What drives settler colonialism? Evidence from West Papua

Lachlan McNamee, University of California Los Angeles

States – from Israel, to Turkey, China, or Morocco – routinely seek to settle disputed territories with members of a majority ethnic group. But not all states settle frontier regions and even those that do are highly selective as to where, when, and whom they colonize. So, under what conditions do states coercively settle frontier regions? I examine this question in the context of of West Papua, Indonesia. Indonesia embarked on the world’s largest voluntary migration programme in the 20th century, resettling millions of farmers to its outer islands. In one of the most contentious aspects of this program, the state resettled approximately 300,000 farmers to the province of West Papua, displacing indigenous Papuans and transforming its demographic composition. But despite controlling West Papua since the 1960s, resettlement or ‘transmigration’ was very limited in West Papua until the mid-1980s and was thereafter focused on only certain areas of the province. So, what accounts for the incidence of transmigration in West Papua? I draw on confidential government sources to compile a new, complete demographic panel of all transmigration in each regency of West Papua between 1964-2000. I show that, after an aborted Papuan uprising in 1984, Indonesia ethnically cleansed and settled its border with Papua New Guinea to forestall cross-border insurgent activity. I then show that, after the discovery of the lucrative Grasberg gold mine in the 1980s, Indonesia cleansed and settled the area around the mine. By drawing on internal panel data, this paper provides the first comprehensive evidence that transmigration has been strategically used by the Indonesian state to defeat secessionist insurgents and secure control over Papua’s rich resource base. I draw out the implications of these findings for our understanding of the transmigration program in Indonesia and the logic of settler colonialism more generally.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 99. Going the Distance: Comparative Settler Colonialisms across Time and Space