New Internationalist

West Papua Freedom songs

Recently, the Guardian published a moving article about West Papua. The author, Jay Griffiths, came across West Papuan music while visiting members of the country’s resistance – the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) or the Free Papua Movement. That experience demonstrated how important West Papuan songs are to all aspects of the everyday lives of the people.

‘Everywhere I walked in West Papua,’ she wrote, ‘the land was resonant with song.’ Griffiths was particularly taken with the protest and independence songs of the West Papuans.

Many might ask why the West Papuans sing protest songs.

It is very important that the plight of the West Papuans receives attention, as it receives very little coverage in the Western media.


Image: Australia West Papua Association Sydney.

The occupation of their country began in 1962, when Indonesian forces (TNI) illegally invaded West Papua at a time when the Dutch government was preparing the Papuans for self rule. The first massacres were carried out by the TNI within a few months of its arrival. Supported by the US, Indonesia was able to remain in control until there was a UN-supervised Act of Free Choice in 1969. Tragically, the whole process, organized by the TNI, was a farce – and a very brutal one for the locals.

The military handpicked 1,026 Papuans, ‘representing’ towns and villages across the country, to go to the capital, Jaya Pura, where there was a vote that was supposedly supervised by the UN. Tragically, the UN contingent was too small and unable to monitor all the actions of the TNI within Jaya Pura, let alone the rest of the country.

A unanimous vote for ‘integration’ was only reached because many of the representatives were threatened and blackmailed by the TNI soldiers, to ensure a pro-Indonesian outcome. There were reports of TNI brutality against those who opposed the incorporation of West Papua into Indonesia. Many people who publicly protested against integration were reported to have gone missing and have never been heard of since.

Soon after the Act of Free Choice (which West Papuans refer to as the Act of No Choice), the region was renamed ‘West Irian’ and became the 26th province of Indonesia with full UN recognition. Since 1962, West Papuans have experienced the same treatment at the hands of the TNI that the people of Timor Leste endured for 24 years – the plunder of resources; forced removal from their lands followed by their settlement with Indonesians; torture; extrajudicial killings; rape and other forms of violence.

West Papua has lost at least 100,000 people to this brutality, according to Amnesty International. Some observers believe that this number is nearer to 400,000. Every day, West Papuans face the extreme brutality and corruption of the TNI. The raising of the country’s Morning Star flag can lead to long years in prison or even execution.

The TNI has many business interests in the country – mostly in timber logging and copper; West Papua’s resources are being exploited to enrich the corrupt generals at the expense of the West Papuans.

Tragically, West Papua has not received much international support. To their great shame, the US and Australian governments provide support to the TNI despite its brutal history in West Papua, Timor Leste, Acheh and parts of Indonesia. The US has a controlling interest in West Papua’s copper and the Indonesian government has been a client state of the US since 1965, when the CIA assisted Suharto to overthrow the democratically elected Sukarno government.


Seal of Independence.

I know a little about West Papuan protest songs because in 1977, at the urging of an OPM member, I visited a West Papuan refugee community in Papua New Guinea. On one memorable evening, a group of musicians came to the house where I was staying and played their protest and independence songs. The music set to the songs sounded as though it would have been more appropriate for haunting Melanesian lullabies instead of protest songs.

The West Papuans also sent a message of solidarity to the people of Timor Leste, whose country had been invaded by the TNI some 15 months before. They wanted to express their support because they, like the people of Timor Leste, were confronted with the same enemy.

Fortunately, I had a small tape recorder with me and was able to record their singing that night. The songs and the message were later sent to the Timor Leste resistance and to Indonesian refugees exiled in Europe.  

Earlier this year, I saw a film, Strange Birds in Paradise – A West Papuan Story.

It, too, highlights West Papuan music and gives much detail about the dreadful conditions in West Papua today. A key feature of the film is a story about two West Papuans exiled in Melbourne and how they are promoting their protest songs. One of them, Jacob Rumbiak, was a prisoner of the TNI for 10 years. The documentary includes information about the brutal behaviour of the TNI towards ordinary Papuans and urges people to take action to support their struggle for independence and the removal of the TNI.

In the 21st century, the tragedy besetting the people of West Papua should not be occurring.

Solidarity groups around the world are calling for:

1. All nations that have ties with Indonesia to cease their co-operation with the TNI and to cease aiding it.

2. The UN:

- To organize an international cessation of all military aid to and co-operation with the TNI until all the alleged war criminals in its ranks are brought to justice;

- To demand that the TNI withdraw from West Papua and allow its people to have a genuine UN-administered referendum to decide their own future;

- To establish an international war crimes tribunal to bring the alleged war criminals in the TNI to justice and to make them compensate the victims of their crimes.

The very least that responsible citizens of the world can do is to support these demands.

In the meantime, West Papuans will continue their songs urging their compatriots to never surrender. They know that the TNI may kill the singers but it cannot kill their songs of freedom.

Andrew Alcock

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For more information on the plight of West Papua please see: Free West Papua campaign.

Also: New Internationalist April 2002 issue West Papua: We Will Be Free!.

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