Papua’s Hidden Past Haunts Jokowi Presidency
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Papua’s Hidden Past Haunts Jokowi Presidency


As one of his first official actions as Indonesia’s president-elect, Joko Widodo announced his intention to build a presidential palace in West Papua. As one of the most impoverished regions in the archipelago, with the highest levels of HIV/AIDS in Indonesia, sluggish economic growth and continued difficulty in accessing healthcare, skepticism surrounding the utility of Widodo’s gesture has not been unjustified.

Early indications of Widodo’s position towards allegations of indigenous massacres, impunity for military violence, and the ongoing separatist tensions would seem to suggest that “Jokowi,” as he is popularly known, is adopting a development approach to Papua: Focus on growth, invest in basic infrastructure, and hope the accusations die down. Even from this angle, however, questions as to why Papua’s resource-rich territories have remained entrenched in permanent under-development continue to plague the regime. With high profile Melanesian activists, international human rights agencies, and a vibrant online independence movement calling for a referendum in the Papuan provinces, the success of Jokowi’s presidency may ultimately hinge upon how he manages “the Papuan problem.” A recent visit, in which he questioned the accuracy of a report offered by local security forces on recent violence, represents a glimmer of hope that perhaps Jokowi will break with the policies of past Indonesian leaders.

Claimed as colonies of the Netherlands in 1828, modern Indonesia and West Papua were occupied as part of the Dutch East Indies trading empire until World War II. After two young nationalists, future president Sukarno and future vice president Mohammad Hatta, seized the chance to declare the independence of Indonesia in August 1945, international mediation eventually compelled the Dutch to recognize the new nation at the 1949 Hague Round Table Conference. The Netherlands ceded control of the vast archipelago, with one important exception; the Dutch declined to grant jurisdiction of West Papua to Indonesia.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Indonesian nationalists had envisaged that Papua would be included in the new state according to uti possidetis juris, the legal doctrine that decolonized regions should retain the same boundaries they formerly possessed as colonial territories. Dutch representatives argued that the doctrine was extinguished by the fact that Papua had been administered separately to their other Pacific colonies. As a result, the international community acknowledged Papua’s status as separate from the state of Indonesia, and the region continued under Dutch sovereignty.

After resuming control in 1950, the Netherlands set in motion a number of education and training programs directed towards preparing West Papua for independence. This process saw the establishment of the West New Guinea Council in 1961, consisting of largely Papuan representatives who had been appointed as a result of Dutch-sanctioned plebiscites throughout the territory. Approaching the UN General Assembly, the Council advocated a course of action wherein a temporary UN government would replace Dutch control over Papua, whilst an international body assessed the nation’s status.

To this end, in 1950 West Papua was placed on the agenda of the UN Committee of 24, also known as the Special Committee of Decolonization. The effect of this action was that Papua became internationally recognized as a non-self-governing territory. The Council formally announced West Papua as the name of their independent state on December 1, 1966, selecting the “Morning Star” flag for their new nation, in addition to establishing their own military force and currency.

The increasing visibility of Papuan nationalism triggered a series of offensives from the Indonesian military against the independence movement. The Sukarno government began conducting an extensive propaganda “reunification” campaign, promoting the notion that Indonesia was incomplete without Papua. Meanwhile, a declining domestic economy was prompting closer attention from Jakarta towards Papua’s abundant mineral reserves.

As violence escalated between Indonesian and Dutch forces, the Kennedy government and the UN intervened in the 1962 New York Agreement, which ended Dutch occupation in West Papua. For years both the Soviets and the U.S. had been supplementing the Indonesian military with supplies of arms and vehicles, as the two great powers attempted to outbid each other in favors to Sukarno. Between 1958 and 1961 Indonesia purchased $1.5 billion in Soviet arms, whilst the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) grew to become the third largest of its kind in the world.

The U.S. decision to back Sukarno’s claim to Papua was undoubtedly swayed by these Cold War calculations. From the inception of the state in 1949, Western governments had become increasingly wary of the potential Indonesia held for altering the balance of power in the Pacific. U.S. and Australian policymakers in the mid-50s had attempted to counter this threat by supporting uprisings in Sumatra and Sulawesi, calculating that a more fragmented, economically weaker Indonesia would increase regional security. The developing military and diplomatic alliance between Indonesia and Russia, however, caused an abrupt change in American policy toward Indonesia.

The U.S. could not fail to realize that Papua was a powerful bargaining tool. Rather than competing with Russia in a bidding war, the U.S. had the potential to secure a prize for Indonesia that would decisively shift the state’s alignment away from the Soviet Union. Whilst the New York Agreement nominally provided the opportunity for open negotiations on Papua’s future, in reality it served as a vehicle for the U.S. to convey to the Dutch its foregone conclusions on the Papuan questions.

The New York Agreement stipulated that Papua would undergo a period of UN temporary government, which would supervise both Dutch withdrawal and the beginning of Indonesian control by 1963, after which a vote of self-determination had to take place. In doing so, the Agreement had the crucial effect of acknowledging that Papuans had a right to self-determination.

The Agreement saw the establishment of the UN Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA), which handed power to Indonesia in 1963 after seven months of supervision. The transfer from Dutch to Indonesian control during this period occurred without any act of self-determination or consultation for the Papuan people; however, this did not deter the UN from immediately and surreptitiously removing Papua from its list of non-self-governing territories.

Following UNTEA, West Papua experienced an influx of Indonesian military and personnel. Local Papuan representative councils were prohibited, and freedom of speech, cultural expression, and involvement in pro-independence political parties were severely curtailed. While this abrupt change of fortunes provoked significant dissent in Papua, protests against Indonesian occupation were met with brutality. During the 1981 Tribunal on Human Rights in West Papua, held in Port Moresby, former governor of West Papua Eliezar Bonay estimated that 30,000 indigenous Papuans were killed during the period of unofficial Indonesian government from 1963 to 1969, as part of a systematic campaign of intimidation by the military.

Alongside this violence, Jakarta devoted considerable resources to investigating the mineral deposits in the Papuan territories. A persistent thread running throughout the hidden history of Papua is the enormous mineral wealth of the region’s mountains. There is scant international awareness that the region holds the world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine, operated by a subsidiary of U.S. mining conglomerate Freeport McMoRan. In 1967, the Suharto regime granted a 30-year mining license to Freeport McMoRan under Indonesia’s Mining Regulation Law No. 11/1967, the result of talks sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation and directed by David Rockefeller. West Papua’s nickel reserves and forests were distributed between a number of influential American, European and Japanese companies, whilst extensive arrangements to export natural gas, silver, fish, oil, and timber were also devised.

With Papua’s resources divided up and parceled out in 1967, two years before self-determination was apparently going to take place, the new Suharto regime clearly had no intention of accepting any outcome other than integration with Indonesia. Additionally, several of the world’s most powerful corporations now had strong reasons to desire minimal alterations to Papua’s political situation. In the event of independence, the majority of these economic arrangements would be nullified, and the expense of establishing mining and felling operations in Papua would be wasted.

Hence, in 1969, the Indonesian government fulfilled its promises in the New York Agreement by conducting, ostensibly under UN supervision, an infamous plebiscite that came to be known as the “Act of Free Choice.” Discussions in New York concerning potential voting methods had seen the rejection of universal suffrage, which was dismissed on the basis that the region’s population was too widely and erratically dispersed. Instead, the Indonesian procedure of musyasawarah, or traditional consultation, was accepted in its place.

This process involved selecting 1022 West Papuan representatives, who were to travel to Jakarta and then vote on the future of their nation. The voters unanimously decided in favor of integration with Indonesia, whilst UN supervisors were intimidated and excluded from the voting process. Papuan activist Rex Rumakiek, reiterating widely corroborated views on the plebiscite, notes:

1022 carefully selected tribal leaders… were asked to show hands in front of officials, which included an intimidating military presence. They of course voted for integration- it would have been impossible to vote otherwise when they had been forewarned of what would happen to their lives and their families if they did.

The sham referendum was ratified by the UN General Assembly, in spite of reports of significant human rights violations in the referendum process, evidenced by the testimony of former UN Under-Secretary General, Chakravarthi Narasimahan:

It was just a whitewash. The mood at the UN was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible… Nobody gave a thought to the fact that a million people had their fundamental rights trampled. How could anyone have seriously believed that all voters unanimously decided to join his [President Suharto’s] regime?

Despite the New York Agreement’s stipulation that the plebiscite had to be conducted in accordance with international practice, in his final presentation on the outcome of the Act of Free Choice to the General Assembly, UN Representative in West Papua, Ortiz Sanz, merely noted that an “Indonesian” voting process was conducted.

It is one of the great scandals of the United Nations that its supervision of UNTEA and the Act of Free Choice was able to grant the annexation such a fatal appearance of legitimacy. The great culpability of the UN, however, lay in its crucial 1950 recognition of West Papua as a non-self-governing territory. The ramifications of Papua’s presence on the list can be detected in Article V of the General Assembly’s 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which calls for the immediate “complete independence” of “Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories.”

In the case of Papua, the 1950 placement on the list prioritizes Article V over Article VI, which is continuously cited in response to challenges of Indonesia’s authority in Papua: “Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” In acquiescing to Jakarta’s demands from 1963 onwards, and in recognizing the legitimacy of the Act of Free Choice, the United Nations abandoned its obligations toward a nation that it had previously acknowledged as possessing the right to self-determination.

As increased scrutiny turns toward the Jokowi administration, it remains to be seen whether his reform agenda will generate a more realistic approach towards human rights concerns and separatist tensions in Papua. Jakarta’s insistence over the last decade that Papua has nothing to hide is undermined by its steadfast refusal to allow foreign journalists into the Papuan provinces, and its earnest attempts to extol Indonesia’s democratic credentials remain suspect as weekly reports of highlands killings and unexplained deaths flow in from Papua. The likelihood of a referendum under the Jokowi administration appears low; it took huge international pressure, the downfall of President Suharto, and a personal plea from Australian Prime Minister John Howard before President Habibie called for a referendum in East Timor in 1999. In any case, the referendum’s success spelt the death knell for Habibie’s presidency.

Yet staging an independence referendum in Papua would hold significant benefits for Indonesian international credibility, and may hold the key to a successful resolution of separatist tensions within and without Papua. Years of domestic transmigration programs, shifting workers from densely populated areas of Indonesia to the Papuan provinces, have resulted in dramatic demographic changes, with 2010 estimates projecting a 49/51 split between indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants of Papua.

With indigenous Papuans now a minority in the Papuan provinces, and decades of Papuans growing up under depoliticized, Java-centric education systems, the outcome of an independence referendum may not be the threat of republic disintegration as previously supposed. Depending on the electoral methods and voter qualification systems utilized, Jakarta may be able to hold a relatively “safe” vote of self-determination, defusing the legal force of arguments concerning the invalidity of the Act of Free Choice and reinforcing the current trend of international optimism towards Indonesia’s new reform era. Whether such moves can improve human rights in Papua, mollify the military’s hypersensitivity to protest, or eliminate the butterfly effect of Indonesia’s spiraling decentralization, remains to be seen. For the present, it seems clear that the prospects of peace are unlikely to be improved by the construction of a presidential palace.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief