West Papua


The first known, or recorded interaction between indigenous West Papuans and the outside world occurred in the early 1500s. The first Portuguese explorers recorded this first encounter with the indigenous people in which described the people as Pepuah – from Malay language which mean “frizzled hair.”

Foreign Occupation (Chronology)

The Spaniards

Spanish Explorer – Yñigo Ortiz de Retez

The Spanish explorers arrived at the shores of West Papua in the mid 1500s. In 1545, Spaniard explorer and navigator, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, explored the Island and claimed it for the king of Spain. He named the Island “Nueva Guinea,” (New Guinea) because of the inhabitants’ resemblance to tho Guinea people in Africa. That name remained to this very day.

Other Europeans – The Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British

The trade route linking Asia to the rest of the world crossed the Islands known as the “Spice Islands”, and the Island of New Guinea. This route brought more European explorers and traders to the shores of West Papua. Most of these explorers and traders stopped briefly in West Papua and then continued on to other Islands and back to Europe.

Between 1600 and 1700s, the Portuguese, Spaniards, the Dutch and the British colonial powers traversed these waters. By the end of the 19th century, the Dutch East Indian company converted its trade connection to the West Indies since 1600s, into a sovereign territory of the royal monarchy. In 1898, the Netherlands government established its first outposts in Fakfak (a city in Western coast of West Papua) and Manokwari (a city in the North).

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Dutch administration established its headquarter in Merauke – a city in the Southern most region of West Papua.

World War II – US and Allies 

On December 1941, the Japan attacked American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which was at the time a territory of the United States, and then fought its way through most of Asia, down to the South Asian region, and into the heart and the Pacific region. They occupied many Islands in the Pacific including the entire island of the New Guinea and the Philippines and Indonesian Islands, and the islands of Indonesia. 

Caption pic – An Australian and a West Papuan man in traditional attire, Merauke. 1941

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government immediately declared war on Japan and pursued the Japanese forces into Asia and down to the Pacific.  The United States was aided by British forces in the British colonies in the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand – the ANZAC forces, and the Dutch Forces in Western New Guinea (West Papua region). Many indigenous people died in the battle, and many of them risked their lives rescuing downed aviators, and stranded soldiers in remote areas. They took up arms against the Japanese forces in support of the United States forces. 

In 1945, the US government authorized the use of the Atomic Bomb on Japanese military cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction of the two cities forced Japan to surrender and signed the ceasefire abort the USS Missouri.

Japanese delegation aboard USS Missouri to sign the official surrender

Post World War 

After World War II, things throughout the Dutch colonies were not the same anymore. The Dutch tried but failed to regain control of its colonies in Indonesia. After a few futile attempts to regain control of Indonesia, the Dutch administration ceased all hostilities against Indonesia and recognized the newly established Indonesian government. 

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British government led the effort to decolonize its own territories and urged other European powers to do likewise. This movement resulted in the South Pacific Commission agreement in which colonial powers were urged to prepare their colonies for their own “self-determination.”

Through the effort of the British government, more than thirty Asian and African colonies became independent states. In the Pacific, PNG, Fiji, Kiribas, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands etc, all gained their independence.  For West Papuans, however, there was hope on the horizon. The Dutch administration believed that the indigenous people of West Papua were capable of running their own affairs and were preparing them to 

Republic of Indonesia

Founding Indonesian President Sukarno

Prior to World War II, Mr. Sukarno and other Indonesian nationalists were advocating for Indonesian self-determination from Dutch colonialism and every foreign political influence. The plan came to fruition when Japan announced its surrender to the US and its allies.
Caption – President Sukarno – founding father of the Republic of Indonesia
During World War II, Mr. Sukarno worked with the Japanese military commanders with the hope of gaining support for his ‘self-determination’ plan against the Netherlands. The Japanese occupation in Asia and the Pacific began to recede in 1945 as Japanese forces returned to defend the homeland. Later that year, the US government authorized the use of nuclear bombs on important Japanese cities forcing Japan to surrender. In Indonesian, the movement for self-determination was already underway. Before Japan offered its formal surrender to the Allied forces, on August 17, 1945, President Sukarno immediately declared Indonesia an independent sovereign state.

The Dutch government attempted to stop Indonesia from become an independent but was repelled by Indonesian aided by the Soviet Union. In 1950, the Dutch government announced its recognition of the sovereign right of the Indonesian government to exist. However, it retained West Papua in preparation for its own self-determination.

Post-World War II – the Rise of Indonesia

Indonesian military tank parade

Between 1945 and 1960, the Indonesian government battled with Dutch forces over territories the Indonesian government claimed to be theirs, particularly the Dutch territory of Western New Guinea – known today as West Papua. A number of Indonesian incursions into West Papua between this time period were repelled by Netherlands forces. Unable to defeat the well-armed and well-trained Dutch forces, the Indonesian government turned to the international community, backed by recently independent African and Asian governments, Sukarno demanded a UN intervention and used ‘anti-colonial’ arguments over a territory has any connection to the Indonesian right from the start.

In 1954, the Indonesian government launched a formal complaint against the Netherlands claiming that West Papua was part of the Republic of Indonesia historically. According to UN record, the Dutch government maintained control of West Papua and argued that it was not part of Indonesia and should be allowed to gain its own independence.

The future of the territory was discussed at the General Assembly’s regular sessions from 1954 to 1957 and at the 1961 UN General Assembly session, but no resolutions on it were adopted.

Further negotiations between the UN representatives and the leaders of the Republic of Indonesia and the Netherlands resulted in the signing of the New York Agreement (NYA) in 1962.

Click here to read the New York Agreement

Though leaders of the UN claimed that the NYA was to facilitate the transfer of the Dutch territory of West Papua to the UN in preparation for a ‘referendum’ on Indonesian and the Netherlands, the words of the agreement explicitly stated the UN would merely facilitate the successful transfer of West Papua to Indonesia.

There was no indigenous representatives during those negotiations, and in retrospect, that agreement was a mere ploy to transfer West Papua to the Indonesian government, which was at the time entertaining a Soviet pivot.

The thought of having the Soviet Union in Australia’s backyard angered the British, Australian, Netherlands and American governments. 

Cold War

Indonesian Foundering leader Sukarno and the Soviet Union boss Nikita Khrushchev

Since the late 1950 and early 1960s, Sukarno wanted help from Western Powers to help annex West Papua, but the British and the Americans were reluctant to support the young country of Indonesia against their Western ally, the Netherlands. Sukarno then turned to the newly established countries in Asia and Africa who then backed Indonesian claim of anti-Colonial struggle against the Netherlands at the UNGA. Toward the end of 1959, after much negotiation, the Dutch government and Indonesian representatives met and signed a formal peace agreement in exchange for the Dutch’s formal recognition of the sovereign state of Indonesia. 


As the tension over West Papua escalated in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union and  Indonesian relationship became stronger. It was so alarming that the US ambassador in Jakarta warned the JKF administration that if the US government continued to ignore Sukarno, the Soviet would completely take over Indonesia and therefore going to war against the Netherlands over West Papua.  The warning sent alarm bells in Washington, DC. 

At the time,  the Americans were engaging in the Vietnam conflict and the fear of the Soviet could possibly take over Indonesia marked the turning for the incoming president, President John F. Kennedy who then decided to travel to Indonesia to appease President Sukarno. 

President – United States President, John F. Kennedy (L), and Indonesian founding President Sukarno (R)

Following this advice of his ambassador, President JFK took the initiative and visited Jakarta where he offered his support for a unified Indonesia and West Papua. It is on record that the US government pressured the Netherlands to turn over control of West Papua to the UN and worked toward the implementation of a the ‘Act of Free Choice’ election which occurred in 1969, which was simply used as a catalyst to transfer West Papua to Indonesia. In other words, West Papua was used as a pawn to keep the Soviet out of Indonesia.

1969 – Referendum

Indigenous West Papuans who were shut out of the election of 1969 protested.

In 1962, after so much pressure from Indonesia government and the UN, the Netherlands relinquished control of West Papua to the UN and the left its former colony for good. The UN formed the ‘United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA)’ which then administered West Papua from 1962-1963 under the leadership of Iranian diplomat Djalal Abdoh.

The Sham Referendum

According to plan, the UNTEA administrator left West Papua to the hands of the Indonesian government, which then changed the name of Western New Guinea to Irian Jaya. Essentially, Indonesia had been occupying West Papua six years prior to the referendum election known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’ of 1969. And that was done under the knowledge of the UN and diplomats of both Britain and the United States.

In 1969, the UN and Indonesia launched the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice.’ Under the direction of the UN Representative, Oritz Sanz, the Bolivian diplomat, Indonesian police rounded up 1025 West Papuans, coached and coerced them to vote in favor of the integration of West Papua and Indonesia, which was already established since 1963.

Regarding the type of election implemented in the ‘Act of Free Choice’ election, Mr. Sanz explained: 

We know in advance that the principle of “one man one vote” cannot be applied in all areas of the territory, both on account of the terrain and the lack of sophistication of vast segments of the population…. We also know that the Indonesian Government, which seems not to be very sure about the results of the consultation, will try, by all means at its disposal, to reduce the number of individuals, representatives, and institutions to be consulted

The ‘one man one vote’ is, in fact, the preferred form of election in most democratic nations, but in 1969, Indonesia and the UN observers agreed to implement something else because they didn’t care about the fairness and equality of all West Papuans. 

In the election, the West Papuans voted unanimously to allow Indonesia to occupy West Papua. That was the result Indonesia expected and that is the basis of its occupation of West Papua since 1969.

The ‘Act of Free Choice’ was a sham!
The so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’ election was nothing but a ceremony concocted by the UN and its main actors to formalize the transfer of West Papuans from one colonial master to another, which is a violation of the UN Charter, Human Rights Convention, and the International Human Rights Laws.