What’s The Deal With the Irian Jaya Independence Movement?

Hello all,

Welcome to a stunning 7th edition of What’s The Deal (I know, you thought I wouldn’t have enough material for 5 blog posts) the blog that discusses and explains current events through historical learning.

The pun factory is still up and running, despite union demands for more verbs

In today’s blog we’ll take a look at the recent violent attacks and protests in Indonesia, and delve into(nesia) and see why there is an independence movement in this relatively stable Southeast Asian Nation.

The protests are organized by people from Papua, the Eastern most island region of Indonesia, that shares the island with Papua New Guinea.  The long standing issue is the demand for independence of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) from Indonesia and upend the 1969 referendum that gave Indonesia control over the region. The protests occurring now are also a product of recent violence in the Papua province where at least 21 people have been killed, and the West Papua Independence National Committee (organizer of the protests) say that Indonesian security forces are the perpetrators behind the attack to create a climate of fear to deter protests for Papuan independence.

Papua (Western New Guinea) in Red

Like most regional and ethnic conflicts, the Papua/Indonesia conflict is a product of integrating separate cultures/peoples into ONE country or colony.

Even before the European encounter of Papua in 1526, original Papuans mingled with incoming Austronesian peoples who settled around the coasts of the island nearly 3,000 years ago.  The Papua island effectively became a colony of the Netherlands in 1660 and was a contributor to the Dutch East India Company (DEIC).  The island changed hands several times during the early/mid 20th century during and after WWII, but came back into Dutch hands after the war.  In 1949, the Netherlands officially recognized Indonesian sovereignty over most of the islands it had formerly controlled, except for Dutch New Guinea (the Papua island).  Before the transfer of Papua to Indonesia from the Dutch, the Dutch had attempted to develop the islands population and to start a Papua nationalist movement.  The Dutch had promised the Papuans their own independent country, but Indonesia wanted the region for its rich resources, and after a military campaign against the Papuans, the UN eventually stepped in to sort things out “diplomatically”.

The incorporation of Papua into Indonesia in 1969 is the source of conflict that is now surfacing because it was not done fairly and created a separatist movement.  That separatist movement is known as the Free Papua Movement.  This group formed initially in 1965 during a transitory period where the Netherlands and Australia held “joint custody” of the island but recommended to the U.N. and lobbied to the U.S. to allow Papua (The Western half of the island; the other half was still an Australian possession until 1975.) to act in self-determination.  The U.N. decided on an “Act of Free Choice” to let a council of elders from Papua (read: a fraction of the population that was threatened by the Indonesian State) decide if they wanted to join Indonesia or become their own country.

The “Free Choice” was nothing more than officials teaching the Papuan elders a few pro-Indonesian phrases and then persuading them to use this during a public ceremony where this “Act” took place.

These elder Papuans “decided” to join the archipelago nation and this incited the Free Papua Movement to create their own constitution for an independent Papua.  This movement tried violent actions to prove their point in creating an officially recognized independent Papua.  The last 40 years, many attacks have been carried out and threats have been made against government officials so that the Free Papua Movement has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and others.

That is the connection to the recent attacks and protests.  Many in the Indonesian government believe that the Free Papua Movement is responsible for the attacks on civillians in Papua, but the protesters so far have disagreed.  They believe it is the Indonesian secret police creating an environment of fear so that the movements goal (independence for Papua) can be deterred from being followed by a popular movement.

The Morning Star Flag of West Papua

So let’s lay out the scene here:

  1. The Indonesian province of Papua is made up of a population of austronesians and native Papuans.
  2. Papua was unfairly incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, a newly independent nation since 1945 from the Netherlands, that is made up of Javanese, Sumatrans, Chinese, and Malays.
  3. The Free Papua Movement wishes to create an independent Papua because Papua is ethnically and popularly distinct from Indonesia.

This is the problem with a large island nation like Indonesia: Many cultures and peoples are bound together in a former colonial holding and then transferred to one ruling nation.  Having experienced a taste of nationalism from the Dutch holdouts on the Papua island in the 1960s, the Free Papua Movement believes that they have self-determination to create their own independent nation.  The Free Papua Movement has resorted to terror tactics since the integration and their goal is to create an independent Papua by overthrowing the provincial governments of West Papua and Papua.

Well, I know you’ve all been glued to international news on this issue, so I hope I’ve provided a decent interpretation of events and history in the Papua province.

Thanks for tuning in and until next time, have a great day!

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson




New York Times Report

Indonesia in the Soeharto Years: Issues, Incidents, and Images, John H. McGlynn and Hermawan Sulistyo.


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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