Though the historically convoluted turmoil in West Papua is well understood and amply documented in international bodies such as the United Nations, academic circles around the world, and inside the state departments of the world’s leading capitals, the island’s agonized peoples have received scant attention or support from the international community. Realpolitik determines the world’s crisis agenda, and since World War II, Papua’s struggle to simply avoid annihilation let alone achieve a small measure of autonomy has yet to be put on anybody’s overburdened triage list.
In part this is a measure of how conflicted the world truly is as full-blown wars and fears of nuclear proliferation have put a vice-like grip on those leading actors who populate the world’s diplomatic stage and captured the attention of everyone else whose mission it is to seek peaceful resolution to the world’s greatest problems. But that doesn’t begin to explain anything about West Papua itself, or its history.
The hands-off policy towards West Papua on behalf of the United Nations as well as world and Southeast Asian regional superpowers has been much to the advantage of Indonesia’s domestic policies, its nationalist economic development, and most ironically even to its emerging democracy. Even though gross human rights violations, economic and racial discrimination, and rampant inequalities significantly characterize Indonesia’s treatment of the indigenous population of Papua’s black, Austro-Melanesians, the world has been content to look the other way, choosing rather to celebrate Indonesia’s vaunted modern progress. It has been a conscious choice on the part of the international community.
The saga surrounding the incorporation of West Papua into greater Indonesia provides a profound lesson for any student of 20th century geopolitics. But prior to opening that Pandora’s box of intrigue any serious investigation has to contemplate a question more fundamental to understanding the current fate of the remote region- how does a scattered population of three hundred ethno-lingual groups living in one of the world’s most intractable wildernesses take the forced journey required to bridge the chasm from the Stone Age to the 21st century in the span of a few decades and survive?
Consider this: Recent scientific expeditions into the remote mountainous interior of West Papua continue to discover still untouched environments where the unique animal life found there are approachable and can actually be handled. The terrestrial fauna experience no fear because they have never even been hunted by a human being. Pictures of biologists cuddling docile giant rats or endemic egg-laying echidnas would otherwise be thought of as having been staged, the animals so-darted with tranquilizers. Then, of course, there is the elusive hunt to photograph the some four dozen or so species of Birds of Paradise and Bowery birds that constitute the most beautiful related collection of winged creatures in the world. “Lost World” is a term often used to describe these only recently chartered wildernesses.
There are equally amazing reports of solitary individuals appearing from out of the swamps or jungles of West Papua who belong to tribes whose existence is still unbeknownst to even the other tribes in the area.
The answer to the survival question of an isolated collection of small tribes in a vast wilderness rich in natural resources lies in the fact that some of those tribes have not been as isolated as one might think. Coastal Papuans have had significant contact over periods of hundreds of years with several European and Asian powers- both in trade and as colonial subjects. They have learned foreign languages, been educated according to Western practice, and have adapted to the ways of invading colonial powers. Tribes of the interior were much more removed from the rest of the world. This profound difference in terms of historical contact with outsiders has created a fault line of its own in the history of Papuan Nationalism.
Geographically, West Papua occupies only the western half of a greater island, its eastern portion being the independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG). With no thought given to ethno or geographic boundaries, their shared border lies along the 141st parallel, and virtually splits the island- which is the second largest in the world- in half. Along West Papua’s one thousand meter spine runs the nearly unbroken chain of densely forested mountains known to the locals as the Pegunungan Maoke, or Snow Mountains. The Maoke’s grandest glacial covered palisades are the tallest peaks to be found between the Americas and the Himalayas, some reaching altitudes of over 5,000 meters. Once reaching sea level, the labyrinthine river drainage flowing down the Maoke’s steep southwestern facing escarpment on route to the Arafura Sea deposits its muddy load into vast deltas, creating the largest area of lowland swamps on the planet.
From snow-covered summits to mosquito-ridden swamp, such environmental extremes were considered impenetrable for hundreds of years by European explorers and colonial interlopers. Even though the Dutch had established themselves in the territory nearly four hundred years ago, it was only in few very small port settlements scattered along the coast that served as trading posts to other colonial holdings such as the nearby Malukus to the west. Missionaries and anthropologists made the first foyers into the wilds of Papua, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that explorations into the interior were organized, and only in 1938 that the now-famous tourist destination of the Baliem Valley, home to the Grand Valley Dani, was first encountered by the Western world. It is in the greater highland areas like the Baliem Valley that to this day the largest percentage of indigenous Papuans still lives.
Indonesia’s proclaimed independence in 1945 nearly coincided with the discovery of the Baliem Valley. West Papua soon found itself caught up in the revolution of decolonization that was sweeping across Africa and Asia, with Indonesia being in the vanguard. The Dutch were finally forced both militarily and by means of international pressure to cede the bulk of their East Indies holding over to the newly formed Indonesian Republic- all except for West Papua. In 1949 at the Hague, Netherlands, the Dutch and Indonesian governments signed The Round Table Council Agreement and as a concession to “Netherlands nationalist feeling,” Indonesia agreed to leave Papua under Dutch occupation. Indonesia continued to fight hard against the provision, though, resurrecting the argument vociferously and to growing effect throughout the 1950’s.
Indonesia’s claim to Papua was based on the legal principle of “Uti possidetis juris”. Originating with Roman law, the principle was picked up again with the 19th century rise of nationalism in Europe and consequently both during the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty after World War I , the Yalta Treaty after World War II (though the Soviet Union did not abide by it), and the formation of the United Nations in 1945. “Uti possidetis” declares that new states would adopt the boundaries of their colonial predecessors. The United Nations helped administer this boundary-shaping principle during the sweeping decolonization that followed directly after World War II. During that revolutionary period which reshaped the geopolitical map of the world order, independence leaders such as Sukarno, Nasser, and Nehru seized upon the principle in their struggles to secure national boundaries for their new nation states.
After the signing of the Round Table Council Agreement, President Sukarno was quick to draw upon this rationale in his repeated calls for the incorporation of Papua. In addition, Sukarno declared Papua as part of Indonesia as historically defined by the sphere of influence established by ancient empires of maritime Java and Sumatra, most importantly those of Srivijaya and Majapahit. Not stopping there, Sukarno added divine justification:
“The Indonesia nation is the totality of all the human beings who, according to geopolitics ordained by God Almighty, live throughout the unity of the entire archipelago of Indonesia from the northern tip of Sumatra to Irian.”
There also existed the geopolitical fear on Indonesia’s part that the Dutch would use Papua as a base from which it would do everything it could to subvert Indonesia’s territorial integrity by sowing seeds of separatism for instance in the nearby Malukan islands, where significant portions of the people were resistant of being incorporated into Indonesia and still held sympathies for the Dutch.
Territorial integrity became Indonesia’s highest priority during the country’s fledgling years. Sukarno never ceased to press the international community on the Papuan issue and made it a centerpiece of his agenda as advanced to all world leaders he contacted. It became evident to the world’s powers that Indonesia was willing to go to war with the Dutch over territorial possession of Papua if the Dutch could not be otherwise persuaded to cede their last holdings in the archipelago.
With the rise of a new global nationalism based on the principle of self-determinism, history was on the side of the Indonesian Republic. The Dutch struggled to hold on to Papua but by the mid-1950’s had quietly self-conceded that it had to choose between handing over Papua to the Indonesians, or help the Papuans to become independent and sovereign. Time was of the essence. Those elite Papuans who had been given education and civil service positions in local Dutch administration were further primed for leadership of a free Papua. But this gesture toward the Papuans was more mercenary than not. First and foremost, the Dutch in no way wished for West Papua to fall into Indonesian hands. There was not unanimity of support for Papuan independence amongst the Dutch themselves, though, as Dutch business interests were fearful of losing their existing and future contracts with the Indonesian government. Indonesia was adverse to the Dutch as colonialists, but hadn’t gone as far as to turn away their investments.
The Netherland’s push to prepare Papuans for self-governance came too little, too late. Cold War politics would intervene to evacuate the Dutch and seal Papua’s fate. In 1961, the Dutch were pressured by the newly elected Kennedy administration of the United States to virtually hand over Papua to the Indonesians. By the time Dutch preparation for Papuan independence had begun in earnest, the Cold War had quickly evolved into a worldwide struggle between the United States and the communist blocs of the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Compounding this was Indonesia’s strategic place in the greater conflict. The geopolitical repercussions had an overriding affect on the Papuan situation. The Kennedy administration was concerned that siding with the colonial Dutch in the struggle over West Papua would alienate President Sukarno, helping to deliver Indonesia into the communist sphere of influence. Kennedy demanded the Dutch take heed to Cold War priorities and fall in line with American foreign policy objectives. A free Papua was not in the offing, Kennedy signaled in a now declassified letter to the Dutch government. Indonesia would declare war over anything less than full incorporation of the vast territory, and Kennedy didn’t want any further destabilization in greater South East Asia than already existed in neighboring Indo China as the Viet Nam war was in its nascent stages.
Isolated internationally and not willing to go to war with Indonesia alone, the Dutch were forced to accede to the U.S. negotiated New York Agreement and became signatories with Indonesia in August of 1962. The agreement transferred responsibility for the territory to Indonesia following a brief transitional period under the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). The plan also provided for “an ascertainment” of the will of the Papuans on their future political status to be held under UN supervision. Implementation of the plan and the handing over of Papua into co-administrative hands of the Indonesian government was made in May of 1963.
The UN’s position as overseer turned out to be one of inherent political weakness. They were powerless to prevent the sham elections of 1969- ironically known as “Act of Free Choice”- where a small cadre of some one thousand hand-picked Papuans was given the power to choose on behalf of the greater population of Papuan people between self-determination and becoming a part of the Republic of Indonesia. This in lieu of a true plebiscite- and it is reported that those Papuans who actually voted in the “Act of Free Choice” did so at Indonesian gun point. Incredulously, the electoral results were unanimous save one vote in support of incorporation into Indonesia. Even more striking was that no one in the international community- including the United Nations- filed any complaint as per this final and deciding phase of the New York Agreement.
Suharto was Indonesian president during the “Act of Free Choice” elections, and it was his administration that designed, arranged for, and supervised over them. No checks and balances were in put in place as the Indonesians were in full control. Firmly supported in the West for his anti-communist leanings, Suharto was given free license to proceed in West Papua as he so chose. The fate of West Papua was a fait de complet, and the “Act of Free Choice” just so much pro forma protocol whose outcome had been predetermined.
In the form of “Act of Free Choice,” the international community had betrayed the only opportunity Papua has yet to have in becoming an independent state. Not a single nation protested the sham elections. Nor did the UN. And to have the greatest democratic force in the world, the United States, be the determinate factor behind the betrayal fully exacerbated the treachery. Realpolitik had determined the victor and the vanquished.
(NOTE: this article is part one in a series and is to be continued)
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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls: http://johngorrindo.blogspot.com
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