Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Where nationalisms collide

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Richard Chauvel

In late May and early June 2000, thousands of Papuans gathered to attend the Second Papuan Congress. Its name drew a connection with the first congress held in 1961, before Papua became a part of Indonesia. Its purpose: to 'correct the course of Papuan history'. The history that Papuan nationalists sought to correct was that of Papua's integration into Indonesia during the 1960s. Their interpretation of it was summarised in the first three resolutions of the congress:

  • The people of Papua have been sovereign as a nation and a state since 1 December 1961.
  • The people of Papua, through the Second Congress, reject the 1962 New York Agreement on moral and legal grounds as the agreement was made without any Papuan representation.
  • The people of Papua, through the Second Congress, reject the results of Pepera (the Act of Free Choice) because it was conducted under coercion, intimidation, sadistic killings, military violence and immoral conduct contravening humanitarian principles. Accordingly, the people of Papua demand that the United Nations revoke resolution 2504, 19 December [sic - actually November] 1969.

History is no less important for Indonesian nationalists. Indonesia conducted a twelve-year long campaign to force the Netherlands to relinquish control of the last remnant of Indonesia. President Sukarno constructed the struggle to 'return' West Irian as an issue to unify the nation to complete the revolution. Sukarno's campaign enjoyed the support of all prominent political leaders and parties. Indonesians derive satisfaction from the fact that, through the UN's acceptance of the results of the 1969 Act of Free Choice, the international community had endorsed the process through which West Irian was 'returned'.

Sukarno's daughter, the now vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri, captured the sense of pride many Indonesians feel when in 1999 she recalled a childhood conversation with her father. Why had he visited Irian, it was so far away, she had asked. To which he replied: 'Without Irian Jaya Indonesia is not completeThe words ironically echoed those of the Dutch at the time of Indonesia's independence struggle: 'The Indies lost, everything lost'.


West Papua was incorporated into the Netherlands East Indies during the nineteenth century more to pre-empt Germany, Britain or the Australian colonies taking an interest rather than for any economic or political advantage. Until the Netherlands transferred sovereignty to an independent Indonesia in December 1949, West Papua remained an economic and administrative backwater. West Papua was where the colonial Dutch exiled Indonesian nationalists as well as their own less successful officials.

Until the Pacific War West Papua was administered in conjunction with the neighbouring Maluku islands to the west. Many Ambonese, Keiese and Menadonese were employed as officials, police, teachers and missionaries. This gave the colonial administration a curious duality. It was as much east Indonesian as it was Dutch. Papuan Christianity and use of the Malay (Indonesian) language was strongly influenced by the east Indonesian teachers and missionaries. As the first generation of the Papuan elite graduated from Dutch schools, the jobs they aspired to were held by east Indonesians. In the small urban centres of Netherlands New Guinea, educated Papuans shaped their political and cultural identities in reference to the east Indonesians.

After the Pacific War, Papua's separation from the rest of the archipelago became more distinct. Under the first post-war Resident, J P K van Eechoud, boarding schools were established to train Papuans as officials, police, soldiers and teachers. Van Eechoud recruited students from throughout Papua with the explicit intention of cultivating a sense of pan-Papuan identity. The graduates of Van Eechoud's schools were prominent among the first generations of the Papuan elite. Notwithstanding the strong demands of the east Indonesian federalists, Papua was not included in the State of East Indonesia. In 1946 the Netherlands became a member of the South Pacific Commission as the administering power of West Papua.

Although the administrative separation of Papua from Maluku had been achieved, it was not until mid-1949 that the Dutch cabinet decided to exclude Papua from the impending transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia. The status of West Papua was left unresolved at the crucial Round Table Conference that brought together Dutch and Indonesian negotiators. The resulting compromise enabled the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia, but kept West Papua under Dutch control until its constitutional status could be settled through further negotiations within a year. Both the United States and Australia supported the Netherlands' resolve to exclude West Papua from the transfer of sovereignty.

Negotiations at the end of 1950 as well as those of following years failed to resolve the conflict. In 1954 Indonesia took the dispute to the United Nations, where in that year, 1956 and 1957, it failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. The dispute over West Papua was a significant factor in the breakdown of post-colonial relations between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

The motives behind the Netherlands' determination to retain control of Papua were complex and at least as much related to domestic political factors as to the maintenance of Dutch interests in Indonesia. Van Maarseveen, the Minister for Overseas Territories, expressed to parliament in 1949 the principal public rationale: 'New Guinea does not belong to Indonesia proper. New Guinea is separate from Indonesia geographically, ethnographically and also politically. New Guinea forms a completely separate territory with a separate history.'

In 1952 self-determination for Papuans became an objective of Netherlands policy. However, not a great deal was done to further this objective until 1960, when under increasing international pressure the Netherlands began a program of accelerated political advancement. Over a ten-year period this was to lead to an independent West Papua. The decolonisation program involved establishing a representative council, increasing involvement of Papuans in the administration to replace Europeans and Indonesians, and establishing a Papuan volunteer corps. Like van Eechoud over a decade earlier, the political purpose was to create a sense of unity and a national ideal among the diverse peoples of the territory.

Political parties, both pro-Indonesian and pro-Dutch, had been established in the late 1940s. However, political activity began to flourish among the Papuan elite with the elections for the New Guinea Council. Papuan leaders became keenly aware that the fate of their homeland was the object of an international dispute, in which they attempted to participate, but ultimately had little influence.


It was in this atmosphere of rapid political change in West Papua and its enmeshment in the politics of the Cold War that Papuans first formulated their national ideals and created national symbols. On 19 October 1961 the Komite Nasional Papoea, under the leadership of members of the New Guinea Council, issued a political manifesto. It urged the government of Netherlands New Guinea to permit the Papuan flag to be flown besides the Dutch flag, the Papuan anthem to be sung with the Dutch 'Wilhelmus', and the name of the territory to be West Papua and its people Papuan. On behalf of the Papuan people, the manifesto demanded that they be given a place among the free peoples of the world, live in peace and contribute to the maintenance of world peace.

On 1 December 1961, in front of the New Guinea Council, in the presence of the governor, members of the council and political party leaders, the 'Morning Star' was raised for the first time and the 'Hai Tanahku Papua' sung. This day has come to be regarded as Papuan Independence Day.

Protracted negotiations under UN auspices followed, accompanied by Indonesian military infiltration and driven by an American determination to see the dispute resolved in Indonesia's favour. In August 1962, the Netherlands and Indonesia signed the New York Agreement. Control of West Papua would pass from the Netherlands to Indonesia after a period of UN administration.

In the capital Hollandia (later renamed Jayapura), the New Guinea Council building became a focus for well-organised and well-supported demonstrations against the agreement. At the first such demonstration M W Kaisiepo, a leading member of the council and of the Komite Nasional Papoea, condemned the agreement: 'We were traded as goats by the Americans'.

The New York Agreement's provision for an act of self-determination under UN supervision may have been a face-saving formula for the Dutch, but it was recognised as critical by Papuans. Many Papuans argued that it should be held in 1963 under the UN administration, rather than in 1969 under the Indonesians. As reflected in the resolutions of the Second Papuan Congress, the injustice, manipulation and repression that characterised Indonesian conduct of the Act of Free Choice has now become central to Papuan understandings of their history.

The Papuan nationalist interpretation of the conduct of the Act of Free Choice has found support in recent archival research based on previously classified UN documents as well as on Netherlands, United States, British and Australian government sources. John Saltford argues that under the 1962 New York Agreement 'the Netherlands, Indonesia and the UN had an obligation to protect the political rights and freedoms of the Papuans, and to ensure that an act of self-determination took place, in accordance with international practice. On both these points, the three parties failed, and they did so deliberately since genuine Papuan self-determination was never seen as an option by any of them once the [New York] Agreement was signed.'

Papuan resistance to Indonesian authority emerged soon after the transfer of administrative control. The Free Papua Organisation(Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) was formed in 1964 and became the principal institution to wage an armed resistance against the Indonesian government. The resistance was sporadic, ad hoc and local. It never threatened Indonesian control of Papua. However, although the OPM's military capacity was limited, its representation of Papuan identity and national aspirations was of much greater importance.

Richard Chauvel ( teaches at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. He is writing a book on the West New Guinea dispute and researches contemporary Papuan politics. 

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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