The border 1: 1962 seems like only yesterday
23 July 2009
PAUL OATES reflects on events surrounding the confrontation between Indonesia and the Dutch in the early 1960s and what they mean in the current context
World War 2 had been over for only 17 years, the Korean War less than ten years and the Malayan confrontation was still fresh in people's minds.
Given the turmoil within Indonesia, President Sukarno decided his people needed their attention diverted to an external 'nationalist' cause and initiated military action against the Dutch in West Papua, or Dutch New Guinea as we called it.
Indonesian paratroopers armed with AR16's, and very poor maps, frequently drifted across the Australian border and encountered our patrols with police armed with antique .303's. Very nasty situations were avoided often due to good luck on both sides.
I overheard my father (a WW2 Army staff officer) saying to an ex-Army mate over the phone at the time, "It looks like war."
Then, almost overnight, the Dutch caved in and it seemed the hiatus was over. Sukarno’s brinksmanship - very similar to that used by a Mr Hitler prior to WW2 – had succeeded. Later, when the backroom machinations emerged, it became clear that our allies, the Americans, had a vested interest in the situation.
Now why would that have any bearing on a matter between Indonesia and Holland? Well, keeping the Malacca and Sunda Strait open so the US Seventh Fleet could move freely from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean seemed like a feasible reason given the situation in SE Asia at the time.
So a paper treaty was forced on the Dutch. A treaty that everyone in the know knew would only be honoured in the breach.
The current situation in West Papua must be understood on multifaceted level. Previous claims that some Sultan had an historical dominion over all the islands in the region are, at best, very hard to prove.
In the sixties, Indonesian maps showed West Irian (Dutch NG), East Irian (PNG) and South Irian (Australia). It was suggested euphemistically that 'Irian' merely referred to an 'island'. Now I thought ‘Pulo' was the Bahasa word for island.
Clearly the two peoples of PNG and West Papua are ethnically similar and in no way like the people of greater Indonesia. That aspect was not lost on the Indonesians who commenced their transmigration policy whereby Javanese were encouraged to migrate and so create a more homogenous nation.
In Papua, the ethnic differences stand out markedly. Forty years ago, the political situation mainly centred on national pride and global strategic considerations. Now it is also a matter of natural resources and who owns and mines them.
For Australia and PNG, this is a very difficult situation on our doorstep. There will never be another East Timor. Indonesia would never willingly allow a loss of face like that again.
So it boils down to an uncomfortable situation maintained by all sides at the apparent expense of those in West Papua who have never been given a real say in what they themselves want. This is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Australia would do well to prepare for the inevitable explosion. This may start with an unofficial transmigration across the Torres Strait or into PNG as has happened, if only in a limited way, in the past.
Paul Oates is a former PNG patrol officer and administrator of Christmas Island. He now farms in south-east Queensland and is a regulatr contributor to PNG Attitude
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