The independence movement in West Papua has been fueled by demographics. After a census in 2010, experts believed that settlers from other parts of Indonesia already outnumbered indigenous Melanesians, or would very soon. Now, a new study shows that indigenous people remain the majority. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.
With access to fresh numbers from the Indonesia Statistics Office, Jim Elmslie, of Sydney University found that settlers dominate coastal lowlands and urban centers, the richest parts of the country. While Papuans still make up the overwhelming majority in the rugged, undeveloped interior.
“West Papuans of the interior have not only survived Indonesian occupation,” Elmslie wrote in a paper for The Asia-Pacific Journal,” they have kept their lands and cultures largely intact, which continues to underpin calls for an independent West Papua and conflict with the Indonesian government.”
After ten years of research, Elmslie compares the pattern in West Papua to the occupation of Australia. “The fertile easy country…was quickly taken over by farmer-settlers, “ he wrote, ”but the harsh interior and the northern reaches of Australia were left alone for nearly a century.”
Overall, he calculates that Melanesians make up 66 percent of the population, and dominate an area roughly the size of Great Britain. But that may not last. New roads into the interior lead to mines, oil and gas fields and newcomers, many from Java, come to work on huge plantations of oil palms. The conflict is religious as well as racial, with nearly all of the settlers Muslims, and nearly all Papuans Christians. And, going back to the model of Australia, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for Melanesian Papuans, the fight for independence is also a fight against genocide.