of Papuans?

The U.S. perspective that it constitutes the only remaining superpower, the “indispensable nation” and “leader of the free world,” renders it unproductive to search the globe for models that U.S. policy makers might seek to emulate in devising an approach that would more genuinely promote human rights values and democratic principles in West Papua. U.S. self-perceived “exceptionalism,” for good or ill, has long dissuaded U.S. policy makers from applying to themselves the constraints or even moral/ethical or even legal obligations which might govern other nations’ policy makers.

However, there is one model in the U.S.’s own historical experience that might have bearing on its policy vis-à-vis West Papua and Jakarta.  In the 1990’s Washington was confronted by a massacre carried out by a dictator who had for decades been a U.S. ally.  Indonesian dictator Suharto’s military murdered several hundred unarmed, mostly youthful protesters in the streets of Dili, the capitol of Indonesian-occupied East Timor in late 1991.  The horrified reaction in the U.S., and most especially in the U.S. Congress, required that the U.S. administration react in substantive ways.  The administrations of George H.W. Bush and subsequently Bill Clinton agreed to Congressionally-imposed sanctions on the Indonesian military which had heretofore benefitted from very generous U.S. military-to-military “cooperation.”  While the Suharto regime remained a repressive dictatorship, and while the Indonesian military continued to be a brutal oppressor (notably in West Papua and Aceh), repression in occupied East Timor lessened.  The reality of reduction in the level of U.S. military assistance had some limited beneficial impact, at least in terms of Indonesian security force abuses in East Timor.  Might not similarly targeted sanctions, limiting U.S.-Indonesian military to military cooperation have ameliorative effect in West Papua?

Long-term U.S interests in Indonesia entail encouraging the emergence of Indonesia as a stable, democratic state in which the Indonesian military is no longer corrupt, is accountable to a civilian judiciary and crucially is under civil control. The Indonesian military currently is a vastly corrupt institution with deep involvement in legal and illegal businesses, notably including illegal operations in West Papua that range from illegal logging to shaking down Indonesian and foreign corporations based in West Papua, including, periodically, the U.S. Freeport-McMoRan mining giant. The Indonesian military’s business empire throughout Indonesia, but especially in West Papua, contributes to environmental devastation which aggravates Indonesia’s major contribution to climate change.

The Indonesian military is also notoriously unaccountable for its past and current human rights abuse. Once again, that abuse and that unaccountability is most apparent in West Papua, a reality even acknowledged in the truth-challenged annual U.S. Department of State Human Rights reports. And it is in West Papua where the Indonesian military most obviously continues to operate under the rules of the Suharto dictatorship, inter alia ignoring efforts by the ever more hapless Widodo administration to liberalize rules governing journalists’ and other international observers’ access there.

An enlightened U.S. policy in Indonesia, one that would seek to advance prospects for evolution of an Indonesian state not dominated by nor subservient to a corrupt, unaccountable, human-rights abusing military, could be the basis of a new U.S. approach to Indonesia. That new approach could engage policies that employ existing, significant U.S. leverage, including U.S. military and other forms of assistance, to press for genuine reform of the Indonesian military and in particular, its operations in West Papua. Specifically, continued U.S. military cooperation with the Indonesian military could be conditioned on explicit reforms, especially governing Indonesian military conduct in West Papua.

Moreover, U.S. officials should engage with senior Indonesian officials to encourage them to abandon the “security approach” that has long governed Jakarta’s policies in West Papua, and instead pursue reconciliation with Papuans. Realistically, for any reconciliation process to move forward credibly, the threat to Papuan security posed by the Indonesian military must be removed. A withdrawal of Indonesian military forces from West Papua is essential to any genuine reconciliation. This would also entail dismantling of the military’s massive, often illegal business infrastructure in West Papua. Retention of military components should be specifically defined and limited to legitimate border defense.  A similar drawdown of state intelligence operatives targeting Papuan dissenters in West Papua is similarly essential to a credible reconciliation process.

Such reconciliation must entail engagement with Papuan civil society, and not simply empower Papuan officials whose power and authority is often derivative of the political power circuitry of Jakarta. Also, as a vital, good faith gesture, Jakarta must also be prepared to include, within the scope of reconciliation discussions, the long-standing Papuan demand that the internationally recognized right of self-determination be extended to them.

To date, U.S. policy toward Indonesia has been in service of U.S. corporate interests and the Pentagon’s long held intention that Indonesia should serve as a component in U.S. Pacific defense policy, especially vis-à-vis China.  This narrow, realpolitik-based definition of “U.S. interests” rendered the U.S. Government complicit in the crimes of the Suharto dictatorship and its bastard son, the Indonesian military, which continues to threaten democratic reform in Indonesia and the survival of the Papuan people.

A broader understanding of what constitutes long-term U.S. interests in Indonesia, i.e., the evolution of a stable and democratic Indonesia, is long overdue.

[1] State Department Rights Report Tempers Criticism of Indonesia over West Papua,  West Papua Report, July 2015,

[2] Department of State testimony to US Congress, 19 Nov. 2015, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/rm/2015/249788.htm.

[3] Benny Wenda, Statement on the massacre of youths and children in Paniai, West Papua, 9 Dec. 2014, https://www.bennywenda.org/2014/statement-on-the-massacre-of-youths-and-children-in-paniai-west-papua/.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Something to Hide? Indonesia’s Restrictions on Media Freedom and Rights Monitoring in Papua,” 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/11/10/something-hide/indonesias-restrictions-media-freedom-and-rights-monitoring-papua.

[5] International Coalition for Papua, “Human Rights in West Papua 2015,” http://humanrightspapua.org/images/docs/HumanRightsPapua2015-ICP.pdf.

[6] Amnesty International, “Indonesia: End Mass Arbitrary Arrests Of Peaceful Protesters In Papua,” 11 June 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa21/1851/2015/en/.