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Papuan Self-determination – Epilogue

This is the final instalment of Arie Brand's excellent, often first-hand historical introduction to the West Papuan self-determination movement. A birdie told me that we are going to see this issue repeatedly in the media in the coming years, and this exclusive review of the background will serve Webdiarists well in making sense of new developments as they arise. Here is the complete contents:

Part I Economically "worthless"?
Part II Papua as Indo-European 'homeland'
Part III Strategic Considerations
Part IV The Linggajati Agreement
Part V The Round Table Conference
Part VI 1950 -The first year test
Part VII Dutch-Indonesian relations - From bad to worse
Part VIII Gradual Evolution
Part IX A poorly briefed US Ambassador
Part X The 'Bunker-Agreement'
Part XI Untea 1
Part XII Untea 2
Epilogue - Indonesian myths and the birth of West Papua

by Arie Brand 

Indonesian myths and the birth of West Papua

What amazed me most during the UNTEA period was that the Indonesians, after a dozen years of listening to Sukarno's rhetoric about the burning Indonesian desire to liberate their Papuan brothers from their largely imaginary colonial yoke, seemed on nothing so intent as to subject these brothers to a real one. Instead of treating the people with tolerance and understanding, declarations of loyalty (through manifestoes, processions and flag raisings) were forced out of them through intimidation that was from time tot time reinforced by violence - or, in the case of some key figures, by blandishments such as the red carpet treatment in a free trip to Jakarta.

I often wondered whom they wished to fool with all of this and why they thought they could do so? Of the foreign observers then present in the region probably nobody was fooled - including the Administrator, Dr.Abdoh, who then however did not state openly not to believe in these charades. He showed himself to be far more sceptical in his correspondence with the UN Undersecretary Narasimhan. Saltford (op.cit.) refers to a report by Abdoh to this UN official, dating from January 1963, in which he stated to believe that Indonesia was intent on crushing all opposition and that it was behind the organised demonstrations and the attacks on anti-Indonesian Papuas. Saltford also refers to a report from approximately the same date by James Plimsoll, then Australia’s Permanent Representative at the UN, on a conversation between the UN Secretary General U Thant, Narasimhan and himself. Narasimhan allegedly said that 'it was quite clear from the information they had that in West New Guinea the Indonesians could turn demonstrations off and on like a tap.'  The Secretary General was no less sceptical. He said to have 'no doubt at all that demonstrations or representations by Papuans were Indonesian inspired and were not spontaneous'.

Though I saw from time to time traces of what seemed to me a somewhat childish belief on the part of Indonesians that no outsider could see through their obvious schemes, in retrospect I have come to the conclusion that the people they wanted to fool most of all were they themselves and their fellow Indonesians. The 'inspired' demonstrations, these fictional proofs of loyalty, were part of their fictional claim to West Papua. One fiction had to support the other.

Another part of these interlocking myths was construed by the Indonesian military that apparently fooled themselves into believing that they had conquered the territory hand in hand with their Papuan brethren. Saltford quotes a report by another Australian official, R.J.Percival, who wrote that he had met Dutch people and Papuans who had had to deal with Indonesian infiltrators in the Sorong area 'and all expressed incredulity.at the apparent Indonesian belief that the Papuan populace would rise up in revolt against the Dutch once the infiltrators had established a base in New Guinea ... The Papuans had regarded the rounding up of the infiltrators as a sort of sport.'

Benedict Anderson wrote once that the ‘subsequent painful relations between the populations of West New Guinea and the emissaries of the independent Indonesian state can be attributed to the fact that Indonesians more or less sincerely regard these populations as ‘brothers and sisters’ while the populations themselves, for the most part, see things very differently’.

I believe that this statement can only be accepted if it is heavily qualified. The ‘brothers and sisters’ theme remained alive as long as West Papua was only a fiction in the prolonged ‘revolutionary struggle’ in the Sukarno-era against the Dutch, it was very soon dropped by the Indonesians who actually came to occupy the area and after that it had only a precarious existence in the officially sanctioned myth about the ‘liberation’ of the territory.

It is possible that the obvious disinclination of many Papuans to see the occupying force of Indonesians as 'brothers' that had come to liberate them has ultimately contributed somewhat to a similar lack of brotherly enthusiasm on the side of the Indonesians - though I believe that a sort of provincial cultural arrogance about their assumed superiority above all these 'naked people', mixed with the callousness that comes from greed, had far more to do with this.

Indonesian myths about the territory are endless. There is the idea that the proclamation of independence of 1945 also held for the (uninvolved) Papuans. There is the view that, though it is a patent fact that Papuans had virtually nothing to do with the struggles of 1945 – 49 against the Dutch, the Indonesian ‘freedom fighters’ also fought on their behalf. There is finally the colossal lie that the occupation that has robbed Papuans of their lands, terrorised and enslaved them was an act of ‘pembebasan’, of liberation.

Indonesians have, however, hold of one indubitable fact -  West Papua was once, however marginal, at least administratively part of the Netherlands East Indies. This map based fact now constitutes their strongest claim to the territory – however much they may, in other contexts, object against the violence with which this map was cobbled together in colonial times. Lately we have seen this Indonesian claim dressed up with the Latin formula 'uti possidetis juris'. This allegedly refers to a principle of international law implying, in this case, that successor states of colonial territories should have the borders of those territories. Well, the principle has often been ignored (to wit the partition of British India and French Indochina) but also, principle for principle, it should yield to the much stronger one of 'self determination', a principle enshrined in the very Charter of the United Nations. It is presumably because of this that Constantin Stavropoulos, the UN legal counsel advising Secretary General U Thant, wrote in 1962 that 'there appears to emerge a strong presumption in favour of self-determination in situations such as that of West New-Guinea on the basis of the wishes of the peoples of the territory concerned, irrespective of the legal stands or interests of other parties to the question.'

Also, Indonesia seems to have forgotten that it recognised itself the superiority of this principle with the Agreement between it and the Netherlands of 15th August 1962, however opportunistic it might have been in signing this. That the Papuans have since then enjoyed the right of self determination is yet another Indonesian myth that the country finds harder and harder to sell internationally. The recent joint letter by 36 members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus to U.N.Secretary General Kofi Annan, in which these Congressmen joined around 170 other parliamentarians and 80 NGOs from around the world in urging a review of this fraudulent act, forms a case in point.

The Indonesian ‘imagined nation’, to use Anderson’s term, that stretched from Sabang to Merauke, is unravelling. The years of occupation and the suffering it has caused have seen another nation emerge, this one from Sorong to Merauke, West Papua. Thus far, to be sure, only ‘imagined’ as well but, imagination for imagination, I have an inkling that the historical odds are on the latter one.


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The Border Security scam.

Let's get real.  One of Howard's major scams (after the false economy) is his claim to have "protected our borders".  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is quite clear and implied by Andrew Wilkie, that Howard made a deal with the Indonesians to prevent "boat people" from using Indonesia as a launching pad.  In return, Australia will play down the unlimited number of Indonesian fishing boats off the West Coast of Australia.  Note that even the media reported that only 30% of those "boat people" are contacted. 

So - a few frightened West Papuans virtually "paddled" across to the Australian mainland, undetected by Howard's Naval blockade or his minimum Aircraft spotting.  What a pity that West Papuans don't have the money to come by plane - they would be treated differently. 

So let's have a reality check on another Howard lie.  IF fishing boat people can fish and even land on our west coast, why couldn't they be terrorists?  IF poor and scared people can make it to our Northern mainland - why couldn't a determined "terrorist"?  Since 2001, all of Howard's actions in foreign affairs has encouraged terrorists into making us a target - and he continues to do so.  Most of us realise by now that the "War against Terrorism" was invented by the Bush administration (and their compatriots in Australia and the U.K.) to facilitate the removal of people's civil rights and freedoms - BUT - in the NATIONS' INTERESTS. 

There isn't any worthwhile BORDER PROTECTION - it seems apparent that there isn't any imminent "terrorist" threat while most of our nation opposes the U.S. war- mongers.  The word "terrorism" applies to the U.S. occupation troops far more than any such threat to Australia.  IF there are ANY RADICAL SUSPECTED TERRORISTS in Australia - then Howard's fascist legislation against Muslims has either created them OR his government let them in!  Well might he yell - hello "WE WILL DECIDE WHO COMES INTO THIS COUNTRY".

Fair dinkum.

Arie: Invaders have a

Arie: Invaders have a tendency to 'invent' reasons for their actions. The Nazis did the same sort of thing and many German soldiers were convinced that they were engaged in a war of liberation, not of occupation.

It is propaganda of course but a useful one in terms of providing acceptable incentive to the military and keeping the public on side. The Americans have done the same thing in Iraq ... presenting it as a war of liberation when in fact it was a war of invasion and occupation.

There's nothing new in it. The Spanish conquistadors believed that they were 'saving the souls' of the heathens in their war of invasion and occupation of South America. Although, I suspect, that at this time at least, more people in power really believed that this was what they were doing than did the Indonesians in their invasions or the Americans in theirs.

It doesn't make it right though.

And yes, Papua doesn't get enough mileage here but they aren't white are they? I am sure if the Indonesians had kept going and invaded New Zealand we would have acted differently.  Excuse my cynicism.

But thanks for your comprehensive and informative posts. It all helps in yet another fight for justice.

lack of attention for west papua

Yes, Jenny, I agree with both you and Geoff that West Papua gets disproportionately little attention compared to other human rights issues. Yet we have as Australians in my view a special duty towards this region, not only because of its proximity but also because Australia kept supporting Dutch policies on self determination (and possible independence) for the region right throughout the fifties, until the US pulled the mat from under these.

I want to pay tribute here to the Australian West Papua Association, and the few academics and politicians who keep asking attention for the issue. The same holds for the SBS-program 'Dateline' that keeps risking Indonesian wrath for its reporting on the region (Mark Davis' latest report had to be temporarily cancelled because of the need to protect informants - keep watching).

One other name I want to specifically mention here is that of the Australian film maker Mark Worth, who died in a small hotel in West Papua, in my view under suspicious circumstances, just before his film 'Land of the  Morning Star' was finally screened by the ABC (Mark had to pull his punches in this movie because complaint 'at the highest level' is the great Indonesian specialty).

I wrote something on the circumstances in which his death took place in Pacific Media Watch of 17th February 2004. Anyone who is interested can find it by googling on his and my name (the link doesn't seem to work).


Thanks Geoff


I would like to thank Arie for this interesting series on a subject that does not get much of the spotlight and which I for one know very little about.

I will suggest it is a more important matter for Australians than many of those that tend to occupy us so passionately.


Arie: I find it a pity that the situation in East Timor since independence from Indonesia has not stabilised. I suspect the Australian Government will look to that situation as an excuse not to even think about the possibility of West Papuan independence. This will satisfy the Javanese dominated Indonesian Republic no end and those people will continue to be oppressed for decades to come I fear. The world sadly largely ignores these minorities suffering such repression across South East Asia. I think particularly of the Karens in Burma and the Montagnards of Vietnam.  There is currently a vicious crackdown on the Karens going on in Burma, yet we read little of it in the news. I suppose the populations involved are just too small for the world to bother about which is a tragedy for those people. They have nothing in life but fear.

I add my thanks to you for this very interesting series of articles which I intend to go back and read again as time permits. It is too much to expect that our Government will adopt any sort of moral stance on the issue. It will just shove any more West Papuans who attempt to flee to Australia off to some island for processing. I cannot think of a term more lacking in compassion than that. We talk of processing meat. We should not talk about processing human beings.

I agree with Geoff. This is a human rights issue right on our doorstep yet little attention is paid to it. Does not say much for us does it?

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