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The diabolic forces who inhabit our politics

Connecting the dots on West Papua, Part 2


PORT MORESBY – A survey of Facebook commentaries on West Papua shows that the Indonesian Embassy in Port Moresby has stepped up its social media activity.

This has exposed citizen journalists advocating for West Papua to a degree of toxic communication in recent weeks.

Nonetheless, Papua New Guinea is an emergent democracy and any political discourse that matters gets published on the public noticeboard of the internet.

Democracy does dies in darkness and it is important that conversation about West Papua features on that public noticeboard.

Indonesia is conscious that Melanesian solidarity for West Papua has strengthened since 1985.

In those 40 years, the-nation states that make up the Melanesian Spearhead Group have taken on board all the available evidence on West Papua, which is truly on their radar.

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) is seen to have embodied the aspirations of Papuans who have continued to seek independence from day one in the 1960s.

Papuan nationalism did not disappear but it consolidated when the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice failed to provide the intended opportunity for West Papuan self-determination.

Pro-Merdeka (freedom) civil resistance organisations were operating underground since the 1960s, but it was only after the 'Papuan Spring' of 2000 that pro–democracy protests throughout the former Dutch colony began to highlight the corrosive effects of colonisation and globalisation on the Indigenous people of the region.

The rights of the Indigenous peoples had been first argued by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the nineteenth century.

Wallace travelled through Southeast Asia and Oceania and in his book, ‘The Malay Archipelago’, published in 1869, for the first time Asia was distinguished from the southwest Pacific region.

Furthermore, Wallace developed a high opinion of Indigenous people.

“In my solitude,” Wallace wrote, “I have pondered much on the incomprehensible subjects of space, eternity, life and death.

“If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.’

The naturalist Wallace could look beyond international law, principles of decolonisation and self-determination and territorial sovereignty to see that there must be some other principle regulating the infinitely varied forms of animal life, human life - and corruption in high places.

West Papua was sold off as a commodity, Wallace said, and this was fraud.

A century and a half later, the fight to the finishing line is still on.

ULMWP has done well to stand up to the Indonesian occupying authorities and its military regime in West Papua.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group has options for West Papua and the way forward.

It is part of the political task of ULMWP to connect the dots.

And that’s not an easy task, for the diametrically opposed concepts that defy resolution are self-determination for West Papua (the 'pebble in Jakarta's shoes') and the territorial sovereignty that Indonesia argues as justifying its claim to the incorporation of West Papua.

It is the legal doctrine of Uti Possidetis Juris that seems to assist Indonesia to keep West Papua from freedom: the canon of international law stating that, upon the end of belligerence, territory and other property remains with its possessor.

On the other hand, it is argued, that the 1949 declaration that proclaimed Indonesia to be an independent nation left out West Papua.

It did not recognise the existence of people of different ethnicity. It followed from this oversight that Uti Possidetis Juris is irrelevant and limited in its application.

Supporting this view is the 2019 ruling of the International Court of Justice relating to the British occupation of the Chagos Islands.

The Court found that the UK's continuing administration of the archipelago, which includes the largest US naval base in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, is a continuing internationally wrongful act, which the UK was under an obligation to cease as soon as possible.

Britain had retained Chagos Island for strategic and military purposes but its claim that Chagos was a sovereignty territory of Britain was illegal.

Since the 1960s, Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty over West Papua has been argued on two factors: first, that there had been a common experience of colonialism; and secondly, that common suffering was endured throughout the Indonesian Archipelago during the Dutch colonial occupation.

The deadlock between Indonesia and the Netherlands over the issue of West Papuan territorial sovereignty at the time of independence in 1949 continued into the 1950s.

In 1954, the Indonesian government took the dispute to the United Nations General Assembly.

Indonesia claimed that West Papua should be under Indonesian authority because it was a region that had been part of the Dutch East Indies.

Indonesia based its boundaries on the territory that had been occupied by the former Dutch East Indies’ rather than on the fact that there a clear ethnic difference between the peoples of Indonesia and the peoples of West Papua.

The Netherlands argued firmly that the then 700,000 Papuans living on the island of New Guinea were “neither racially nor culturally related to the Indonesians” and that the Netherlands had “a duty to help them develop to the point at which they could make an informed decision on their future.”

The dispute ended in 1969 when the deadlock was resolved through an election process commonly known as the ‘act of free choice’ (or, in Indonesian ‘penentuan pendapat rakyat’ - determination of the people's opinion’).

The process was a sham. Only 1,022 Indigenous Papuans, handpicked by the military, were selected to vote. The vote took place in eight regencies and the conditions in which it occurred were oppressive.

Electors were asked to vote by raising their hands or reading from prepared scripts. They voted unanimously in favour of Indonesian control.

According to Reuters journalist Hugh Lunn, the men selected to vote were coerced by threats of violence against themselves and their families.

Contemporary diplomatic cables, now in the possession of the US National Security Archive, reveal that American diplomats believed Indonesia could not have won a fair vote and also suspected that the vote was not implemented freely, but saw the event as a "foregone conclusion" and "marginal to U.S. interests".

Since then, West Papua has been affirmed as a territory of the Republic of Indonesia.

And the Uti Possidetis Juris legal doctrine has seemed to legitimise Indonesia’s claim to sovereignty over West Papua.

Until the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on Chagos Island was handed down.

This essay by Boniface Kaiyo is to be continued


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