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West Papua: raising the Morning Star in an 'Act of Free Choice'

By Joe Collins - posted Wednesday, 5 December 2007


The 1st of December was West Papuan National Day or National flag day. Forty-six years ago on the December 1, 1961, in the then Dutch colony of West New Guinea, the West Papuan flag, or Morning Star, was flown for the first time officially beside the Dutch Tricolor. At that ceremony, as the Morning Star flag was raised, Dutch and Papuan military and police saluted and accompanied by a marine band playing the national anthem, “My Land Papua”.

The Dutch were finally about to give the West Papuan people their freedom. However, it is one of the great tragedies that at their moment of freedom it was cruelly crushed and West Papua was basically handed over to Indonesia in 1963.

After six years administration of the province, Indonesia held a sham referendum called the Act of Free Choice under UN supervision. Only 1,022 handpicked voters - one representative for approximately every 700 West Papuans - were allowed vote, and under coercion, voted to “remain with Indonesia”. The Papuans call this the “act of no choice”.

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The policy of the new Labor Government on the issue of West Papua will differ little from that of the Howard government. We will still hear the mantras from the Department of Foreign Affairs of “we recognise Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua” and “we support the autonomy package as the best way forward for the West Papuan people”.

The government might have changed but the Jakarta lobby still holds sway in Canberra. The problem for Canberra is that the West Papuan people disagree. West Papua will eventually become one of Australia’s biggest foreign policy issue.

Historical background

To understand the present conflict in West Papua we must understand its history. Like many of the conflicts around the world, the conflict in West Papua can trace its origins to the boundaries that were drawn up by the former colonial powers in New Guinea.

We could say the modern history of West Papua began when the island was partitioned by three Western powers, the Dutch claiming the western half in 1828, while the Germans and British divided the eastern half into German New Guinea in the north and British Papua in the south (1884). Eventually the eastern half became the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in 1975.

The Papuan people of Dutch New Guinea (also called Netherlands New Guinea or West New Guinea) were to have a different fate. The Republic of Indonesia was created in 1949 when the Indonesian people won their struggle for independence against their former colonial masters, the Dutch. West New Guinea, due to its distinct Melanesian population, was retained as a colony by the Dutch and during the 1950s, the Dutch government prepared the territory for independence.

However, President Sukarno continued to claim that West New Guinea should be part of Indonesia and when his demands were not met, armed conflict ensued in 1962.

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Under pressure from the United States to come to terms with Indonesia, the Dutch agreed to secret negotiations and in August 1962, an agreement was concluded in New York between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Under this agreement, the Dutch were to leave West New Guinea and transfer sovereignty to UNTEA (the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority). After seven months the UN transferred power to Indonesia with the provision that a referendum be held to determine Papuan preference, for independence or for integration with Indonesia.

From the moment Indonesia took over the administration from UNTEA, the oppression of the West Papuan people began.

As to the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969: a UN official, a retired undersecretary-general, who handled the takeover said: “Nobody gave a thought to the fact that there were a million people who had their fundamental human rights trampled,” and “It was just a whitewash. The mood at the United Nations was to get rid of this problem as quickly as possible.”

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About the Author

Joe Collins is the secretary of the Australia West Papua Association (Sydney). For further information on West Papua contact Joe Collins by email bunyip@bigpond.net.au.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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