Oskar B., June 2020

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West Papua’s Struggle

For over fifty years the West Papuan people have been struggling for self-determination and independence from occupation by Indonesia. This decades-long national liberation struggle has been waged in the face of mass violence and terror, enacted by the Indonesian government in order to safeguard the continued exploitation of West Papuan workers and natural resources. Exploitation in Papua, through brutal military and police violence, has brought in immense profits for Indonesian capitalists and foreign imperialists while impoverishing the Papuan masses. Marxists champion the right of West Papua, and all oppressed nations, to self-determination. We support the national liberation struggle being waged; while at all points recognising the limits of bourgeois nationalism, and advancing working class internationalism as the only true solution to capitalist oppression and exploitation.

For over three centuries, West Papua was a colonial possession of the Netherlands. In the mid-20th century, with Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia beaten, there was widespread hope in West Papua for independence. However, the territory was claimed by Indonesia. Under the American backed, anti-communist, Suharto dictatorship a fraudulent election was held where a handful of handpicked Papuans, under threat of violence, unanimously “voted” to become part of Indonesia. The ironically named “Act of Free Choice” was universally accepted by the imperialist dominated United Nations. In 1969, West Papua was forcibly incorporated into Indonesia.

West Papua is a goldmine, both figuratively and literally, for Indonesian and international capitalists. Rich in gold, silver, copper, natural gas and timber; Papua is some of the most resource-rich land on Earth. It contains the world’s third largest copper mine and largest gold mine, as well as major agricultural plantations expanded through deforestation. Freeport, Rio Tinto, BP and dozens of other international mining conglomerates extract billions of dollars in profits from West Papua each year, however West Papuan workers and peasants see next to nothing of this money. Papua is the poorest province in Indonesia, with 28% of people living below the poverty line compared to the Indonesian average of 10%. It has the lowest life expectancy and the highest child, infant and maternal mortality rate in Indonesia.

Since Indonesian takeover, hundreds of thousands of Papuans have been killed in a brutal occupation. Thousands of activists are imprisoned each year, and raising the West Papuan Morning Star flag is a criminal offence for which activists have faced decades behind bars. Indonesian chauvinist nationalism has allowed deep social and institutional racism against Papuan Melanesians, who are a national and ethnic minority. Papuans living throughout Indonesia are discriminated against, labelled ‘monkeys’, and attacked by police and reactionary militias. Last year in Surabaya, Papuan students were set upon by a mob and then barricaded, arrested and tear gassed by police due to allegations they disrespected the Indonesian flag on independence day.

The role of the Australian imperialism in assisting Indonesian occupation of West Papua cannot be overstated. Many of the largest exploiters in West Papua are closely linked to Australian capitalism. Mining companies based in Australia, such as Rio Tinto, operate widely in Papua and significant mining operations in the province are supplied by shipments from Queensland. Additionally, Australian resources and tactical support are instrumental in propping up the regime. The Indonesian army, deployed extensively in West Papua to violently suppress workers and independence fighters, receive abundant training and supplies from Australia. Indonesia’s violent police presence in Papua is propped up by Australia too, with many of its leaders and officers trained and given operational support by the Australian Federal Police. This includes the Detachment 88 “counter-terrorism” unit which operates as a death squad targeting Papuan activists. The Australian State’s hands are bloodied by the many thousands of activists and independence fighters murdered and imprisoned with its direct support.

Within the horrific economic and political conditions, and in the face of ruthless police and military repression, Papuans have fought fiercely for independence and self-determination for fifty years. The national liberation movement in Papua has multiple prongs, a civil protest movement and low level of armed struggle, both have been ruthlessly cracked down on by Indonesia. August of 2019 saw a wave of protests across Papua in some of the largest unrest in years. And particularly in the remote Papuan highlands there is a low level guerrilla struggle taking place, fighting on this front has also flared up in recent years and moves have been made to consolidate a single force.

Recognising the weakness of the national liberation struggle in the face of the Indonesian military regime, much of the bourgeois nationalist led forces in Papua are focused on obtaining international support from imperialists and the United Nations. Marxists recognise that this strategy is, for multiple reasons, incapable of achieving liberation for the West Papuan people. It was the UN who oversaw and signed off on the transparently fraudulent incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia. In the five decades since, foreign imperialism and the UN have consistently ignored the pleas of West Papuans and sided with Indonesian occupation – the UN has always and will only act to preserve imperialists’ profit. Without a major shift in the circumstances in Papua, for the time being, foreign capitalist nations are more than happy to let Indonesia decimate, and manage the extraction of, West Papuan natural resources. The Indonesian occupation’s brutality has successfully managed the superexploitation of West Papua and ensured a steady stream of profits flowing to international corporations; albeit with a small cut taken by the Indonesian government and military. As things stand, the UN and its imperialist masters’ interests lie plainly with upholding Indonesian oppression and exploitation of Papuan workers. However, even if social forces did change drastically, and foreign imperialism supported the national independence of West Papua, neither the vital interests nor the pressing needs of Papuan workers would necessarily be achieved. As Vladimir Lenin wrote in his work on Imperialism:

“Finance capital is such a great, such a decisive, you might say, force in all economic and in all international relations, that it is capable of subjecting, and actually does subject, to itself even states enjoying the fullest political independence”

V.I. Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism

With capitalist national independence, all that would be achieved was the continued exploitation of Papuan workers and peasants, but on a Papuan bourgeois nationalist basis. With the Indonesian government out of West Papua, foreign imperialism and international corporations would continue to extract profits and leave Papuan workers impoverished. The will of the capitalists and imperialists would be simply enforced by a local bourgeois nationalist government, its police force, and foreign intervention from a nation other than Indonesia – especially after actively appealing to imperialist forces to win their favour.

Just as in Timor-Leste, when Australia’s imperialist troops “liberated” the nation from Indonesia with a military invasion that just so happened to impose Australian political and economic domination over the country and prop up only the interests of capitalists and enforce its status as a neocolony. Using not just its uneven economic and political standing but active intelligence department spying, the Australian state negotiated a deal that gave it claim to 82% of the oil and gas resources in Timor-Leste’s Greater Sunrise field. Papua New Guinea, which gained independence in 1975 after decades of Australian rule, is also a neocolony of Australian imperialism which is stricken with poverty. In both these examples, national independence has seen a continuation of foreign exploitation and mass poverty. The current failure of appealing to international governments to achieve change for West Papuans, and the historical results of what international imperialist intervention results in, are a clear example of the limits of bourgeois nationalism in addressing the needs of the working class.

How do Marxists approach nationalism?

Marxists are internationalists, at all points our fundamental goal must be the unity of the working class of all nations in the struggle against capitalism. The construction of a socialist society can only be achieved on an international basis. On this understanding, Marxists ultimately oppose all forms of nationalism. However, we must also fight vehemently against national oppression. This means recognising the right of nations to self-determination and the validity of national liberation movements struggling for this. As Lenin writes, nationalism in the struggle of an oppressed nation against an oppressor nation “has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support,”1. Acknowledging the progressive character of struggles against national oppression is vital; because to champion the closest possible unity of workers of all nations, and international class solidarity, requires breaking down this national oppression and working for the fullest possible equality between nations. Only through recognising the right of nations to self-determination, ie. the right to secede and constitute a sovereign state, can this be achieved. The Marxist approach to nationalism is summed up by Lenin in his article “Critical Remarks on the National Question”:

“The principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness… To throw off… all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle… But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie.”

V.I. Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question

As a national struggle for self-determination, the independence movement in Papua has a marked progressive character. Marxists must fully support the heroic and militant struggle for survival and liberation by Papuans, and oppose efforts to crush it. Fighting to smash Australian imperialism, and it’s significant economic and political domination over the Pacific region, has an important role to play in supporting the Papuan independence struggle and is the most vital and immediate project on the subject for Marxists in Australia. This would mean campaigning for Australia’s hands off West Papua, both in opposing support for the Indonesian military and police regime and in consistently calling for no Australian intervention. But for true liberation, what is needed is a socialist revolution to smash capitalism, and with it Indonesian military and Imperialist presence. The previously discussed tactic of attempting to garner international support from capitalists is a clear example of bourgeois nationalism’s limits. Not only is this tactic failing to bring the change sought by West Papuans, even with success it would ultimately see a continuation of the exploitation of workers in Papua by further profiteering by imperialists and a continuation of capitalism nationally.

For working class unity against oppression and exploitation

In the struggle against national oppression, and in opposition to the limits and betrayals of bourgeois nationalism, Marxists pose socialist revolution through working class unity as the only true solution able to resolve the needs and demands posed by workers of oppressed nationalities. Marxists recognise that Papuan and Indonesian workers, both in West Papua and throughout all of Indonesia, are labouring in the same mines and being exploited by the same corporations. It is the same police and military killing Papuan independence fighters which fires on striking Indonesian workers. It is the same Indonesian state that enforces the will of capitalists on both Papuan and Indonesian workers. In short, it is the same capitalist system exploiting West Papuan workers, Indonesian workers, and workers of all nationalities in all nations of the world.

“On the boards of joint-stock companies we find capitalists of different nations sitting together in complete harmony. At the factories workers of different nations work side by side. In any really serious and profound political issue sides are taken according to classes, not nations.”

V.I. Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question

Currently, about half of the population residing in West Papua are not indigenous Papuans. From Java, Sumatra, and other population centres, large numbers of Indonesian workers have flowed into Papua to fuel the economic boom brought by resources. The Indonesian government is also invested in bringing Indonesians in order to solidify a base of support by Indonesian nationalism. Not without reason, there is some anger among Papuan nationalists at this. However, succumbing to a sectarian struggle against Indonesian workers only plays into the hands of the Indonesian regime, who want to use division between Papuan and Indonesian workers for their own gain. Instead, Marxists argue that from this there lies great potential of international class solidarity, through building closer collaboration between West Papuan and Indonesian workers. Lenin saw a powder keg in the movement of Great-Russian workers to the Ukraine in the early 20th century.

Take Russia and the attitude of Great Russians towards the Ukrainians. Naturally, every democrat, not to mention Marxists, will strongly oppose the incredible humiliation of Ukrainians, and demand complete equality for them. But it would be a downright betrayal of socialism and a silly policy even from the standpoint of the bourgeois “national aims” of the Ukrainians to weaken the ties and the alliance between the Ukrainian and Great-Russian proletariat that now exist within the confines of a single state…

The Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers must work together, and, as long as they live in a single state, act in the closest organisational unity and concert, towards a common or international culture of the proletarian movement.

V.I. Lenin, Critical Remarks on the National Question

Just as Russian and Ukrainian Marxists did one hundred years ago, the opportunity for cross-national class unity between Indonesian and Papuan workers must be seized upon. Welding this unity would be a powerful weapon in the fight against the Indonesian occupation, national oppression, and capitalist exploitation. Only through this unity can these issues be addressed. Only by fighting on a class basis against capitalism and for a socialist future in Melanesia and the Indonesian archipelago can liberation be achieved. The solution to West Papua’s yearnings for true self-determination, and the solution to the oppression of all Indonesian workers, lie not in nationalism but in internationalism. In class unity and joint action to fight against the oppressors. The basis of this unity is already present in Papua. In union struggles Indonesian and Papuan workers strike side by side like the strikes at Freeport-McMoran’s Grasberg mine2. The Indonesian government fears labour action just as much as it fears a militant Papuan independence fight and in 2011 conducted a bloody crackdown against a strike at the mine. In this crackdown a worker was murdered when police fired upon a crowd of strikers. Marx saw the unity of action between Polish and German workers in a strike as an important example of breaking down national barriers:

The Polish workers in Posen have brought a strike to a victorious end with the help of their colleagues in Berlin. This struggle against Monsieur le Capital—even in the lower form of the strike—is a more serious way of getting rid of national prejudices than peace declamations from the lips of bourgeois gentlemen.

Karl Marx, Letter to Engels – August 18, 1869

Marxists stand in solidarity with all of these workers’ struggles within Papua and the significant opportunity they present to build unity. Similarly, we recognise the importance of the fight for an end to the oppression of Papuan’s being conducted by countless Indonesian leftists and activists throughout the rest of the country, many of whom have been ruthlessly cracked down on and jailed. Just this year six activists were charged with treason, jailed, and denied parole for organising a pro West Papua protest in Jakarta. This included a non-Papuan activist who was the first to be charged for such an offence. In late 2019, Indonesia saw a mass uprising against corruption and reactionary laws led primarily by students and incorporating workers and peasants unions. In this wave of protests the demand of an end to militarism in West Papua and the release of Papuan political prisoners was one of the key demands raised. United struggle between Papuans and Indonesians against capitalists is the key to building solidarity and organisational bonds that can advance the cause of West Papuan national liberation. In the struggle for a socialist future in Indonesia, this is essential, as Indonesian workers can never be free in a nation that oppresses and subjugates minority groups.

Merdeka (Freedom and Independence)

In West Papua, the National Question rears its head once again. As Marxists we oppose the oppression and subjugation of West Papua by Indonesia and support the brave national liberation struggle of the West Papuan people. We must call for a withdrawal of Indonesian troops, and struggle against Australia’s joint efforts with Indonesia to control West Papua. At the same time, Marxists recognise the limits of bourgeois nationalism in serving the interests of oppressed people and the working class and thus see the necessity of proletarian led, peasant backed revolution. We must fight to smash any attempt by Australian imperialism to subjugate West Papua under its will. And we see that internationalism, through cross-national united proletarian struggle against capital, is the only way to achieve the emancipation of West Papuan workers, Indonesian workers, and workers of all nations. For an independent West Papua, and a socialist Melanesia and Indonesia!

West Papua Merdeka! For proletarian revolution in Indonesia and West Papua!

  1. Lenin, Right of Nations to Self Determination []
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/10/indonesian-forces-striking-mine-workers#maincontent []