The conduct of counterinsurgency operations occurs when a government is forced to take military action to either prevent or retaliate to attacks by disaffected groups and has become the defining feature of the modern era of conflict. The focus of the study on counterinsurgency is on either historical examples such as Malaya, Algeria or Vietnam or ongoing operations in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. From the earlier conflicts, lessons have been learnt, lost, rediscovered, and adapted for modern conflicts. A good example is the works of David Galula which, based on his observations and experiences in Indochina and Algeria, have been adapted for use in the current United States Army counterinsurgency manual. Counterinsurgencies are seldom successful and, once committed to, are painful to disengage from. An enduring example of counterinsurgency with no end state is the 55-year-old Indonesian counterinsurgency in West Papua. The West Papua counterinsurgency campaign is against a motivated and determined opponent, dispersed in small cells amongst the local population with unparalleled knowledge of the local environment of isolated and complex terrain. Fighting the insurgency is a well-trained and motivated force equipped with modern western weapons and equipment with the support of the significant regional powers, which despite these advantages, has failed to bring the insurgency to an end.
The origins of the West Papua conflict go back to December 1949, when after a short war of independence, the Dutch East Indies gained independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands as the Republic of Indonesia. West Papua, the western half of New Guinea Island, remained under the sovereignty of the Netherlands. Due to the ethnic and geographic differences between the Indonesian Islands, the Dutch administered West Paupa separately from the Dutch East Indies and wished to prepare West Papua for independence as a separate country. Indonesia argued that the Dutch occupation of West Papua was illegal and saw the territory as an integral part of the Indonesian State. From 1949 to 1961, Indonesia unsuccessfully attempted through the United Nations (UN) legal mechanisms to gain sovereignty. Dissatisfied with the UN and confident with an infusion of modern Soviet military hardware, Indonesia launched several unsuccessful military operations against the Dutch territory in 1961 and 1962. Despite retaining the military advantage, the Dutch were not in a position to conduct a protracted military campaign in Asia without western support. Seeking to gain favour with Indonesia, the United States and Australia forced the unwilling Dutch to enter into a settlement under the auspices of the UN for a temporary transfer of sovereignty of West Papua to Indonesia. The agreement required that in 1969 the UN oversaw a referendum, which gave the people of West Papua two choices:
- Remain as part of Indonesia, or
- become an independent nation.
Known as the “Act of Free Choice”, the vote was to be a consensus of just over 1000 elders, who were selected by the Indonesian Military, were coerced at gunpoint and had little choice but to vote to remain as part of Indonesia as the province of Irian Jaya. The UN supported Indonesian stealing of the vote only worked to stiffen the resolve of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) to resist Indonesian rule.
With the failure to establish an independent West Papua and sovereignty turned over to Indonesia, anti-Indonesian dissidents who had been trained and armed by the Dutch immediately took up the fight to make West Papua an independent sovereign state. The granting of sovereignty over West Papua to Indonesia by the UN was intended as temporary. However, to increase its control over West Papua, Indonesia implemented a policy of forced assimilation. This policy encouraged the migration of settlers from Java and Sumatra to replace Melanesians in all government, cultural, and educational institutions with non-Melanesian migrants so that by the time the “act of free choice” took place in 1969 a substantial portion of the urban population of West Papua was non-Melanesian. As the Indonesian forced incorporation continued, support for the OPM from the frustrated West Papuan community grew. Initially only considered a nuisance by the Indonesians, by 1970, the OPM benefited from the defections of Melanesians serving with the Indonesian forces, and the use of bases across the border in Papua New Guinea had become a significant annoyance to Indonesia. The OPM’s effective guerrilla force was modest in numbers, between 400 to 600 hardcore guerrillas. Initially armed with World War II vintage weapons with little ammunition, OPM forces were adaptable natural jungle fighters and, as a matter of necessity, were experts in using traditional Papuan weapons such as bows, arrows, and axes. From the first action against Indonesian Forces on the 26th of July 1964, the OPMs preferred tactic was small-scale hit-and-run operations against Indonesian patrols, installations and commercial operations. A measure of their effectiveness was that the Indonesians soon avoided patrols into the jungle and retaliated with brutality, which became the cornerstone of the Indonesian counterinsurgency policy.
The Indonesian response to the insurgency has been to view West Papuan separatists as enemies of the Republic of Indonesia and adopt a military approach as the primary counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the OPM. The Indonesian counterinsurgency strategy was developed based on the lessons learnt in the successful operations against the Darul Islam and Republic of South Maluku rebellions in 1948 and 1950. These rebellions had been defeated within a year by utilising a more powerful armed force using loyal troops drawn from other provinces. From the start, the Indonesian approach was flawed, and the Indonesian Government did not take into account the long-term disadvantages of relying on military power while ignoring the West Papuans’ needs which failed to establish trust in the Government, pushing the West Papuans to support the OPM. The Indonesian counterinsurgency campaign was ruthless and saw by 2018 reportedly 500,000 West Papuans killed since the assumption of Indonesian sovereignty in 1963. Indonesian counterinsurgency strategy not only targeted members of the OPM, but the assault, rape and murder of the family and known associates of OPM members, was commonplace. An example from 1970 saw Indonesian soldiers reportedly shoot and kill a pregnant woman, cut the baby from the mother’s womb, dissect it in front of 80 women and children of the woman’s village, concurrently soldiers raped and killed the pregnant woman’s sister. The Indonesian counterinsurgency campaign also included airpower supplied by the United States in the ground attack role. Indonesian fixed and rotary wing aircraft using napalm, conventional, cluster, and chemical weapons strafed and bombed at-will villages and suspected OPM training camps in West Papua and the border areas of neighbouring Papua New Guinea.
The Indonesian Military controls West Papua as a “virtually autonomous government entity” , and until 1998, information on the counterinsurgency in West Papua could be managed and conducted unseen to the eyes of the world. Financial interests in the mining enterprises, such as the Freeport mine by Australian and United States interests, effectively muzzled those two countries, and Papua New Guinea had little choice but to reach an uneasy compromise with Indonesia. John Pemberton described Indonesia as invisible in the international media, “…an ideal absence in which nothing…happens.” In 1998 a change in the Indonesian Government and the events in East Timor saw a significant shift in the world focus on the conduct of Indonesia’s counter Insurgency operations in West Papua. Since 2005 Indonesia has withdrawn troops and taken a more conciliatory approach to the needs of the people in West Papua, shifting from seeking a military solution to a political solution. Regardless of the changes since 2005, the Indonesian Military continues to maintain its ruthless control over West Papua. With the loss of East Timor, West Papua remains a power base and a significant source of revenue for the Indonesian Military as their significant involvement in both legal and Illegal businesses provides substantial funds for the Indonesian military organisation and senior officers of the Military.
Despite superiority in military technology, the tacit blessing of the United Nations, the United States and Australia and the use of extreme brutality as a tool, the 55-year Indonesian counterinsurgency in West Papua has failed. Papuan resolve for independence was not weakened but remains strong. International pressure by human rights groups highlighted Indonesian conduct in East Timor in the late 1990s, resulting in a softening of the Indonesian stance in West Papua over the last ten years. Any moral and military advantage that the Indonesians might have gained by softening their stance is negated by the generational loss of trust that is now part of the West Papuans psyche and the Indonesian belief that any separatists are enemies of the Indonesian State and, as such traitors and criminals. The lesson from the Indonesian experience in conducting an insurgency is that military power, brutality and fear are not a workable combination and that understanding and catering to the social needs of the insurgents are a more effective strategy.
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“Indonesia’s 1969 Takeover of West Papua Not by “Free Choice”.” The George Washington University, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB128/index.htm.
Pemberton, John. On the Subject of “Java”. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, 1994. Bibliographies, Non-fiction.
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Simpson, Bradley R. “Denying the ‘First Right’: The United States, Indonesia, and the Ranking of Human Rights by the Carter Administration, 1976–1980.” The International History Review 31, no. 4 (2009): 798-826.
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West Papua: Plunder in Paradise. Indigenous Peoples and Development Series: Report No 6. London: Anti-Slavery Society, 1990, 1990. Non-fiction.
 N. Viartasiwi, “The Politics of History in West Papua – Indonesia Conflict,” Asian Journal of Political Science 26, no. 1 (2018): 142-44.
 West Papua: Plunder in Paradise, Indigenous Peoples and Development Series: Report No 6 (London: Anti-Slavery Society, 1990, 1990), Non-fiction, 21.
 Brigadier E D Smith, Sukarno Rides the Tiger, vol. 3, War in Peace (London: Orbis, 1983).
 Viartasiwi, “The Politics of History in West Papua – Indonesia Conflict.”; ibid., 146.
 “United Nations Security Force in West New Guinea,” Department of Peacekeeping Operations, https://peacekeeping.un.org/mission/past/unsfbackgr.html.
 “Indonesia’s 1969 Takeover of West Papua Not by “Free Choice”,” The George Washington University, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB128/index.htm.
 Kjell Anderson, “Colonialism and Cold Genocide: The Case of West Papua,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 9: Iss. 2: 9-25. (2015): 13.
 Ralph R. Premdas and Kwasi Nyamekye, “Papua New Guinea 1978: Year of the OPM,” Asian Survey 19, no. 1 (1979).
 Djon Afriandi, “The Indonesian Coin Strategy: Failures and Alternative Approaches in Overcoming the Papuan Insurgency” (Naval Postgraduate School, 2015), 68.
 The military approach as the main means for destroying the OPM insurgents was used in West Papua and East Timor and Aceh, where insurgents fought against Indonesian rule.
 S. Philpott, “This Stillness, This Lack of Incident: Making Conflict Visible in West Papua,” Critical Asian Studies (2018): 260.
 Elizabeth Brundige et al., “Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control,” Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School (2004): 63.
 Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong, West Papua: The Obliteration of a People (Tapol Thornton Heath, 1988); Bradley R Simpson, “Denying the ‘First Right’: The United States, Indonesia, and the Ranking of Human Rights by the Carter Administration, 1976–1980,” The International History Review 31, no. 4 (2009).
 Budiardjo and Liong, West Papua: The Obliteration of a People, 68-69.
 Anderson, “Colonialism and Cold Genocide: The Case of West Papua,” 14.
 Philpott, “This Stillness, This Lack of Incident: Making Conflict Visible in West Papua,” 260-79.
 John Pemberton, On the Subject of “Java” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, 1994), Bibliographies, Non-fiction, 4.
 Afriandi, “The Indonesian Coin Strategy: Failures and Alternative Approaches in Overcoming the Papuan Insurgency,” 25-26.
 Jim Elmslie, “West Papuan Demographic Transition and the 2010 Indonesian Census: “Slow Motion Genocide” or Not?, Cpacs Working Paper 11/1,” The University of Sydney. Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. (2010): 8.