December 1, 1961: Fly the flag of independence - West Papua and the Indonesian Empire

Life in the furthest recesses of New Guinea has not only been transformed but devastated by forces that originate at the core of global and industrial politics. The realities – and morality – of our world are to be seen starkly at work in one of the most spectacular, rich and yet remote corners of the world.

Hugh Brody
30 November 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011, is the fiftieth anniversary of West Papua's independence. On this day in 1961 West Papuans were granted their freedom by the Dutch – they raised a new national flag and sang a new national anthem. A year later Indonesia launched a colonial invasion, and managed to annex the fledgling nation. Since then tens of thousands of civilians – almost all of them indigenous tribal people - have been killed. 

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world – about the size of Europe and stretching across the Pacific to the north of Australia.  This is a land where life has proliferated and diversified: it is among the most fabulous cultural and ecological regions in the world. Human beings have lived there for at least 40,000 years, and, in the past ten thousand years, have developed many kinds of economy, from mixed hunting/farming, to slash-and-burn shifting agriculture, to dense and complex systems of cultivation.  This wide range of human economies, with parallel riches of culture and language, means that New Guinea has witnessed the great journey of human experience and the great riches of the human mind.

The languages of New Guinea reveal an astonishing social complexity.  A population of less than eight million speaks a total of between 800 and 1,000 languages.  These can be divided into at least thirty language families – some linguists suggest there could be as many as sixty kinds of language in New Guinea. By comparison, in Europe about 230 languages are spoken, divisible into three language families.  The ratio of population to languages is smaller in New Guinea than anywhere else in the world.

The proliferation of human systems is tightly linked to the richness and variety of the New Guinea environment, where tropical forests border a rich ocean and huge mountains rise in chains of deeply indented highlands. The bio-diversity of New Guinea matches its linguistic sophistication. The island constitutes 1% of global habitat but is home to about one fifth of the world’s species.  Abundance is matched by mini-climates and unusual degrees of ecological and human isolation.  This has been a fabulous setting for the growth of all forms of life.  Europeans who first struggled into the remote forests and inaccessible highlands again and again expressed astonishment at what they found: here was awe-inspiring complexity of human development.  Scientists continue to explore New Guinea in search of new species of animal and insect.  Anthropologists are engaged in a seemingly endless examination of the languages, social systems and cultural histories of this treasure house of humanity.

Europeans first arrived on the shores of New Guinea in the 1500s, with an eventual colonial division of the island into two halves – the east claimed by the British, the west by the Dutch. Along the coasts, settlers were able to create centres of colonial trade and government -  the British capital at Port Moresby in what came to be known as Papua New Guinea; the Netherlands administration centred at Jayapura in what was called Dutch New Guinea. Despite a long history of European occupation, however, much of the island remained beyond colonial reach.  Mountain ranges rise above dense tropical forest, with vast inhabited plateaus reaching to 6,000 feet above sea level and the highest peaks rising to 13,000 feet – some capped with snow all year round. Large populations of high altitude farming communities were reached only in the 1920s.  There are many tribal groups that continue to live their own lives, with minimal links to any ‘outside world’, deep and high in the forests and mountains of western New Guinea.

European powers claimed all or part New Guinea: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain struggled with one another’s colonial objectives. During the Second World War, Japan invaded the west of the island, while the Americans used the east as a crucial base for its war in the Pacific.  But it was Holland and Britain that established and sustained long-term imperial control. In 1906, Britain transferred the eastern half to Australia, which in time facilitated a decolonization movement. This led to the creation of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea in 1975. The motto of the new state came to be ‘Unity In Diversity’ – appropriate enough for a complex and at times uneasy amalgam of at least six hundred separate tribal interests. This has led to some conflict, including a violent nine year separatist movement centred on an off-shore island. Despite many difficulties and, at times, political meltdown, PNG, as it is always called, has had the dignity and rights that came with independence, rule of law and, for what its worth, membership of the British Commonwealth.  The five million who live there represent the widest possible range of cultural circumstances – but, for the most part, they live there in peace and increasing political and material security.

Not so in the western half of the island of New Guinea.


West Papua

In 1949, Netherlands formally accepted that its colonies in the East Indies would be ceded to Indonesia. But it made a strong point of excluding Papua from this deal.  Committed to a vision of a new, independent nation emerging from that Papua colony, the Dutch administration in West Papua encouraged decolonizing politics and supported the emergence of a small, educated group of indigenous leaders. This led to the formal declaration of independence on December 1, 1961.  Exactly 50 years ago.

Development in West Papua had been more widespread and, from the point of view of modern economic realities, including mining, more effective than had been the case in PNG. Yet the extreme diversity of communities and differing views and understandings of what independence could mean, meant that the new leadership had a fragile, uncertain hold on this new nation.  There were hundreds of villages subsisting on their own territories and resources, far from any modern politics.  Yet there were also communities on or near the coast where the mix of peoples and economics of trade had created all the conditions of modernity. What was needed was a  slow political process and careful regard for the rights of those who lived at the edge of, or well beyond, any political or development frontiers. Care was required in managing the balance of interests between the tribal and the new politics. 

Also, there was mining: international companies, with strong US involvement, had their eyes on what looked to be fabulous mineral deposits.  Oil, gold, copper... By the 1950s, many eyes – including the largest and most powerful mining interests around the world - were focused on the industrial potential of West Papua.  Indonesia was not at ease with this segment of the Dutch East Indies being removed from its potential new sovereignty.  International business was not at ease with the uncertainties of an indigenous independence movement that did not offer an open-handed welcome to industrial developers.  A jurisdiction that had grown from faith in the indigenous heritage could not be relied on to support or protect the massive investment that would be needed to open and exploit this great Aladdin’s cave of minerals.

The Sukarno government in Jakarta was not slow to act.  The new national parliament for liberated, independent West Papua was elected in March 1961. On January 2, 1962, Indonesia put Brigadier–General Suharto in command of a military campaign that aimed to secure West Papua as an Indonesian territory.  There had been a long history of Indonesian military engagement in the region – various attacks had been launched against both West Papua and Papua New Guinea in the previous decade. Most such attacks had achieved very little.  But the 1962 initiative was different:  Indonesia was determined that West Papua should not become an independent nation, and it succeeded in recruiting the support of international mining interests and, perhaps most important of all, the US government.

Thus it was the J. F. Kennedy administration that brokered an agreement, in September 1962, whereby the United Nations would take responsibility for due process in West Papua.  This meant that Indonesia would have its claim to West Papua recognized, subject to ratification.   The initial proposal was that this ratification must be based on one-man one-vote.  But Indonesia opposed any such referendum, arguing that it would be impossible to organize a full plebiscite in such a complex and forbidding terrain.  As an alternative to any such popular vote, Indonesia put forward the idea of a “consensus of elders”.   The idea was that 1,054 “elders”, who would be appointed by Indonesian military personnel, should represent the entire population; and this group should vote for or against unification with Indonesia.

Much has been written and said about this vote, which was to be the basis of  what the United Nations termed the “Act of Free Choice”.  There is very strong evidence that the delegates were put under intense, if not murderous, pressure to approve Indonesia’s plan and vote in favour of West Papua and abandon any claim to Papuan independence.  The vote – an open show of hands in front of Indonesian officers and officials, and witnessed by UN observers - was declared to have been unanimous in favour of merger:  in August 1969, West Papua became the 26th Province of Indonesia.  UN and international recognition of this sorry process followed without delay.


Cold War militarization of mining

The mining companies, United States corporate interests and the Indonesian regime had got what they wanted: an end to the Independent State of West Papua.  There was outrage and protest within Papua: the first rebellion against the new arrangements broke out in 1969.  Further and ever more desperate resistance was to follow. A new and violent phase of colonialism was launched. Resistance was justification for ever greater Indonesian military force being brought to West Papua.  There were demonstrations, riots and armed rebellion, with concentrations of protest in 1977, 1980 and 1996.  The targets were both the military occupation and the mining interests.  And the suppression of rebellion was a joint endeavour, with international mining making a brutal alliance with the occupying forces from Indonesia. 

A grim irony of this flow of events was the tribal communities living in some of the remotest area of West Papua found themselves on the front lines of the violence.  Mining searched out ore deposits, and set up its infrastructure and mines in defiance of geography.  The resources were deep in the forests, high in the mountains.  And the fight against colonial invasion came to focus on these mines: more and more there was a militarization of the mining sector, a blurring of Indonesian colonial interests with the security concerns of the international mining sector.  The indigenous peoples were caught on the front line and in the cross fire. The most isolated tribal societies found themselves in brutal encounters with the most sophisticated technologies and most ruthless of military personnel.

As in so many other parts of the world, events in wild and exotic landscapes were being shaped by economic, political and military preoccupations in the centres of power.   Indigenous men and women who lived far removed from Indonesia, who hardly knew there were such places as Jakarta and Washington, died because of deals being done in those other kinds of place.  Men who wore ceremonial penis sheaths and relied on beautiful but simple weapons for hunting and local warfare were to be gunned down by soldiers armed with the most modern of weapons.

The flow of political turmoil in Jakarta, the resultant deals with US military interests and the unleashing of unrestricted mining in West Papua – this set of events was the underlying cause of the oppression, imprisonment and murder of horrifyingly large numbers of tribal people, as well as the total destruction of many of their homes and villages.  In the 1950s, through the years leading up to the suppression of West Papuan independence,  Indonesia had suffered acute economic disarray.  This was matched by political tension, with fierce dispute between left and right wing factions within both civil society and the military dictatorship of Sukarno.  In 1965, Suharto, the General who had led the 1962 occupation of West Papua, effected a violent putsch, involving the killing of six senior army officers thought to be loyal to Sukarno, and seized power.  With much fanfare, Suharto declared a ‘New Order’ for Indonesia: fierce anti-communism, new commitment to corporate freedom of action, especially for mining interests, and strong military-based totalitarianism.

Suharto’s regime and the New Order were supported by the United States, which duly provided largescale military aid.  In the following thirty years of Suharno’s presidency of Indonesia, America provided more than 1.1 billion dollars’ worth of arms, as well as 390 million dollars worth of loans for purchases from US arms manufacturers.  When Indonesia invaded East Timor, it has been estimated that 90% of its military equipment had been supplied by the US.  The intensity of Indonesia’s expressions of anxiety about and opposition to communist insurgency meant that it played again and again to the politics and arms industries of the Cold War.  Meanwhile, the mines in West Papua were able to flourish.  And, far from where the political deals and arms orders were being made, the indigenous peoples of West Papua were disregarded  - their rights to their land ignored whenever mining or military interests decided they needed to use or defend or invade even the remotest piece of forest or highland farm. Their very right to life was overwhelmed by those who established and then defended the colonial invasion. For the most part, the world turned a blind eye to these events: the Suharto dictatorship, with its impassioned anti-communism and support for unfettered and international mining, was congenial to the West. 

There were occasional cries of protest at the attacks on those who sought to report on events and at the exclusion of all media and NGOs from any part of the West Papua interior.  Amnesty International and the Red Cross were denied any access to the people who were suffering the violence of the Indonesian occupation and the excesses of the mining companies.  Those who sought information had to do so in great secret and at the risk of great danger. And those within Indonesia who resisted or even criticised the Suharto regime were imprisoned and, in many cases, dispossessed and shipped to penal colonies.  The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Toer gave us insight into these colonies in work that won the PEN Freedom To Write Award: he described the forced labour, starvation and torture suffered by the opponents of Suharto.  Channel 4 made a film in its Savage Fights Back series that went under cover into West Papua, revealing the brutal experiences of tribal peoples.  But there was little popular interest in what had been happening:  Indonesian oppression of the people of West Papua, its abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples, its killings and persistent violence against opponents excited a minimum of concern outside West Papua.  Cold War and resource extraction seemed to have won the silence they needed.


The Free Papua Movement

But there was intense opposition within West Papua. The Free Papua Movement, formed in the 1960s, committed to armed struggle, but also looked for diplomatic routes towards liberation from Indonesia.  The lack of support for their movement, and the refusal on the part of both the United Nations and the United States to revisit the abuse of due process evidenced by the so-called Act of Free Choice, meant that the opposition was isolated.   But it made its objectives clear:  West Papua should be an independent nation and it and it alone should chart its development. The Free Papua Movement was loud in its support for the tribal right to security and community process – the very opposite of what mining companies wanted.  The response of the Indonesian government was to introduce repressive laws: agitation for independence became a treasonable offence, punishable by up to twenty years in prison.  Meanwhile, the Indonesian military launched attack after attack on those who resisted.

No one knows how many died as a result of the violence unleashed against the people of West Papua. In 2005, Australian observers estimated that since 1969, 100,000 Papuans had been killed by Indonesian forces.  There are much higher estimates: the opposition calculated in 2010 that as many as 400,000 had died.

Nor was West Papua the only victim of Indonesian use of force to achieve expansionist objectives.  In 1975, the newly formed independent regime of East Timor was also invaded by the Indonesian army, ordered there by an Indonesian administraton that was determined to incorporate East Timor as it had West Papua.  Up to 100,000 East Timor citizens died in the battles that followed.  A further 100,000 may have died of disease and starvation that resulted from the invasion.

In 1998 the Suharto dictatorship fell.  Demands for democratic reform within Indonesia prevailed.  The excesses in East Timor had weakened even US support for Indonesia.  Attempts to redress the totalitarianism of the previous fifty years began to come into effect. And there was a widespread call within Indonesia for more regional autonomy. This led to decentralization and political restructuring in Papua: the territory was divided into two regions, Papua and West Papua, with a declared intention of allowing far greater autonomy for indigenous communities.  But the promise of reform has not been matched by realities on the ground. 


Fluttering flags

Soon after coming to power in 1999, President Abdurrahman Wahid made a visit to Jayapura, administrative capital of Papua.  He sought to assure the opposition to Indonesian hegemony that there would be change, with new political reforms.  His visit was in December, and coincided with the raising of the Morning Star, symbol of Papuan independence. Wahid, in a gesture of reconciliation, allowed that the flag be raised without fear of reprisals – but insisted that it must be flown alongside, and at lower height than, the Indonesian national flag.  This fluttering of flags captures the continuing intentions even of the reforming administration in Jakarta.

Since Wahid’s gestures in 2000, Susilo Yudhoyono has come to power in Indonesia.  His administration, from 2004 to 2009, when he was re-elected for a second term, has done little to allow any shift towards Papuan independence.  The opposition has been saying for the past three years that those who resist Indonesia or challenge the mining industry continue to be taken prisoner and risk being killed.  Reports of violent confrontation, total destruction of villages thought to support or harbour Free Papua guerillas or activists, and the killing and rape of civilians keep appearing in opposition bulletins.  Benny Wenda, a man from tribal West Papua and the voice of the opposition in Europe, having been granted political asylum in London as well as UK citizenship, has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Free Papua movement.  But he has now been charged with violent crimes that he is said to have committed in Papua, before he escaped in 1993.  The charges have led to an Interpol Red Notice – meaning that he can, in theory, be arrested at any time and repatriated to Indonesia for trial.  Benny Wenda insists that this is just the latest attempt by Indonesia to silence criticism and stem the flow of information about its crimes against the people of Papua.

In November 2011, at the East Asian Summit in Bali, President Obama raised the issue of West Papua with Indonesian president Yudhoyono.  Obama apparently was aware that earlier this year there had been killings of activists in Papua, along with ever more abuses of indigenous peoples’ rights by Indonesian military and police.  In response to Obama’s expressions of concern, President Yudhoyono says he assured Obama that Indonesia was fighting a legitimate war against insurgents and separatists, and that his security forces were defending themselves against violent attack.  He also assured Obama that any who commit ‘gross violations of human rights’ would ‘go before the law.’  Presumably he was referring to some readiness on the part of Indonesia to address fifty years of such violations of rights.

Reporting on his discussion with Obama, Yudhoyono stated that the American president had told him that the United States respected Indonesia’s sovereignty over the territory of West Papua.  So it would seem that once again the United States is ready to endorse Indonesian aggression. Meanwhile, there is no question but that Papua and West Papua, those two new administrative regions, continue to be the 26th province of Indonesia.


US collusion

What we have to understand is that Indonesia invaded an independent country. It did so with the help of UN confusions and many forms and levels of trickery, and with US collusion.  This invasion depended on a profound disregard for the rights and aspirations of the people of Papua.  Since these people were in reality a complex web of societies, and included many indigenous or tribal communities with little understanding of any such colonial process, the violation of rights was all the more egregious.  Here were peoples who needed protection and, as had been happening towards the end of the Dutch administration, careful development.  And these were societies that did not have political representation – which meant, above all, that there could be no ready belief in change, ‘progress’ or missionary ventures of any kind.  Indonesia moved in complete defiance of these concerns and, when it inevitably encountered opposition and outrage, responded with ever greater levels of violence.  So the invasion became murderous. 

Many Papuans died in the ensuing violence; an estimate of 400,000 is likely to be close to the truth.  From a total population of three million.  This has been a war of colonial domination, waged by a modern nation state against peoples who are close to defenceless.  A small group of educated, organized and armed opponents of Indonesian invasion have sought to fight back, and to attempt, with a combination of violence and negotiations, an end to Indonesia’s occupation of Papua.  Large numbers of its population have had to defend themselves against machine guns with spears.


The rest of the world

The rest of the world has paid little attention to this outrage.  Indonesia has been able to rely on global ignorance of its crimes, while the UN Forum on Indigenous Peoples has been inarticulate and toothless – even to the point of welcoming Indonesia’s signing up to its 2007 Charter of Indigenous Rights.  Rather as if the Nazis in the 1930s had signed some such international commitment to the aspirations and wellbeing of European Jews and Gypsies.

There have been demonstrations and protests, on a small scale, led by courageous and determined Papuan political leaders and supported by small numbers in both Europe and the USA.  As the fiftieth anniversary of West Papuan Independence approaches, a moment has come when all who commit to indigenous rights, the survival of tribal peoples, and the rights of independent nations to sustain their independence, should join forces.  The United Nations has an obligation to acknowledge the misjudgments of the past.  The United States has to recognise that the interests of Papuan communities must not be sacrificed to the profits of mining companies.  There is room for negotiation – but only when the world unites in demanding that Indonesia cease in its violent suppression of the people of West Papua. 

The rights of indigenous peoples have been obscured yet again by a murky alliance between colonial aggression and corporate interests.  Life in the furthest recesses of New Guinea has been transformed and, at times, devastated, by forces that originate at the core of global and industrial politics.  The realities – and morality – of our world are to be seen at work in tribal communities deep in the forests, high in the mountains, of one of the most spectacular, rich and yet remote corners of the world.

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