West Papua

West Papua – the Stolen Paradise


Foreign Occupation (Chronology)

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.”

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.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British

The trade route linking Asia to the rest of the world crossed the Islands of the so called “Spice Islands” and Island of New Guinea. This route brought more European explorers and traders to West Papua. Most of these explorers and traders stopped briefly in West Papua and then continued on to other Islands. 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 Netherlands government established its headquarter in Merauke – a city in the Southern most region of West Papua.

World War 2

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

On December 1941, the Japanese Air Force bombed the US Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – then, a territory of the United States, and then fought its way through most of Asia and Southeast Asia and into the heart and the Pacific. The US government immediately declared war on Japan and pursued Japanese forces to Asia and into the Pacific.

In the Pacific, the imperial Japanese forces came face to face with colonial forces stationed in these territories and forces made up of colonized Islanders. A combined force of Australians and Dutch fought against the invading Japanese forces throughout Indonesia and the Pacific Islands in some fiercest battles ever recorded in the history of Asia Pacific. The West Papuan indigenous people fought alongside their Netherlands and Australian forces until the imperial Japanese forces formally surrendered on August 1945.

After two Atomic bombs decimated most of Japanese cities, Japan surrendered to American forces.

After World War II, the British government led the effort to decolonize its own territories and urged other European powers to do likewise. Through the effort of the British government, more than thirty Asian and African colonies became independent states. Indonesia was one of those countries. For West Papuans, there was hope on the horizon. They believe that they were capable of running their own affairs and care for their own people.

Republic of Indonesia

President Sukarno – founding father of the Republic of Indonesia

Colliding circumstances

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.


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.

Japanese delegation aboard USS Missouri to sign the official surrender

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.

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

The Netherlands maintained that the Papuans of West New Guinea were not Indonesians and therefore should be allowed to decide their own future when they were ready to do so. The future of the territory was discussed at the General Assembly’s regular sessions from 1954 to 1957 and at the 1961 session, but no resolutions on it were adopted.

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Further negotiations between 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.

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 state 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, Australians, Netherlands and American governments.

The Soviet and USA

Indonesian Foundering leader Sukarno and the Soviet Union boss Nikita Khrushchev

The Sukarno government needed 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. Toward the end of 1949, 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. The following year, the Soviet formally recognized Indonesia. However, the Netherlands retained West Papua in preparation for West Papuan Independence.

The UN Intervention

As the tension over West Papua escalated in the mid 50s and early 60s, the Soviet Union and Indonesian relationship became stronger. However, the thought of having Indonesia in charge of Indonesia became a huge concern for the Americans and their Western counterparts. The Americans were facing an escalated war in Vietnam and the fear of the Soviet occupation of the Indonesian marked the turning for the incoming president, President John F. Kennedy.

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

Realizing the Americans and their European counterparts were willing to negotiate, President Sukarno pressured the American ambassador to Indonesia to inform President JFK that any delay in negotiating a transfer of West Papua (then Western New Guinea) would not be accepted. In a memo to Washington D.C., the Ambassador, citing the previous administration’s lack of engagement with the Republic of Indonesia, warned that Indonesia would turn to the Soviet if the Americans didn’t take Sukarno seriously. Following this advice, 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.

The UN and the Sham Referendum

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

1969 – ‘Act of Free Choice’

In 1962, after so much pressure from Indonesia and the UN, the Netherlands relinquished control of West Papua – renamed Irian Jaya at the time – to the UN and left. 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.

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 fake election 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 were rounded up, coached and coerced 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

Source: Oritz Sanz to U Thant, September 7,1968. UN Archives, New York (hereafter UN), Series 100, Box 1, File 3.

The ‘one man one vote’ is essentially 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.

After this 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 to formalize the transfer of West Papuans from one colonial master to another, which is by UN and International Law.

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