A Short History of West Papua

Since the 18th century, the South Pacific island of West Papua has been an object of imperial ambition, with the British, German, Dutch and Japanese laying claim to parts of the island at different times.

The declaration of the Indonesian Republic in 1945 brought most territories of the former Dutch East Indies under Indonesian sovereignty - except for the western half of the island of New Guinea, which remained under Dutch control.

In the 1950s, the Dutch government began preparing the territory for independence through a process of decolonisation. However, the path to independence was intercepted when the government of the new Republic of Indonesia launched a military operation in December 1961 for the 'return' of Papua (then known by Indonesia as West Irian).

Coming at a time of intense Cold War politics, Indonesia's military expansionism attracted international attention. The historical record also shows that US investors had recently secured a stake in Papua's natural wealth.

The United States stepped in to broker a deal. It pressured the Dutch to agree to allow Indonesia to administer Papua while the United Nations oversaw negotiations on its future.


1969: 'The Act of Free Choice'

Indonesia was mandated to administer a UN-supervised referendum on the territory's future in 1969, the so-called 'Act of Free Choice'. Instead of organising a one-man, one-vote referendum, Indonesia handpicked a council of 1,026 tribal leaders from a population of more than 800,000, who would decide on behalf of the Papuan people whether the territory would integrate with Indonesia or opt for independence.

Faced with coercion and intimidation, the council returned a unanimous decision favouring Papua's integration with Indonesia.

Papuans, cheated of a real chance for self-determination, describe the 1969 consultation as an 'Act of No Choice'. The legitimacy of the process has also been questioned by the few international observers present at that time, human rights activists and legal experts in Indonesia and internationally.

Yet, at the time, the UN merely 'took note' of the undemocratic process of the Act. This amounted to recognition of Indonesian sovereignty (unlike East Timor, whose forced integration into Indonesia was never recognised by the UN).

Opposition to Indonesian rule

From the outset, most Papuans opposed Indonesian rule, and they resented the way they had been denied their right to govern themselves. In response to this opposition - both from armed groups and the general population - the Indonesian government resorted to violence and oppression.

This is the background to the colonisation by Indonesians that threatens indigenous Papuans' existence - and the root of the conflict that continues today.

Papuans, a mix of more than 300 tribes of ethnic Melanesians and mostly Christians, have little in common with the Muslim Indonesians. However, the transmigration policy, which led to the influx of Indonesians from the rest of the archipelago, has diluted the Papuan population from 97 per cent in 1960 to about 50 per cent in 2000.

Special Autonomy

Respect for Papuan aspirations and a real chance to resolve the causes of conflict and injustice in Papua appeared possible after the Suharto regime's downfall in 1998 - but only for a brief moment. Following East Timor's independence in 1999, concerns about the fragmentation of the Indonesian Republic were deep, and the nationalist ideology of the Indonesian state proved too strong.

Yet, in Papua, the fervour for independence could not simply be reversed. To quell demands for independence, the Indonesian government offered a package of autonomy measures to give Papuans a greater say in their governance. Under Special Autonomy, the provincial administration has greater authority over local policy and decision-making and increased control of revenues raised in Papua.

However, many of the promised reforms have not been implemented, and Special autonomy has not brought about significant improvements in indigenous Papuans' welfare or dignity.

The commitment of the Indonesian government to autonomy is also increasingly questioned. This was made clear when a presidential decree, issued in 2003, authorised Papua's division into three provinces - a move that contravened both the spirit and the letter of autonomy laws.

While Indonesia has made great progress in establishing democracy and the rule of law since the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998, the political and military elite in Jakarta cannot entertain the possibility of Papuan independence nor tolerate any moves in this direction. Some of the past techniques for suppressing dissent are still alive and continue to result in human rights violations, fear and submission. The struggle for peace and justice in Papua continues.

(Source: generally taken from Fr Neles' comment 'West Papua: The struggle for peace with justice')