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Let's not celebrate the 40 years since Indonesia took over West Papua

By John Saltford - posted Thursday, 1 May 2003

May 1 2003 marks the 40th anniversary of the 1963 Indonesian take over of West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. Whatever Jakarta may claim about its right to this vast Melanesian territory, it is very doubtful that there will be much cause for celebration among the West Papuan people to mark their four decades of occupation.

First under Sukarno, then General Suharto, Indonesia has tortured and killed countless thousands of West Papuan people while systematically robbing them of their land and rich natural resources. At the same time a deliberate policy of transmigration has sought to make the indigenous people a minority in their own land by bringing in hundreds of thousands of settlers from other parts of the Republic.

For a brief period following Suharto's downfall in 1998 there seemed to be the possibility that a new era of openness might emerge throughout Indonesia. For the West Papuans this meant that for the first time since 1963 they were at last able to begin expressing their true hopes and aspirations.


The culmination of this in June of 2000 was the Papuan Peoples' Congress, a peaceful gathering of thousands of West Papuans from across the country. They ended their historic session with a resolution that rejected Indonesian sovereignty and called for an act of Papuan self-determination to take place under the auspices of the United Nations. Importantly this took place less than a year after the UN-organised referendum in East Timor.

Since then, particularly under current Indonesian President Megawati, Jakarta has returned to its familiar tactic of repression and violence in its continuing efforts to stamp out West Papuan nationalism.

In November 2001 Papuan Congress leader Theys Eluay was murdered by Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) troops. An advocate of non-violent Papuan nationalism, his killers were sentenced last month to a derisory three to three and a half years in prison.

In response, the engagingly candid Indonesian Army Chief of Staff General Ryamizard Ryacudu commented: "I don't know, people say they did wrong, they broke the law. What law? Okay, we are a state based on the rule of law, so they have been punished. But for me, they are heroes because the person they killed was a rebel leader."

These "heroic" elite troops that the general is so proud of beat, tortured and finally garrotted an unarmed middle-aged man in poor health.

Meanwhile it's business as usual in West Papua. Last week Elsham, the Papuan human rights group reported that ten villages around Wamena in the highlands had been destroyed by the Indonesian army, apparently in retaliation for a fatal attack on a military compound in which some weapons were stolen. The attackers have not yet been officially identified, but nine suspects subsequently arrested by the police were in fact Indonesian soldiers.


So how was this allowed to happen? Why did the western half of New Guinea end up effectively as a colony of Indonesia instead of an independent state like so many other former European possessions the world over? The answer is one that the United Nations and many of its key members including the US and Australia would like to forget.

When the Netherlands pulled out of Indonesia in 1949 they remained in West Papua on the grounds that the Melanesian Papuans had little in common with the Asian Indonesians. Instead, the Dutch slowly began to prepare the country for independence, initially in conjunction with Australia which controlled the eastern half of the island. But while Australian New Guinea became the independent state of Papua New Guinea in 1975, the West Papuans were to endure a very different fate.

Outraged at the idea of an independent West Papua, Indonesian President Sukarno turned to the Soviets for arms and threatened to invade the Dutch colony. In 1962, under pressure from the US, who wished to appease Sukarno and keep him away from Moscow, the Dutch gave in. They agreed to sign a treaty with Jakarta handing West Papua over to a temporary UN administration - but only on condition that self-determination would take place, "in accordance with international practice", within six years.

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About the Author

Dr John Saltford is the London-based author of The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua 1962-1969, which is based on his PhD dissertation.

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