Online Guerillas — Social Media and the West Papua Liberation Struggle
Louis Plottel (MA Migration and Diaspora Studies) discusses the use of social media in the West Papuan liberation movement.
In the early morning of December 1, 2018, twenty Indonesian construction workers disappeared from their barracks in the Nduga regency of West Papua. The twenty men were held overnight then killed the following morning by their captors, a collection of local residents opposed to the highway which the men had been constructing as well as Indonesian incursions into their territory — the semi-autonomous West Papua region. In the days following, the Indonesian government sent heavy artillery into villages in the area, ostensibly to weed out the perpetrators and evacuate any survivors. Yet, the official rhetoric of the Indonesian military, emphasizing peaceful collaboration with local villagers, contrasted with reports of indiscriminate bombing and images of chemical burns that locals began posting on social media shortly thereafter.
The Nduga massacre, as it has come to be known, was a relatively small event in the fifty-year Indonesian occupation of West Papua. But in light of the ban on foreign journalists traveling to the region, social media has become a major platform for locals to disseminate evidence of state violence and drum up international support for West Papuan independence. The case of West Papua opens up the question: can citizen journalism and social media be democratizing forces for independence movements around the world? If so, how do they circumvent official state discourse to build networks of solidarity across the globe?
For many including myself, news of the Nduga Massacre came through the Free West Papua Campaign (FWPC) facebook page. With over 380,000 followers, the FWPC page has a wide reach. In addition to updates on the security situation, for which the page acts as a sort of archive, FWPC also posts images of people standing next to West Papua’s independence flag or otherwise showing support for West Papuan independence. Through FWPC even non-Papuans may see themselves as participants in the independence struggle. In other words, even though the FWPC represents a localized independence movement, it acts as a mirror for global social media consumers, allowing them to align themselves with the ideals of human rights, social justice and self-determination through something as simple as a selfie.
While activists in the diaspora like Benny Wenda have worked to draw attention to the plight of West Papuans and pressure the Indonesian government for a referendum on independence, locals in Nduga have simultaneously become media producers on an international scale. Social media pages dedicated to the independence struggle have rendered local events into global media phenomena, while cameras and phone recordings have taken on a new role in mediating violent conflict.
This social media campaigning is not only intended to galvanize the international community and speak out against Indonesia, it is also part of the development of a West Papuan national consciousness. West Papua is not an inherent and timeless polity, its unification is very much the product of a particular history. Social media has helped develop this unified political discourse, aligning West Papuan activists with other oppressed peoples across the globe while connecting to international organizations campaigning on their behalf.
It may be impossible to know exactly what happened in Nduga in December 2018. However, if we are to learn anything from the response on social media, it is that West Papuan independence activists are continuing to fight for independence with a powerful new weapon: the internet.
Image credit: Nichollas Harrison – Photographer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20780148