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West Papua: after 60 years of betrayal the pressure mounts


AFTER 60 years, Indonesia has lost the battle to win over the hearts and minds of Papuans who continue to demand self-rule today, as they did from day one. Papuans know what they want and they know who their enemies are.

Meanwhile Indonesian hardliners keep up their costly propaganda effort to justify the secret war on Australia’s doorstep.

The aim is to keep the issue of West Papua out of international scrutiny long enough to diminish the possibility of international arbitration to rein in the humanitarian crisis and salvage the United Nation’s dream that turned into a catastrophe.

Indonesia is troubled by the politics of Melanesia and the gradual Melanesian awakening to the independence struggle in West Papua.

The story of Papua is about fraud. West Papua was claimed as a colony of the Netherlands in 1828 and modern Indonesia and West Papua were occupied as part of the Dutch East Indies trading empire until World War II.

After two young Indonesian nationalists, future president Sukarno and future vice president Hatta, seized the chance to declare independence in August 1945, international mediation eventually compelled the Dutch to recognise the new nation in 1949. The Netherlands ceded control of the vast archipelago, with one important exception, West Papua.

The Indonesians had envisaged that Papua would be included in the new state according to the doctrine of uti possidetis juris, that decolonised regions retain the same boundaries formerly possessed as colonial territories.

The Dutch argued that the doctrine was extinguished because Papua had been administered separately to their other colonies. The international community acknowledged Papua’s status as separate and the region continued under Dutch sovereignty.

The Netherlands set in motion programs directed towards preparing West Papua for independence including the establishment of a West New Guinea Council consisting largely of Papuan representatives.

The Council advocated that a temporary UN government replace Dutch control over Papua whilst an international body assessed the nation’s status. It also Council announced West Papua as the name of the independent state, amongst other initiatives adopting the Morning Star flag.

This triggered a series of offensives by the Indonesian military against the independence movement. On the diplomatic front, Indonesia negotiated to remove West Papua from the UN’s list of non-self-governing trust territories.

As violence escalated between Indonesian and Dutch forces, the United States government and the UN intervened effectively ending Dutch occupation in West Papua. The tragedy was that the ‘mother of democracy’, the USA, decided to back Sukarno’s claim to Papua.

From its inception in 1949, Western governments had become wary of the potential Indonesia held for altering the balance of power in the Pacific.

US and Australian policymakers in the mid-1950s attempted to counter this threat by supporting uprisings in Sumatra and Sulawesi, calculating that a more fragmented, economically weaker Indonesia would increase regional security.

The struggle for freedomA developing military and diplomatic alliance between Indonesia and Russia, however, caused an abrupt change in American policy toward Indonesia and Papua became a powerful bargaining tool. The US had a prize for Indonesia that would decisively shift its alignment away from the Soviet Union.

Under ‘the New York Agreement’, Papua would undergo a period of UN temporary government which would supervise the Dutch withdrawal and the beginning of Indonesian control by 1963, After this, a vote of self-determination had to take place. The agreement had the crucial effect of acknowledging that Papuans had a right to self-determination.

In fact, the transfer from Dutch to Indonesian control occurred without any act of self-determination or consultation with the Papuan people. Democracy was put on notice.

West Papua experienced an influx of Indonesian military and personnel, local Papuan representative councils were prohibited, and freedom of speech, cultural expression, and involvement in pro-independence political parties were severely curtailed.

This abrupt change of fortune provoked significant dissent in Papua but protests against Indonesian occupation were met with brutality. It is estimated that 30,000 indigenous Papuans were killed during the period of unofficial Indonesian government from 1963 to 1969 as part of a systematic campaign of intimidation by the military.

Alongside this violence, Jakarta devoted considerable resources to investigating the mineral deposits in the Papuan territories. A persistent thread running throughout the hidden history of Papua is the enormous mineral wealth of the region’s mountains, including the world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine operated by a subsidiary of US mining conglomerate Freeport McMoRan.

West Papua’s nickel reserves and forests were distributed between a number of influential American, European and Japanese companies whilst arrangements to export natural gas, silver, fish, oil, and timber were also made.

The fraud was complete by 1969. Papua’s resources were divided up and parceled out. Now, several of the world’s most powerful corporations had strong reasons to maintain Papua’s political situation. In the event of independence, these economic arrangements could be nullified.

In 1969, the Indonesian government fulfilled its promises in the New York Agreement by conducting, ostensibly under UN supervision, an infamous plebiscite that came to be known as the “Act of Free Choice.” It was anything but.

Papuan activist Rex Rumakiek has written: “1,022 carefully selected tribal leaders were asked to show hands in front of officials, which included an intimidating military presence. They of course voted for integration- it would have been impossible to vote otherwise when they had been forewarned of what would happen to their lives and their families if they did.”

It was a whitewash. The mood at the UN was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible whether or not a million people had their fundamental rights trampled upon. It remains one of the great scandals of the United Nations that annexation was given the fatal appearance of legitimacy.

Today, Indonesian hardliners are troubled by the growing internationalisation of the West Papua issue and the option to allow international arbitration which is pushed at the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Pacific Islands Forum.

Jakarta wants to avoid international scrutiny and insists that it has nothing to hide. Yet it continues to refuse foreign journalists entry into the Papuan provinces, there are weekly reports of killings and unexplained deaths that flow in from Papua and the likelihood of change appears low unless international pressure can prompt a referendum as an option for Indonesia to resolve the West Papua issue.

In the East Timor case, a referendum was possible due to a number of factors including international pressure, the downfall of President Suharto and a personal plea from Australian prime minister John Howard. The referendum was successful but spelt the death knell for Habibie’s presidency whereby he paid the price for standing up for democracy.

Increased scrutiny by the international community is troubling the current Jokowi administration as it pursues a reform agenda which underpins a more realistic approach towards human rights concerns and separatist tensions in Papua.

For the present, it seems clear that the prospects of peace are unlikely to be improved by taking Papuans for a ride. West Papua is qualified to be free. If a referendum is not possible, then international arbitration should be allowed to proceed to determine the political status of West Papua.


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