Tuesday, July 22, 2008

West Papua: Western Sahara in the Pacific

Justin Anthony Knapp comments here prolifically, in addition to frequently sending me great articles about Western Sahara. I asked Justin to write about another colonial issue close to his heart--West Papua.

An intractable dispute between a marginalized colonial possession and a regional power with an ideological agenda. A referendum that promises to be neither to be free or fair. United Nations intervention that only helps the aggressor. Political prisoners held in secret prisons for indefinite sentences. A Western world that has ignored the conflict or given low-level assistance to the aggressor. If this all sounds old hat to you, you may be familiar with West Papua.

Situated on the western half of the island of New Guinea (Papua New Guinea is the other half), West Papua has been in a struggle for self-determination even longer than the Sahrawis have. Under colonialism, Papua was divided between British, Dutch, and German spheres of influence, but like Spanish Sahara, the process of colonization was altogether light and did not destroy the indigenous culture – to this day, over 900 languages are spoken on the island.

As World War II ended, it became evident that Britain's empire could not hold and the Dutch were not interested in maintaining a presence half-way across the globe. The eastern half of the island achieved independence in phases from Australia and the United Kingdom through 1975. The western half of the island, however, was targeted by the nascent Republic of Indonesia, who threatened the Dutch with military action if Papua was not ceded to them.

In 1959, the Netherlands allowed for the first instruments of self-rule on the island: local elections and the creation of national symbols such as a flag. Indonesia, watching its chance for a new possession slip away, invaded in 1962.

By the end of that year, the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority became the first UN agency to administer a territory and was tasked with organizing a referendum to gauge the will of the Papuans. Unable and unwilling to force out the invading Indonesians, the "referendum" devolved into a tribal council of slightly more than 1,000 tribal elders who voted unanimously for integration with Indonesia.

An indigenous movement – the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement or OPM) waged an armed struggle against the Indonesian power, but disarmed in 2006. As a product of the democratization of Indonesia and the disastrous razing of Timor-Leste, Papua was granted autonomy in 2000.

OPM sympathizers claim that this autonomy really a sham (sound familiar?) and rather than self-rule, Indonesia is pursuing a policy of genocide through cultural destruction, religious suppression, and actual mass killings. A high-profile case in 2005-2006 of 43 Papuan refugees fleeing to Australia briefly brought the case national attention there and there are several Australians sympathetic to the OPM cause.

To learn more about the conflict in West Papua:

  • See Peter D. King's West Papua and Indonesia Since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos?. This 2004 book is the only mass-market English book available on the conflict. King, an Australian, has been studying Papua for over a quarter century.

  • TAPOL's web page. "Tapol" is a Bahasa Indonesian word for "political prisoner;" the group focuses on human rights issues throughout Indonesia, with a special focus on Aceh, Papua, and Timor.

  • Koteka.net. Few Papuan news sites are maintained, and Koteka is the best of them(the name comes from the penis-gourd worn in traditional Papuan garb.)
Anyone who can appreciate the plight of the Sahrawis can understand the anti-colonial struggle in West Papua as well. Papua Merdeka!

Flickr photo from user naturemandala used under a Creative Commons license


  1. Hey, good to see some information on Papua. One remark:
    "As World War II ended, it became evident [..] the Dutch were not interested in maintaining a presence half-way across the globe." I think this is not entirely correct. When WW II ended the dutch drafted hundreds of thousands young men and assembled a huge army to send to the other side of the globe to start a colonial war. (Initially the men were told they were going to fight the Japanese.) After a lot of fighting and negotiations the former Dutch East Indies, minus West Papua, became independent as the United States of Indonesia. Why not West Papua? Probably because of the gigantic richness of gold and oil. The Dutch clinged to it till the leftleaning Soekarno was overtrown by the fascist Suharto. Only then they "lost interest".

  2. Interesting point, Van Kaas. Now that I think about it, my few lessons about Indonesian history do recall some fighting between Indonesians and the Dutch army as it tried to maintain post-war control. Let's see what Justin has to say.

  3. The Dutch were pro-independence for both Indonesia and West Papua, but from 1928 onwards a man called Sukarno called for Japan to declare war on the United States. Sukarno's theory was that Japan would need oil for the war, the Dutch would refuse, and he could come to power working for the Japanese.

    West Papua is the victim of the Rockefellers & Robert Lovett.

    In 1936 Mobil & Chevron discovered the world's richest gold & copper deposits were in West Papua. By 1959 the Papuan Mines Office found a large amount of alluvial gold in our Arafura Sea and began searching for which mountain it was coming from.

    The Rockefeller's in 1959 had their Freeport Sulphur company try to claim the Carstensz mountain region before the Dutch found out that was were the gold was flowing from.

    West Papua held national elections in January 1961. Freeport director Robert Lovett had his friend McGeorge Bundy appointed as the U.S. National Security Adviser. Bundy told Kennedy that Indonesia & Australia would become communist States unless the US forced the Dutch to sell the Papuans to Indonesia.

    John Kennedy had his brother Robert Kennedy write a contract of sale called the New York Agreement for the Dutch to trade West Papua to Indonesia.

    The United Nations got $200m in a bond scheme for adding its name to the contract which forbade the UN from interfering with the 1969 stage show to claim West Papua as part of Indonesia.

    Freeport got its gold & copper license in 1967 from General Suharto.

  4. Hello Andrew, thanks for the remarks but you can't tell me The Dutch were pro-independence for both Indonesia and West Papua for this is not the fact.
    The Dutch are a lot of people, but if you speak about those few who ruled the Dutch East Indies, you simply have to remind the word Indonesia was considered to be rebellious talk, which could get people in jail. It was the same like the Indonesians reacted to West Papua in the time they called it Irian Yaya, you know.
    And why do you think the Dutch went to war in 1946 as they were pro-independence?
    Some dutch indeed were pro-independence but they were not in power. I would like to remind there is a huge distance and difference between Aceh and Papua: The Achenese fought long and very bitter against the Dutch while Papuas not fought but welcomed them.

    Papuan gold was discovered in 1936 by geologist Dozy in the Grasberg en Ertsberg. He worked for Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (which became Shell) and the Nederlandsche Nieuw Guinea Petroleum Maatschappij (NNGPM).
    His findings were not made very public. The myth of Papua as a poor region is preserved for a long time. Professor Duco Hellema wrote in his book "Neutraliteit en Vijhandel" Holland did not want to give up Papua because of "emotional and ideologal motivations, not because of material interests because there were none." Dutch readers can find it on page 209 of this book that's considered a standard lecture on dutch foreign affairs.

  5. I can't find it in the links; did you see this recent ICG report on the Papua question and religion?

  6. Van Kaas,

    Far be it from me to tell you Dutch history, but my take on the Netherlands-West Papua relationship is that it was essentially cordial (e.g. as you mention, the Papuans welcomed the Dutch) and the Netherlands was content to retain a sphere of influence and an economic interest rather than an empire. Of course, the threat of Indonesia was not worth the effort and sadly, the Papuans were sold out in New York (had I more space, I would have explored this further.) The sad thing is, Indonesia has devastated the region and been far more kleptocratic than the Dutch ever would have been and the Papuans certainly would have chosen independence or some free association with the Netherlands long before integration into the Republic of Indonesia.


  7. The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)remains active in supporting human rights for West Papua. We are currently urging members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign on in letter in support of 2 Papuans who received sentences of 15 and 20 years for nonviolently protesting Indonesian policy. For more info see http://etan.org/action/action4/31alert.htm

    EtAN also co-published with the West Papua Advocacy Team a monthly report on recent events concerning the area. Go to http://etan.org/issues/wpapua/default.htm

  8. van Kaas - I missed seeing your response, I am very glad that you ask about this. Yes the Dutch public by the early 20th century including most of the government wanted independence for Java and the rest of the region. It had been an increasing movement since around 1860. Around 1928 Mohammad Hatta was arrested, the courts released him basically saying it was a legal entitlement of the Javanese people to call for violent overthrow of a colonial system if they wanted.

    But not the UK or the US or anybody else had been de-colonizing nations, and after the stepping stone of the Volksraad in 1918 the Dutch did not move fast enough.

    Why was Sukarno convicted ? Because from around 1928 he was calling for Japan to declare war on the USA. He believed Japan would need the region's oil for war and he could raise to power supplying that oil. A few years after the start of WW-II Germany and its business partners got the Japanese military to expand its war efforts across Asia and the Pacific.

    As for the previous VoC empire 1605-1795 they were business partners with Javanese warlords. Exploitation is not good for the locals irrespective who is exploiting them and their home lands.

  9. Thanks for the response, Andrew. As you see I'm not very quick too.

    I do have some comment on your vision.
    There have been two political paths in dutch politics of the 20th century; the colonial and the anti-colonial just as it has been everywhere. The colonial way was dominant and conservative. The anti-colonial ideology was in nature radical and revolutionary.
    In Europe anti-colonialism was found in the communist (and the anarchist) movement. But this was not the general public, it was the leftwing. In Java and Aceh Islam was anti-colonial as far as their own territory was concerned. Freedom and free speech, in particular in the colonies, was not guaranteed for people in the anti-colonial movement. Communists and also socialists were often persecuted as enemies of the state. Certainly in the Indies. Dutch communists were active in Java and the PKI, the Indonesian communist party which was slaughtered in 1965-67, was established with dutch support.

    De Volksraad (peoples council) existed in Java. It was part of colonial politics. In 1936 mr. Soetardjo (Sutarjo) submitted a petition to the Volksraad with the wish to become independent within 10 years. Two years later the demand was rejected.
    You can find some computer-translated info on Wikipedia

    Soekarno did not call for Japan to declare war on the USA. In his plea before the Landraad on 2 december 1930 Soekarno warned the dutch government for the looming war and asked to establish an Indonesian corps to defend the territory. After the defeat of the dutch colonial army he joined an Indonesian armed corps set up by the Japanese.

    After WWII also a Volksraad was established in Papua, but that was a different affair.

  10. From memory it was the Dutch church leading the pro-colonial push to protect their financial interests in Indonesia. There will always be a percentage of people who will do whatever evil profits them so long as they believe they can get away with it, that was truth behind the 190 years of terror by VoK and has been the truth behind the pass 48 years in West Papua.

    The Western Sahara is a difficult one, justice seems far away.

    BUT for West Papua, I can see a solution IF people will write to their UN representatives to get support for this motion at the UN General Assembly http://wpik.org/Src/UN_motion_2010.pdf