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The case for West Papuan self–determination



THE NATIONAL Resilience Institute (Lemhanas) of Indonesia this week suggested the use of anthropology to better understand Papuan aspirations in order to help the government maintain stability in the unstable area. 

This view holds that anthropology is necessary because there are various tribes and more than 400 languages in Papua. Moreover, anthropologic perspectives are necessary to determine the appropriate manners of raising awareness among Papuans regarding their relationship with the central government, which has granted special autonomy privileges for the provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Behind the notion is the need to invite anthropology experts to study this as part of soft approach to better understanding Papuan aspirations.

In recent years, human rights issues gained ground in current international relations. In international political terms, the right of self-determination is considered a debatable topic. There seems to be an opinion war between the realists and the liberalists who believe in their own principles between states absolute rights and collective human rights.

The former USA President Woodrow Wilson, in his Fourteen Points Article, introduced the concept of National Self-Determination to the world for the first time on 8 January 1918.

One of Wilson’s main purposes was to keep world peace. In his theory, Wilson argued that national self-determination meant societies’ right to administrate their residents. He emphasises the right of communities not the rights of ethnic groups (Lynch 2002).

In his book Rights: a Critical Introduction, Tom Campbell defined self-determination as the right of people to decide their own destiny and how they experience their life (Campbell 2006). Moreover, self-determination means the others should not determine someone’s life because it is universal people’s right (Freeman 1998).

This definition is very broad. So, in my words, I will define self-determination as the right of communities to attain freedom.

Based on the former Yugoslavia experience about the emergence of new countries, the right of self-determination was recognized worldwide as a fundamental right. Internationally, we can find several independence movements, which pursue secession such as in Sudan in the Africa region, Kosovo in the Eastern Europe, and Tibet in the Asia. In Asia, the fight for self-determination in Papuan region of Indonesia is a noticeable case.

After a brief history and definition of self-determination, it is time to address the question of whether self-determination for Papua is a satisfactory alternative resolution. This essay will argue that self-determination for Papua should be considered.


 Self-Determination in International Law

Some people argue that self-determination for Papua is illegitimate according to the UN’s international principles. The reason why the UN ignored the right of people to govern themselves and secession from their current states is to maintain international peace.

For this purpose the UN has solely recognized states as the major actors in international affairs. Every party in existing states who attempts to separate will be facing an obstacle. In light of this, some people believe that there are no chances for Papuans to govern themselves. The example of Basques in Spain and the Quebecois in Canada show the scale of those obstacles.

However, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a new perception in the international law of the territorial integrity of states emerged. This leads to the recognition of self-determination based on human and minority rights (Freeman 1998).

As Castellino and Gilbert state, these days a demand for new perception of the right for self-determination, which will back up the marginalised natives’ societies, is a high priority. The conventional view of self-determination is that it should reform by transformation in effort to accommodate the indigenous population’s rights to govern themselves through human right approach.

This is the last resort to gain new political status (Castellino & Gilbert in Pavkovic & Radan 2003). The United Nations approach on former Yugoslavia case is an instance of this. Although there was ambiguity in the international convention on people’s political rights, some provinces in Yugoslavia were recognized as independent states and they immediately governed themselves. If Papuans learn from this experience, there is a loophole in the international law, which can be exploited.

Special Autonomy vs. Secession

In the attempt to handle the independence movement, the Indonesian government allocated special autonomy status for Papua in 2001. Indonesian nationalists justify that every problem in Papua including self-determination enthusiasm can be accommodated within Indonesia's national boundaries through special autonomy.

To prove their justification, Jakarta gave the important political positions to Papuans with great expectation this will lessen independence movement in Papua (Singh 2005).

Yet, self-determination is recognition of independence and considerably different from autonomy. Though special autonomy grants liberty, it is limited. This means that Papua would be still controlled by Indonesian central government and this contradictive with self-determination principle, which offers absolute rights for peoples to decide their own destiny in their territories.

The latest political issues in Papua show that the special autonomy has failed. Papuans are marginalised in their own land. One of the causes is imbalance growing between the number of "transmigrants" and the natives (Singh). Non-Papuans dominate almost all public sectors such as markets, medium enterprises and transportations (Levi 2010).

“The Act of Free Choice” in 1969

The Indonesian military claim that the integrity of Papua in the frame of Unitary Republic of Indonesia is legal and final. Therefore, the Indonesian government does not allow any negotiation for the transformation of Papua’s political status according to Indonesia’s Coordinator Minister of Politics, Defence and Security, AS Widodo (Hidayat 2006). This statement is derived from “the act of free choice in 1969”, which Papuans decide to integrate with Indonesia and UN members accepted (Suter 2001).

On the other hand, it is important to note that the integration of Papua into Indonesia was a controversial process. There was infringement of the law, committed by the UN under the pressure from the USA.

In the context of the spread of communism in the South-East Asia the USA put pressure on the Dutch in the New York Agreement. Finally, the Dutch transferred West Papua to Indonesia, after five years supervision by United Nation Temporary Executive Authority (Rutherford 2009).

Indonesia decided to hold a referendum called “Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat”, literally, a determination of the opinion of the people act generally, which translates into English as an “the act of free choice”. This action was not held by true referendum, as the demands of the majority of the population of Papua, or even by the "Whispering". This is not used directly by the Dutch in rural areas, where the illiteracy rate was high, but with deliberation, discussion leading to a consensus, a system based on Javanese tradition.

Shortly before engaging in a fraudulent referendum, Brigadier-General Ali Murtopo, representative of President Soeharto, said the people of Papua that those who want liberty should go to find an island in the Pacific Ocean because “Irian” (West Papua) was part of Indonesia and that vote only a formality (Thompson 2004). This was a kind of Indonesian terror and intimidation.

Meanwhile, West Papua’s cousins, the people of Papua New Guinea, were encouraged by Australia to establish a parliamentary system and democratic decision-making. On the other hand, Indonesia told the world that the West Papuans were too "primitive" to determine their destiny.

In fact, it was illogical to call the Papuans "primitive" because two years later the Papuan people were considered advanced enough to participate in the elections in Indonesia in 1971. (Webster 2002).

In addition, Suter claims that the act of free choice" was no more than an “act of no choice”. Thus the legal basis of Papua's integration into Indonesia can be legally challenged.

Just to refresh our mind, at that moment only 1,000 Papuans tribal leaders represented 800,000 natives of Papua and there were no women. The act of free choice took place at a time of Indonesian military terror. For that reason, International Commission of Jurists makes an effort on re-examination of the 1969 "act of free choice" (Suter).

This controversial history has a tendency to be discussed by international institution such as International Institute for Self-Determination (IISD). International involvement plays the key role, which may lead to the real act of free choice. The implementation of the rights of self-determination is needed because Papuans live in the present and their time is now (Rutherford).

Indigenous People’s Rights (Social, Politic, Economic and Cultural)

Indigenous peoples ' rights are human rights. Indigenous peoples and Governments that dominate them need to work together to achieve equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment. This is the responsibility of the government, who administer a state to take procedures and address all of its citizen’s civil, politics and economic rights both natives and immigrants (Peang-Meth 2002).

There is no doubt that there is a common perception built in the minds of the political activists who want to separate Papua from Indonesia; the question of the illegality of constitutional, political injustice, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, social injustice, cultural repression, military and massive human rights violations (Singh).

Papua has faced complex social, political, economical and cultural problems since it was expropriate by Indonesia. In social-economic aspect for instance, Freeport, the USA’s Multi-national corporation has been operating the world's largest gold mine in Papua.

Freeport generates nearly $1.5 billion annual revenues. It also has measured reserves of more than 3.046 million tons gold, 31 million tons cooper, and 10 million tons silver.

However, this did not influence much on Papuan living standard. Data shows that 60% of Papua's populations have no access to education, 35.5% have no access to health facilities, and more than 70% live without clean water (Launa 2006).


For 40 years Indonesia failed to use anthropologic perspectives to maintain Papua and find ways to make the people live in prosperity and to fulfill their basic needs such economy, education and health without corruption in the implementation of these social policies and programs.

But West Papua must be allowed to self–determine and be a separate state from the Indonesian Unitary State, like Indonesia separated from the Dutch in 1945 as provided for under international law.

In the final analysis, the conflict in the Papua Province of Indonesia has evaded rational resolution by both Melanesian prophets and Asian military dictators and politicians despite deliberation for 40 years plus.  It is now the focus of international attention aimed at causing a historical rectification of the problem and hence stalling the 'slow-motion genocide'.  It all comes down to three questions that beg answers .

The questions are:

(1)   What was the cause of the failed assignment termed as the New Guinea Settlement 1961 preempted by the New Guinea Raad?

(2)   Under which existing International Laws could options be available to afford the right of the people of West Papua to exercise their right to self - determination; and

(3)   Once the self - determination question is addressed under international law, will West Papuans wish to be part of Papua New Guinea?

I say Island Melanesians can afford to stand up and disperse the titanic wave from the Himalaya with its brutal force and re - write the story of Papua and therefore Papua New Guinea through peaceful means.

The National Resilience Institute (Lemhanas) of Indonesia suggestion to focus on the use of anthropology to better understand Papuan aspirations in order to help the government maintain stability in the unstable area must be seen in this context.

In the end, despite the consequences of pressure from outside, it is doubtful that Indonesia will surrender Papua without a battle. Thus, self-determination for Papua sounds like a castle in the air for most Indonesian nationalists.

However, there are several key points, which may act as a potential time bomb. In addition, the international convention of human rights allows groups to determine their own destiny to govern themselves.

Eventually, the failure of special autonomy, invalidity of the 1969’s act of free choice, and the ignorance of indigenous basic rights will blaze the trail for international interventions and supports.

For these reasons, I believe that self-determination may be the last resort resolution for Papuans.


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Joe Dubovy

Since 1963, the separatist sentiment is more solid and the Indonesian government is more brutal in its activities to suppress that movement.

Slow genocide is escalating rapidly. The US and Australia with focus on rising US/China tension are less concerned with the West Papua human rights issue.

The conclusion is international solidarity with W.Papua must progress to a higher level. Towards that goal, Free W.Papua has initiated a campaign to organize all parties to activate U.S. legislators, and human rights groups. Send us your e-mail addresses for updates.

Joe DuBovy,Dir.FWP

Peter Woods

Thanks for this. Nothing is impossible, and in the end justice will be done.

The quote, "Finally, the Dutch transferred West Papua to Indonesia, after five years supervision by United Nation Temporary Executive Authority (Rutherford 2009)", is not quite accurate.

The Dutch transfer was to UNTEA, and then UNTEA to Indonesia. I presume five years is a typo. By May 1963 Indonesia was in control and the UN departed.

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