Papua: a post-colonial or Cold War conflict?

Published : 01 May 2013


Why, in 1621, did the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) massacre 90 percent of the Indigenous Melanesian/Austronesian population of the Banda Islands due to a dispute over the price of nutmeg and mace? What is little known about the Great Age of European Discovery and the subsequent Age of Colonialism was that it was spurred on by newly formed European nations’ need to wrestle control of the Ancient Spice Trade from Venice and the Ottoman Turks.

Venice had grown phenomenally wealthy on the trade, and Western European countries such as Spain, Portugal, England and Holland where eager to share in these profits through greatly expanded navies. At the Treaty of Breda in 1667, after the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the belligerents of the Netherlands and England agreed to exchange Manhattan Island, then a staging post for beaver pelts, for Run Island in the Bandas, giving the VOC control over the world's nutmeg production and eventually control of what is now eastern Indonesia.

The largest island in this region, known as New Guinea to the Europeans, was largely left to the indigenous Melanesians, due to their fierce resistance to outsiders and impenetrable terrain. Trade with New Guinea was mainly restricted to local markets with Bird of Paradise feathers and slaves being the major commodities.

In the 20th century, Western powers were able to penetrate the terrain of New Guinea through the pacification of its indigenous population through Christianity and improvements in technology. After World War I, New Guinea was divided between the Dutch and the Australians.

In the interwar period, a number of Dutch-American expeditions discovered vast quantities of hydrocarbons, copper and gold, leading to a change in focus from merely fortifying coastal villages to protect trade routes to engagement with the interior.

The Japanese were also quick to realize the importance of New Guinea in World War II. The inability of successive Australian governments to read the limits of Japanese expansion, and hence fear of Japanese invasion of Australia, had more to do with their naive assessments of the resource potentials of New Guinea than any credible information on a Japanese desire to invade south of the Arafura Sea. However, the Americans, Dutch and Japanese did not suffer from the same naivety.

The 1945 Yalta Conference provided secure geographical regions for the new major powers of the Soviet Union, United States and United Kingdom. Colonialism became unacceptable with the rise of majority world people's movements for control of their own regions. This was spurred on by Russian rhetoric, British Empire impotence and the American wish to see the old powers out of the Pacific.

The Dutch, after initial attempts to regain their colony in the East Indies, where thwarted by resilient Indonesian nationalists and eventual opposition by friendly nations: Britain, the US and Australia. The Dutch were able to retain Dutch New Guinea as an unresolved aspect of the Round Table Conference in 1949.

The Dutch used a number of interchangeable reasons for retaining New Guinea, but none to the satisfaction of the Indonesians. The most nonsensical of these was that Papuans where ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia; perhaps the Dutch had forgotten the massacre of the Papuan-speaking Bandanese 300 years earlier.

Nevertheless, the Dutch accelerated development in Papua, mainly for propaganda purposes, and suppressed any form of Indonesian nationalism within the very small Papuan elite. While the majority of Papuans lived untouched by this development, it sowed the seeds of Papuan anti-Indonesian feelings, which was only too easily aggravated by President Soeharto’s New Order regime.

The US was heartened by the new Indonesian republic's seemingly anti-Communist stance with the suppression of the Madiun Affair in 1948, which also led to the restructuring of the Indonesian Communists that brought them in line with the Stalin's non-expansionism. However, Indonesian nationalism in the 1950s under Soekarno showed indications that the country would not prioritize US interests, and even worse, threatened to radically nationalize core resource industries at great expense to America. 

After the Bandung Conference in 1955, US policymakers began discussing the need for a pro-US military dictatorship in Indonesia. After the 1958 Outer Island Rebellion, the US cemented its influence over the Indonesian Army, leading to a six-year collision course with the Soekarno administration.

The Indonesian Communists, now following a left-wing nationalist agenda, became increasingly popular, especially with their cause célèbre of ousting the Dutch from New Guinea. The US encouraged the Indonesian Army to take up the cause to counter the popularity of the Communists.

By 1963, the Americans had managed through mainly economic means to force the Dutch out of New Guinea. The New Guinea campaign was a win-win situation for US interests: it meant that the Army had gained considerable popularity, and by ousting the Dutch, the US had access to the largely untapped resources of Western New Guinea.

In the 1960s, US anti-Communist propaganda in the region was in full swing. To what extent US actors where involved in the Indonesian Communist putsch, the military countercoup and mass murder of the Communists is still shrouded in mystery. But the outcome -- a military dictatorship in Indonesia -- was welcomed in Washington.

Unfortunately it was less than a beneficial outcome for the Indonesian population, especially the Papuans. Soeharto’s rule meant wages were kept artificially low, especially through the intimidation of trade unionists, and most of the profits from Indonesia's vast resources went offshore.

Papua became a military fiefdom to protect US corporations, and it did not take long for the Papuans to question their integration into the military status quo. The human suffering of the Papuans during this period, not unlike other minorities in Indonesia, were immense and have been documented by Greg Poulgrain's ghostwritten report, West Papua: The Obliteration of a People, published by Tapol in the early 1980s. To this day, there is a low-level insurgency in Papua.

Since the end of the New Order and rise of Indonesian democracy, development in Papua has not been on par than other parts of Indonesia, and the dismantling of military rule less than satisfactory, though it does have a vibrant democratic culture. The government's decentralization policy has been less than successful for various reasons ranging from paranoia in Jakarta due to Papuan calls for independence, to the lack of human and social capital in Papua after 30 years of dictatorship.

A sizeable minority of indigenous Papuans, especially in the highlands, feel little allegiance to Indonesian sovereignty and continue to support New Order-style Papuan responses to neocolonialism. The current orthodoxy to see origins of the Papuan conflict within the Cold War is unhelpful. Southeast Asia experienced hot wars that had less to do with Soviet expansion and more to do with ending European colonialism.

While America’s replacement of the economic influence of old European powers was most likely necessary in Indonesia, this influence quickly devolved into control using the language and protocols of the Cold War to bring about the neocolonialism of the New Order. Colonialism came to Papua much later than the rest of the Indonesia, but one potential point for solidarity between Papuans and the wider Indonesian community is a rejection and dismantling of the neocolonialism of the New Order. This may have the ability to engage Papuans in an Indonesia based on democratic principles and protection of minority rights, as envisioned by Indonesia's founding fathers.


Calum Hyslop is the Spokesman for Papua Watch Australia, a nongovernmental organization promoting development and human rights for Indigenous Papuans. 

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