By David Webster
West Papua, occupied by Indonesia since the 1960s, is making headlines with a wave of protests sparked by anti-Papuan racism. How did this territory come under Indonesian rule? This article from Cornell University’s journal Indonesia (now in open access) provides context on how the Papuan right to self-determination was abandoned in the early 1960s and the territory annexed by Indonesia under United States pressure.
“My Country favors a world of free and equal states …. Within the limits of our responsibility in such matters, my Country intends to be a participant and not merely an observer in this peaceful, expeditious movement of nations from the status of colonies to the partnership of equals. That continuing tide of self-determination, which runs so strong, has our sympathy and our support.” – John F. Kennedy to UN General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961
“We must meet our oft-stated pledge to the free peoples of West Berlin …. We have previously admitted our willingness to remove any actual irritants in West Berlin, but the freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.’… The solemn vow each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger.” – John F. Kennedy’s report to the nation on the Berlin crisis, July 25, 1961
“Oh, that is entirely different because there are something like two and a quarter million West Berliners where there are only seven hundred thousand of those Papuans. Moreover, the West Berliners are highly civilized and highly cultured, whereas those inhabitants of West New Guinea are living, as it were, in the Stone Age.” – Kennedy in conversation with Netherlands Ambassador J.H. van Roijen, 1962
In 1960, the Dutch colony of West New Guinea (later known as West Papua, West Irian, Irian Jaya, and Papua) embarked on a ten-year plan slated to end in self-determination for its indigenous Papuan population. This plan was presented explicitly within the framework of international decolonization and at the same-time as the United Nations was working out its self-determination law, first enshrined in the UN declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (Dec. 14, 1960). WNG was in many ways the first test case, and the international community failed abysmally. The reason was realpolitik, the strategic cold war imperative of the United States. The US while extolling self-determination as a high and holy principle for West Berlin and elsewhere, abandoned it for WNG. But it should be noted that the principle was also abandoned by the international community and all the players directly involved: Indonesia, Australia, and even the Netherlands. The sole exceptions were a group of African states who saw parallels to their own (then very recent) experience of political decolonization.
WNG was handed over to Indonesia in 1962 with the promise of an “act of free choice” to be held by 1969. That this act was a stage-managed whitewash is generally accepted. But the principle of self-determination was in fact abandoned earlier, in the three-way Dutch-Indonesian-American negotiations of 1960-1962. Self-determination was by no means impossible after this point, nor were Papuan rights to self-determination extinguished, but the path to self-determination was made much harder. After 1962, no major power would take it seriously in the Papuan case, and thus it was no surprise when the international community rubber-stamped the 1969 “act of free choice” and accepted WNG’s incorporation into Indonesia, an incorporation that is shaky under international law. This article traces the abandonment of the principle of self-determination leading up to the Dutch-Indonesian New York Agreement of August 1962, which put an end to Dutch rule and to the self-determination process.