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Of wars & warriors: the persistence of conflict in PNG

West Papua: Is this the time to heed freedom’s call?


THE DIVISION OF NEW GUINEA between two states, indeed between two continents, can be traced back to 1828 when the Dutch proclaimed their territorial possessions ended at the 141st meridian east, roughly halfway across the large island.

During the scramble for empire that also decided the colonial demarcations of Africa, New Guinea's eastern half was to be administered by German, British and, subsequently Australia colonial governments, before gaining independence in 1975 as Papua New Guinea.

However, the western half of New Guinea remains a colony, having being forced in 1962-63 to swap Dutch colonialism for a much more pernicious, militarised Indonesian form.


As such, this accident of colonial cartography has proved remarkably durable, and through Indonesian control officially demarcates the border between Asia and Oceania, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to its west and the Pacific Islands Forum to the east.

Indigenous Papuans are a Melanesian people in common with Pacific neighbours Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji, and are thus racially and ethnically distinct from the vast majority of the Indonesian population.


The independence movement in West Papua has not … captured the world's attention, despite the fact that Indonesian misrule has resulted in around 100,000 Papuan deaths since 1963. An estimated 30,000 of these died prior to the territory's formal incorporation into Indonesia in 1969, and whilst unlawful killings still occur in West Papua they are on smaller scale since the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Nevertheless, Tracey Banivanua-Mar in ‘A thousand miles of cannibal lands: imagining away genocide in the re-colonization of West Papua', Journal of Genocide Research, argues, like various other analysts, that the graphic description, depiction, and effects of continuing military operations and Papuan demographic drowning as genocide, and other rights abuses remain common.

If charges of Indonesian genocide against Papuans become more accepted then Indonesia will likely face greater outside pressure over West Papua.

Indeed, Akihisa Matsuno has identified another factor that is becoming increasingly relevant to questions of secession in West Papua and elsewhere, namely a failure in governing a disputed territory. This moral dimension behind self-determination, what is termed as a "shift in construction of sovereign responsibility" apparently worked in favour of Timor-Leste.

Thus, he argues that, "the world now tends to see the issue of self-determination not in terms of its original legality alone but more in terms of contemporary situations of functioning morality within the state borders".

He draws parallels between the present reality in West Papua and Timor-Leste in the late 1980s, in which, "There were serious human rights abuses, the area was closed to foreign media, (an) influx of migrants was marginalising locals and causing simmering resentment, local leaders began to think that the government policies had failed, and there was an emerging young generation of locals who were educated under the Indonesian system as Indonesian children (who) nonetheless refused to identify themselves as Indonesians".

On the other hand, however, it should be recognised that Timorese independence was not wholly due to international pressure but more of a miscalculation by Habibie that his interests would be better served by granting a referendum, which the maverick politician fully expected Indonesia to win.

Despite the problems that an independent West Papua would inevitably face, South Sudan is in a much more precarious situation as most of its villages have no electricity or running water, and few sealed roads exist anywhere in the country.

Moreover, West Papua's neighbours PNG, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu have so far remained intact, despite the difficulties in governing ethnically diverse and geographically scattered populations.

One of the arguments advanced by Jakarta and its supporters against Timor-Leste's independence was that Indonesia's then 27th province was economically unviable and incapable of governing itself.

Whilst independent Timor-Leste has suffered setbacks and remains fragile, the situation has improved markedly since the Indonesian military left. A similar outcome in West Papua, whether the result of independence or within a properly implemented autonomy package, would be a major breakthrough for ordinary Papuans given that Timor-Leste's indigenous population are now doing much better than their Papuan counterparts.

This writer agrees with Akihisa Matsuno and his thesis on the decolonization of West Papua. If truth be told, West Papua's status outside of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia, as provided by the Round Table Conference at The Hague, points to blanks which exist in the writing of possible histories for Non – Self Governing Territories including West New Guinea or West Papua.

It was the US which was pussy–footing or had misgivings on the question of self–determination demanded by Filipinos, yet had an insight into the requirements of the time, and into what was ripe for peace, development and human rights. Eventually, the US had to account for very fundamental reasons.

Similarly, Indonesia cannot justify its domination in West New Guinea or West Papua due to the circumstances that do not prevail, there being no reason any more to render any logic in keeping its government authorities and military occupation uninvited on the shores of West Papua, Melanesia, and the Pacific.

President Woodrow Wilson was clearly committed to nation–building projects in the non–European world, even though there were few parallels in contemporary European colonial policy that aroused great man then.

Maybe it is time to anticipate a new trend in US statecraft, the option for the US to befriend West Papua both due to the emerging status of G77, and in the face of the rise of China as a world ‘soft approach’ super power, in other words, in order to counter the Chinese challenge and the Chinese Machiavelli in the Pacific.

West Papuan aspirations to self–determination centres on US cunning of reason supposed in the decolonisation of Philippines in which leadership was impacted by willed and accomplished US Presidents from 1934 till 1946.

They set passion to work for itself, and such passion could similarly spare West Papua from the dangerous corollary within the perennial revolt against freedom and reason, and be recognized as a Republic defacto or dejure under international law.

A laissez–faire nature of the Special Autonomy Law, the forerunner to a possible West Papua Independence Act, would have set the momentum to bring about decisive reforms together with the darker aspects: characteristics of failed states usually denoted by high political instability; rampant corruption; dysfunctional economies; collapse of government services; breakdown of law and order; internal conflicts; and loss of state authority and legitimacy.

These misgivings were normal and merely transitional features of the transfer of government responsibility to the Papuans. A proclamation of independence was issued on 1 July 1971 at Waris by Papuan nationalists led by the Commander of the Free Papua Movement or TPN/OPM.

It points towards a defacto or dejure Papuan state which was formed where the colonial cartography's more arbitrary yet effective of boundaries cuts across the island of New Guinea at 141st meridian east. The Papua Conflict, therefore, is nothing but mutual violence and a state of war between one nation and another.

A feasible tenet of the state of war approach to deliver would be for the two – term Democrat US President, Barrack Obama to factor in and embrace critical sociology and a long – overdue perspective on the salience of conflict.

The US President could call on the Indonesians to begin negotiations, adopt the assumption that conflict would in the end destroy existing social arrangements, be correctly willed and accomplished, and as a matter of practical necessity set his passion for the democratic proposition to work for itself. It is democratic to lead without praise, taken for granted by the world today.

Here, President Barrack Obama could prove his moral worth, and find satisfaction in the culture of humanity and the UN’s inclination to peace, development, human rights. President Woodrow Wilson accomplished a formidable assignment in his time under the same banner of democratic proposition that defines the greatest nation on earth.

When all things come undone, Indonesia’s illegal annexation of West Papua and the demise of its claim to New Guinea will be furnished by intellectual corruption of a whole generation of Papuans who have become tools of interests; of state interests, from above, and personal interests from below.

It is a story about Papuans who were casualties of war fought by global powers who designed it in the absence of passion for the Melanesian Machiavelli, and therefore the call which arouses great men from Melanesia in the present historical epoch who will express the will of the time to be feared rather than loved, with bold dialectical twist.

In any case, a trail of flopped decolonization of the Papuan race over 60 long years is comprehensible and consequently the incarceration and capitulation of Indonesia over the mutual violence and state of war in West Papua demands a verdict today, if never before. Perhaps, West Papua’s time to be free has come, all pistons firing.

You can read the complete version of Bonny Kaiyo’s meticulously researched paper here - Download 'West Papua - Defusing the minefield'


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Paul Oates

Wow! What a fascinating read that link ( provided. Ultimately, that US bloke Bundy convinced Kennedy, Rusk and the US to ditch the West Papuans in favour of Indonesia while ignoring the UN responsibility to have a vote of self determination. The deal was supposedly to try and provide leverage on Indonesia and distance it from Communist influence by 'giving' it West Papua.

Of course there was no conflict of interest in this matter. Bundy's direct link direct with Freeport was purely coincidence.

I wonder what the West Papuans would say to the US if they ever had a chance?

Interesting conjecture about there still being a role for a UN sponsored vote. That appears to have about as much chance under the present climate as a snow flake in hell unless the current contest for influence in the South Asian region suddenly goes pear shaped.

When you really find out what happens behind the scenes (after 50 years) it makes you doubt whether any national diplomacy ultimately has any reasonable ethics at all?

As some Africans are won't to say: 'When elephants make love, the grass gets trampled'.

Andrew Daeron

The Sundra Straits argument by Paul Oates is a fair comment, but none the less both the US and the UN have a lot invested in their claims of respecting the rule of law - not withstanding the dubious US definition of law sometimes.

The issue that has recently come to light is that it appears that West Papua is UN trust territory as well as a non-self-governing territory.

It was not the Security Council that sent UN troops to occupy West Papua in 1962, it was the General Assembly which made resolution 1752 (XVII). See the argument at

I believe Indonesia did not submit to demands by foreign human rights advocates to allow East Timor its right of a UN recognised act of self-determination; but Indonesia submitted to the Conoco-Philips (oil company) decision to befriend the Timorese instead of depending on the Indonesian claim to the colony after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) explained in 1995 that East Timor was still a non-self-governing territory entitled to self-determination; and then Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Belo and Horta in '96.

So long as Australian and other corrupt politicians alleged Indonesia held sovereignty of East Timor, the people were going to remain under Indonesian rule.

But once the ICJ made it impossible for the business partners of Jakarta to maintain the fiction, the decolonization process was able to resume..

I am hoping that the Trusteeship question will bring the global spotlight back onto the rights of West Papua and end the tyranny of Indonesian colonial rule

Paul Oates

It would be highly unlikely for the US to ever raise the question of West Papua while ever the imperative of free passage through the Malacca or Sundra Straits is required for it's concept of global security. Add that to the Freeport mine and the scales tip inevitably in favour of a status quo.

My understanding is that the Dutch (actually the Netherlands) grated Self Government/Independence to West Papua and that this was the initiator of Sukano's decision to invade. I can remember at the time, Australia looked like going to war over Indonesian incursions into PNG. Not long before we had previously defended Malaysia against Indonesia but some people seem to forget history don't they?

It was only after the US tipped the Indonesians off that they would be supported that everyone else had to back down. The same situation occurred with Timor when Whitlam acceded to Indonesian pressure, (although he claimed many years later he was misinterpreted?) It was only pressure from Howard on Habibe that caused the vote to be taken and we then defended Timor against Indonesian attack. The fact that the people of Timor seemed to swap a Bahasa overload for one of a Portuguese speaking one is something many Australians don't seem to know anything about. Still the blissful ignorance about PNG is another example of how molly coddled our nation appears to have become.

The problem that must be addressed and settled is one of culture. Indonesian can never accept the loss of it's territory without a loss of face, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of history. Until a way around that can be found, the current impasse will continue.

The UN as everyone knows is a 'paper tiger'. Papuan solidarity would do better to work with Indonesia than to publically rail against them. Look at the friendly relations that Timor now works at with the Indonesians.

The problem is that the mineral resources of West Papua are now known and that creates a big impediment to any future change of sovereignty.

Mary Fairio

The time is always right to do what is right- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Barbara Liotscos

Yes! It is time!
Don't give up.

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