Indonesia rejects west papua’s request to resolve the west papua conflict through international third-party mediation: a lack of confidence in the mediation process

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The conflict between the Government of Indonesia (GOI) and the people of West Papua began in 1961 when the GOI declared “Operasi Trikora” (Three peoples command operations) to invade West Papua officially by then President Sukarno in Jakarta on December 19th 1961. The GOI’s action was a direct reaction to the establishment of an embryo of a ‘to be nation of West Papua’ by the people of West Papua on December 1st 1961, under the tutelage of the Netherlands Government, then colonial power in the territory.  

An armed confrontation soon broke out between the Netherlands and Indonesia, forcing the United Nations and the United States to intervene. The United States took a particular interest in the conflict due to the threat posed by the rapid growth of communism in the region and the discovery of a massive gold deposit in the Timika area of West Papua by the exploration companies. The United States succeeded in brokering a peace agreement between the two conflicting parties signed in New York on August 15th 1962, known as the New York Agreement. John Salford explored what took place from 1949 to 1969 in his analysis of the events depicting the absence of West Papua people in the peace agreement and subsequent abuses of their human rights under Indonesian rule over the years that followed.     

Should the West Papua peace process be analyzed in view of the current mediation theory and practice, the entire peace process partially favors Indonesia. The peace process was set up in one way or another to benefit Indonesia and its partners, especially from the view of the United Nations Mediation Guide and Smith and Smock’s six-step mediation guide. It violated all the mediation steps listed in the two guides.   

The mediator was a potent mediator with a conflict of interest in the region that directed the events in its favor overlooking the international law and normative framework at the time. King and Johnson alleged that the whole process went against the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of December 14th 1960, on granting independence to colonial peoples and territories and the principles of the United Nations Trusteeship system.  The result was a complete failure for the West Papuan side while a success story for the Indonesian side. The peace process failed to entertain the interests of the West Papuan people, the vital stakeholders in the conflict. 

 The people of West Papua went against the peace process by establishing the Free Papua Movement (FPM) in 1965 to fight against the colonial powers. The conflict, since then, shifted to friction between the Indonesian Government and the people of West Papua and has continued to drag on for the last sixty years. The conflict has been hidden from the outside world due to restrictions that the Indonesian Government placed on access to West Papua. The GOI also constantly rejects United Nations Special Rapporteurs and High Commissioner’s access to West Papua to verify the cases of human rights abuses in the region.   

Meanwhile, the United States maintained military ties with Indonesia. At the same time, the Netherlands abandoned West Papua and sided with Indonesia to continue the status quo of oppression and exploitation of resources in West New Guinea. The USA and the Netherlands continue to produce weapons and supplies for Indonesia to wage war against the people of West Papua. On the other hand, Indonesia reciprocates by granting them access to investments in the resources sector in West Papua and other islands of Indonesia.

The West Papua population is being reduced through constant military operations and other abuses, and the Indonesian Government and its partners are exploiting their resources. Several researchers on genocide alleged that Indonesia has been committing genocide against the people of West Papua over the years. Neles Tandamat identified three significant publications on genocide in his thesis on the Application of the United Nations Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes: The Case of West Papua. The armed conflict is still active in West Papua between the Free Papua Movement and the Indonesian military and police, continuously causing a humanitarian crisis in West Papua yearly. 

In February 2023, the Free Papua Movement, through their military wing, kidnapped a New Zealand Pilot working for Susi Air, an Indonesian company in West Papua. The Free Papua Movement promised to release the Pilot after West Papua became independent and requested Indonesia to peacefully resolve the conflict through mediation in the presence of an international neutral third party. Indonesia has officially ignored the request and continues to deploy more military into West Papua in the guise of search and rescue operations, hoping to force the Free Papua Movement to release the Pilot.

The Indonesian Government’s reluctance to resolve the conflict peacefully through an international third-party mediator shows their lack of confidence in the mediation process. Indonesia fears its dirty past might be exposed when internationalizing the mediation process. In this analysis, I will attempt to answer the question as to why Indonesia internationalized the mediation process for the Aceh conflict but was reluctant to do the same for the West Papua conflict. I attempt to analyze the West Papua conflict descriptively, portraying Indonesia’s peacebuilding initiatives in West Papua from 2001 to 2023 through the conflict transformation dimension. 

Mediation as a Tool for Conflict Management in West Papua

There are various interpretations that researchers and practitioners have on mediation based on the nature of the conflict and the definitions adopted by different institutions and individuals to describe and address those specific conflicts. Conflict researchers generally agree that mediation is a form of conflict management involving neutral third parties to resolve disputes between two or more contending parties. Brooks, D. and McDonough, I. adopted the definition of mediation from the Scottish Mediation Network and maintained that mediation assists the people involved in a dispute by resolving it through an impartial mediator.

Mediation is among the practical management tools people and organizations have been applying to manage conflicts worldwide. Its historical evolution and practice are as old as human existence, but research has recently been done, as per Kleiboer. It is a subject that appears to be existing outside of any formal rule as the conflict environment mainly dictates its application. It is a multi-disciplinary subject that borrows specific aspects from diplomacy, politics, history, sociology, law, psychology, business, science and other areas based on the nature of the conflict from time to time. 

Considering the inter-disciplinary aspect of mediation, the United Nations Guide for Effective Mediation outlined general standardized guidance for mediation for its members and other practitioners to apply whenever and wherever conflict occurs. Apart from the U.N.’s mediation guide, two other similar mediation guides were also provided by Smith and Smock and Weeks. The table below briefly outlines the steps contained in each manual.

Mediation Guide by Smith and SmockMediation Guide by WeeksMediation Guide by the United Nations
1. Conflict assessment1. Creating an effective atmosphere1. Preparedness
2. Mediator readiness2. Clarifying perceptions2. Consent
3. Conflict ripeness3. Focusing on individual and shared needs3. Impartiality
4. Conduct track-I mediation4. Building shared positive power4. Inclusivity
5. Identify and coordinate with track-II mediation5. Learn from the positive aspects of the past and focus on the future5. National Ownership
6. Construct a peace agreement.  6. Generating options6. International law and normative framework

7. Develop doable7. Coherence, coordination, and complementarity of the mediation effort 

8. Make a mutual benefit agreement8. Quality peace agreement

The three mediation guides are each helpful in specific conflicts but not applicable to all disputes. The mediation guide by Weeks is well suited to resolving interpersonal conflicts, inclined more towards domestic and business-related conflicts. In contrast, the other two can be applied to resolve national and international level conflicts. The other two appear to be similar and could be combined as a single guide by mediators to guide them to conduct mediation. 

Their applicability, however, is based on the mediator’s judgement and the conflict actors’ willingness to accept the mediation terms. The difference between Weeks’ mediation guide and the other two guides is that the two focus on peacebuilding while Weeks’ focuses on relationship building. Mediators for relationship building are also different from mediators for peacebuilding, misapplication of the mediation methods risks jeopardizing the relationship or peacebuilding expectations of the conflict actors and their victims.

The West Papua conflict is an example of a misapplication of the peacebuilding approach by the Government of Indonesia, especially from 2001 to 2023. The Indonesian Government, intentionally or unintentionally, replaced peacebuilding activities with relationship-building activities focused on building relationships between West Papuans and Indonesians, ignoring the peacebuilding aspect of the conflict. How can a person in pain be forced to smile and accept another person without first curing the pain?

In 1998, Indonesia replaced the “Orde Baru” (New Order era, 1965 – 1998) of President Suharto with a new democratic form of Government. The change also forced the Government to change the approach towards West Papua from that of a military approach to that of a peacebuilding approach. The Indonesian Government attempted to appear more populist by adopting some democratic ideals, including uniting the Indonesian people under the Pancasila ideology (Indonesian national ideology).

However, something drastic happened when the Indonesian Government met the West Papuan leaders under “Team 100”, who were invited to discuss the way forward for West Papua by President B.J. Habibi in 1999. The leaders unanimously requested secession from Indonesia. The request was rejected and suppressed by the president. Moreover, it forced the Indonesian Government to realize that West Papuans had not been “Indonesianized” (turned West Papuans into Indonesians) to the fullest throughout the forty years of Indonesian occupation. 

The Indonesian Government was forced to apply a relationship-building method instead of a peacebuilding one to a conflict-stricken population. The Special Autonomy Law, as a result, was granted without; (1) proper preparation, (2) seeking consent from the West Papuan people, (3) impartiality, (4) inclusivity, (5) local ownership, (6) realigning with international law and normative framework, (7) Coherence, coordination, and complementarity of the mediation effort and most of all (8) a quality peace agreement signed between Indonesia and the Team 100 leaders. The Indonesian Government applied the relationship-building method and expected the result to change over time. 

As a result, Indonesia neglected the major peacebuilding activities of establishing a peace and reconciliation commission in West Papua as outlined in Articles 45 and 46 of the Special Autonomy Law for West Papua. The law appeared promising on paper with zero impact on peacebuilding in West Papua, which continues to produce negative results for the Indonesian Government. West Papua people believe that conflict is still active in West Papua because no genuine conflict resolution initiatives were established by the Indonesian Government from 2001 to 2021.

Mediators’ misplaced altruism and mediation failure – the Case of West Papua

Mediators come in different capacities regarding their economic, political, military and strategic capabilities. Researchers categorized them into weak and strong mediators. Strong mediators come from state parties, while weak mediators come from non-state parties. Both types of mediators outwardly portray altruistic motivations as best as they can to acquire legitimacy from the international community and the conflict actors. 

The question of why most conflicts resolved through the mediation method appear to be recurrent or fail most times has something to do with motivation on the part of mediators. What drives leaders to take up the role of mediators in a conflict willingly varies between strong mediators and weak mediators and individuals appointed as mediators by the responsible states or the organizations. The American mediation experience explored by James Todhunter shed light on the motives behind strong mediators.

 Strong mediators view mediation as an “optional political tool” to fall back on when domestic politics are not in their favor, especially the leaders in power. It explains why leaders are often selective in engaging with international conflicts, significantly if the disputes do not disturb their national economy and interests abroad and at home. On the other hand, Christina Kiel analyzed weak mediators and their motives for intervening in conflicts. Kiel posits that NGOs’ motives are driven mainly by the ideals of humanity and not necessarily any other ulterior reasons. Further research is required to identify the aspect of an individual’s pursuit of the ‘peacemaker’ title and other prestige that come after a successful peace process. The other exciting research question is which type of mediator-related peace resolution last longer before they recur or resolves successfully.   

Misplaced altruism in mediation occurs when mediators intentionally direct the mediation process to where they want it to go so that they might also benefit from the peace process. The case of the United States in the West Papua peace process in 1962 is an example. The United States initially supported the Netherlands but switched to supporting Indonesia when Sukarno started to seek military aid from the USSR and allowed the growth of the Communist Party in Indonesia. Indonesia’s alignment with the USSR attracted the United States Government due to the ideological divide between Capitalism and Communism.

The United States took the initiative to become a mediator so that (1) Indonesia might be persuaded to its side of the divide and (2) the United States acquire the exploration permit for gold deposit in Timika on the island of New Guinea through Indonesia quickly. The USA assisted Indonesia in painting West Papua and its people negatively in the United Nations and that Indonesia was the only liberator that would save Papuans from their ignorance. The USA and Indonesia displayed their altruistic rhetoric publicly but did the opposite in West Papua to win West Papua by force. 

In his analysis, John Salford described the misplaced altruism that Indonesia, the USA, the Netherlands and the United Nations displayed from 1962 to 1969. To them, West Papua’s integration into Indonesia was for the benefit of the people of West Papua, but they never integrated West Papua people’s opinions into their decisions. 

The collaboration resulted in the intentional exclusion of West Papua people from the peace process, which led to the West Papua conflict between the people of West Papua and Indonesia in 1965. The mediation and peace process for West Papua failed utterly from the beginning. Today, West Papua is still at war with Indonesia over what transpired between Indonesia, the USA and the Netherlands governments in the 1960s.         

Lack of Confidence in the Mediation Process by Conflict Actors – the Case of Indonesia

Regardless of the long historical evolution and practice of mediation and its legitimization under Article 33 of the United Nations Charter as one of the recognized approaches to resolving conflicts peacefully, conflict actors still lack confidence in mediation. The lack of confidence in the mediation process comes about not because of the weakness in the mediation process but from within the conflict actors. When the conflict actors believe that they have a chance of winning through mediation, they pursue it. If the chances of winning are low, they do not open up for mediation. 

In the case of the West Papua conflict, Indonesia’s lack of confidence in resolving the conflict through international neutral third-party mediation shows its low chances of winning. Indonesia resolved the Aceh conflict through an international neutral third-party mediation in 2004. The Aceh experience could be a stepping stone for Indonesia but still differ when compared with the West Papua conflict. There are stuck differences between Aceh and West Papua regarding history, culture, race and other aspects. Indonesia still had a chance of winning the Aceh case through mediation, so the Government was willing to open up. West Papua is utterly different from Aceh due to differences in race, ethnicity, culture, history, geography and the methods applied to integrate West Papua into Indonesia.

Indonesia invaded West Papua militarily in 1961 and maintained the territory through brutal military force treating West Papuans as its colonial subjects throughout its occupation. Talking of peace outside Indonesia’s jurisdiction means separation, which has been a nightmare for Indonesia. Indonesia continues to set up fake internal dialogue from time to time only to buy time and minimize conflict down to a manageable level to maintain its exploitation of the resources contained in West Papua. The fear of external support is real within Indonesia, making the Government and its intelligence network boost their propaganda through social media and mainstream media in Indonesia. It has also enabled Indonesia to reconstruct fake historical narratives about West Papua and continue to suppress the voices of the people of West Papua through its genocidal strategies.    

The West Papua Conflict 

The West Papua conflict was initiated by Indonesia to benefit from the new natural wealth in West Papua, taking advantage of the so-called ignorant and primitive West Papuans in the 1960s. The Indonesians painted themselves as liberators of the primitive people of West New Guinea externally to cover the real intent of their invasion and recolonization project.

The Indonesians’ ambition was made possible by the Cold War rivalry established by the major world powers after World War II. Indonesia acted swiftly to benefit dearly from both sides of the divide. The former USSR provided military aid, while the USA provided diplomatic, political, economic and military assistance to the Indonesian Government. The Indonesian Government, in turn, rewarded the U.S. government by offering concessions to USA-based companies like the Freeport McMorran and other multinational companies to exploit natural wealth in West Papua without the consent of the people of West Papua.      

Contrary to what the Indonesian Government painted against the people of West Papua at the time, the people of West Papua cooperated with the Netherlands Government to prepare themselves towards complete independence in West New Guinea. They raised their Morning Star Flag and publicly displayed all other attributes of the nation, including singing the national anthem, the “Hai Tanah ku Papua”, alongside the Netherlands’ national anthem. The Netherlands Government’s reaction was based on the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of December 14th 1960, on granting independence to colonial peoples and territories.

However, Indonesia disapproved of the West Papua decolonization process. It claimed that West Papua was part of Indonesia as it was under the same colonial power that was colonized with the rest of the Netherlands East Indies by the Netherlands colonial government before World War II. Indonesia based their claim on the principle of uti possidetis juris (as you possess under law), an international principle primarily applied to construct international boundaries of the South American countries by their colonizers. 

Given stuck differences in race, religion, ethnicity, culture and languages, among other aspects between Papuans and Indonesians, the Indonesian Government crafted layers after layers of lies backed by bribery and ingenious techniques to turn the international community’s attention away from West Papua over the years. The Indonesian Government also shut outside access to West Papua, including international NGOs, journalists and tourists. The act seals the Indonesian Government’s lies to the outside world about West Papua and its people. 

The Indonesian Government was forced to reconstruct the historical narratives of West Papua after destroying the culture of the people. Ipenburg described in detail how Indonesians destroyed the education and health systems in West Papua during the invasion. They first “destroyed the health and education system set up by the Netherlands and killed or imprisoned the educated elites” of the people of West Papua. The Indonesians replaced the destroyed system under the Indonization policy of Indonesia came to be known as Mengindonesisasikan Orang Papua (Indonization of the people of West Papua). What Indonesians did and continue to do up to date is considered an act of genocide as per the United Nations Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes.  

Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding Initiatives in West Papua

Peacebuilding is generally understood as “identifying and supporting relationships, governance modes, structures and systems, and providing capacities and resources to strengthen and consolidate the prospects for internal peace to prevent a relapse into conflict.” Peacebuilding activities come after peacemaking and peacekeeping activities. Its activities mainly deal with capacity building, reconciliation and societal transformation. Ndifon Obi summarized the peacebuilding activities into four major sectors; (1) security, (2) political framework, (3) socio-economic foundation, and (4) reconciliation and justice. Peacemaking activities are initiated at the beginning of a peace process aimed at bringing the conflict parties to the negotiation table to resolve the conflict peacefully. 

For peace to prevail, peacemaking should be the first step in peacebuilding. Even the weakest of the opponent cannot be underestimated or ignored to avoid unnecessary consequences during the peacebuilding process. For instance, Indonesia’s peacebuilding and conflict transformation initiatives in West Papua failed to materialize because of the absence of peacemaking activities at the beginning. As highlighted earlier, there was no proper mediation and peace agreement signed between the Indonesian Government and the people of West Papua like that of Aceh before the Special Autonomy for West Papua was forced down on West Papua people by Indonesia.  

Indonesia failed to address the four major sectors of peacebuilding as security, political framework, socio-economic foundation, and reconciliation and justice in West Papua have not been taken into account. Indonesian Government never implemented the reconciliation and justice aspect under the Special Autonomy Law; instead, the Indonesian Government focused on relationship building following the National Intelligence Organization’s (BIN) “winning heart and mind” strategy through development.

Indonesia focused on building infrastructure, education, health and human resource, a development-centred approach to conflict transformation in West Papua without making peace with the major conflict parties in West Papua. Development is one of the most effective conflict transformation strategies adopted by peacebuilders for post-conflict peacebuilding, especially the United Nations, after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. Many perceive it as a normal process in the post-conflict peacebuilding initiatives in every conflict zone today. However, development initiatives that do not consider equal distribution within multiethnic societies may fuel conflicts between ethnic groups. Ryan drew examples from Rwanda and former Yugoslavia to highlight this blind spot in his analysis. 

In some conflict zones, the people may not welcome development because the intended recipients are unprepared to accept development due to other unmet demands, such as nationalism. West Papua is in this category. The people of West Papua have been fighting for independence, yet Indonesia ignorantly pushes for regional development through the Special Autonomy policy. The development does not even meet indigenous people’s needs; it is more or less a migrant-biased development strategy that marginalizes indigenous people and uplifts the migrants and their investments.

Development is an effective tool that often positively impacts the communities if the implementers are genuine without ulterior motives. Development can be integrated effectively into the conflict transformation initiative in four ways; (1) when it is implemented based on local needs, (2) when it is equally distributed to all sectors of the community, (3) when it captures local community as partners in the development agenda, and (4) when all other demands are met. Sadly, Indonesia’s development efforts in West Papua do not meet these requirements.              

Current Status of West Papua Conflict

The West Papua conflict is currently active. The people of West Papua continue to demand separation from Indonesia through peaceful resistance, armed engagement and diplomacy. On the other hand, the Indonesian Government is adamant about maintaining West Papua under its grip and continues to apply heavy military and diplomatic maneuvers to control the territory. 

The armed conflict is restricted to several regencies on the island, mainly the internal areas. The military wing of the Free Papua Movement (West Papua National Liberation Army – WPNLA) has been the lead actor in the armed engagement, followed by other organizations. The WPNLA generally had a low logistic supply posing low threats to the Indonesian occupation. The low level of logistics combined with the unorganized structure of the organization isolated throughout the island provided Indonesia with strategic and logistic advantages to control the conflict down to a manageable level. 

West Papua people living in exile continue to advocate through diplomacy while the people inside West Papua engage peacefully from time to time. Vanuatu has been the only United Nations member to continue supporting West Papua’s decolonization process. Organizations like the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) continue to address the West Papua problem as one of their human rights agendas but have no concrete political will from the leaders of the member countries to assist the people of West Papua. 

Conclusion and Recommendation

Mediation is undoubtedly among the practical conflict management tools that people and organizations have been applying to manage conflicts worldwide. Regardless of the long historical evolution and practice of mediation and its legitimization under Article 33 of the United Nations Charter as one of the recognized approaches to resolving conflicts peacefully, conflict actors still lack confidence in mediation. The lack of confidence in the mediation process comes about not because of the weakness in the mediation process but from within the conflict actors. When the conflict actors believe that they have a chance of winning through mediation, they pursue it. If the chances of winning are low, they do not open up for mediation.  

The Indonesian Government’s reluctance to resolve the conflict peacefully shows their lack of confidence in the mediation process. The Indonesian Government’s reluctance lengthens the West Papua conflict causing more casualties and human rights abuses. The human rights conditions in West Papua are being categorized under genocide by genocide researchers as the target population are West Papuans, which requires urgent intervention. The only option for intervention is through the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P), which Neles Tandamat has recommended in his Master’s Thesis Paper.

It has been evident over the years that the Indonesian Government has been taking advantage of the strategic and logistic weaknesses of the major conflict actors in West Papua to maintain the conflict and exploit the resources from the people of West Papua. Peace is, therefore, not required from the Indonesian point of view in the West Papua conflict. The international community, through the United Nations, should apply pressure on Indonesia through pillar III of the R2P principle for Indonesia to comply.  


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Neles Tandamat

WMO Membership Level: Intern

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