West Papua

Whose history?

Fifty years after the western part of New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia, this event has become a battleground for competing versions of history. As the region’s next generation grows up surrounded by conflict, their struggle to speak their truth continues

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because whoever writes history can control the future.

Evie Breese
August 15, 2019
Whose history?
Indonesian President Joko Widodo with wife Iriana seen driving electric motor bike during visit at Agats district in Asmat, Papua province, Indonesia, April 12, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari/via Reuters

Atop a 36-meter-tall pedestal in the heart of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta stands a bronze statue of a man, bare-chested, arms flung wide above his head and wild hair billowing behind. Having broken free of the chains around his wrists, his mouth is open in what looks like a cry of freedom. 

The man represents the hundreds of thousands of West Papuans who were freed from their colonial masters who occupied the territory as part of the Dutch East Indies. Ruling by force, the imperialists exploited the indigenous tribes who call this rugged and mountainous region their home – a bondage that lasted until Indonesia gallantly rescued the Papuans from the Dutch.

According to The Jakarta Post, an English language daily, this was the version of history inscribed last year on panels around the West Irian Liberation Monument, as the statue is called.

There’s just one problem: West Papua, as West Irian is better known, was arguably never part of Indonesia to begin with.

The Monument for the Independence of West Irian, to commemorate the movement for the freedom of West Irian, now renamed Papua, from Dutch occupation in 1963, lights up at night. Photo: Goh Chai Hin/AFP
The Monument for the Independence of West Irian, to commemorate the movement for the freedom of West Irian, now renamed Papua, from Dutch occupation in 1963, lights up at night. Photo: Goh Chai Hin/AFP

Known facts

The idea of ‘Indonesia’ as a country was to a large extent conceived by Javanese intellectuals and students in the early 1900’s while the territory was under Dutch administration. 

Tim Hannigan, author of A Brief History of Indonesia; Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis, told Southeast Asia Globe that the idea of Indonesia as a country is relatively recent, preceding the founding of the state by just two decades.

“If you want a symbolic point of emergence for the developed notion of Indonesia as an independent nation-state, it would be the Sumpah Pemuda, the ‘Youth Pledge’ of 1928,” he said. 

That pledge – to “one motherland, Indonesia” – was made by a group of students brought together by Sukarno, the future president, at a boarding house in Jakarta. 

‘Indonesia’ was conceived of in the minds of these young men as “defined by the borders of the former colony, the Dutch East Indies,” said Hannigan. “And West New Guinea – unlike East Timor – was, on paper at least, a part of the Dutch East Indies.”

Hannigan says he uses the term ‘West New Guinea’, “because it is – relatively – apolitical.” As the indigenous people refer to themselves as ‘Papuans’ and the land as ‘Papua’, ‘West Papua’ will be used here. 

After a brief but brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, Indonesia declared independence on 17 August 1945, though the Dutch subsequently attempted to reclaim their colony by force.

When the Dutch ceded the territory to the newly independent state in 1949, they held on to West Papua. It is this delay in handing West Papua over that Hannigan sees as the root of the issue. 

“Had Papua gained independence as part of Indonesia at the outset, I think it’s quite likely that its distinction – the distinction that leads to mutual distrust and incompatible aspirations – would have been far, far less pronounced,” he said. 

The people of West Papua began to gear up for independence. The newly designed Papuan national flag, the Morning Star, was first flown in public in December 1961. But at the same time, Indonesia started to assert its claim over the territory.

To stem the growing conflict between Indonesia, the Netherlands and the indigenous population, a United Nations-sponsored treaty known as the New York Agreement was drawn up to appoint Indonesia as temporary administrator of West Papua from May 1963. The New York Agreement stipulated that West Papuans be allowed a referendum on independence to be overseen by the UN.

A cultural activist living in the northwest Papuan port city of Sorong, Max Binur recalled the role his father played as a policeman in the referendum on August 2, 1969. “[He] was asked to round up and to pressurise West Papuan people to choose Indonesia,” he said.  

“(The voters) had to obey the orders by the authorities on how to win the act of free choice by Indonesia,” Binur said. Just 1,026 indigenous leaders were chosen by the Indonesian military to vote on behalf of the entire population of an estimated 800,000 Papuans. Gathered together under the watchful eyes of the Indonesian military and UN officials, they were asked to raise their hands if they were voting to be part of Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, all hands went up.

“Many parts of the history are not told to the people, that’s why many people in Indonesia think that yes, Papuan territory is part of Indonesia since the beginning”

Surya Anta, spokesman for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua

The UN-endorsed act was rejected by many West Papuans, who widely refer to the event as “The Act of No Choice”. The perceived illegitimacy of the vote is at the core of the Free West Papua Movement. 

The vote and subsequent act, Binur says, were ”conducted under Indonesia’s gun.”

Shaping minds

In the decades since the act, the Indonesian government has worked hard to instil its version of history across the archipelago, starting in the classroom. All children, from Sabang at the tip of the Northwestern province of Aceh, to those in Merauke on the Southeastern border with Papua New Guinea, are taught the history of the nation as decided by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

IDPs making gardens in Wamena. Photo: Theo Hesegem
IDPs making gardens in Wamena. Photo: Theo Hesegem

A Bataknese whose parents are from North Sumatra, Surya Anta grew up in Bandung, the capital of West Java and about three hours’ drive from Jakarta. He recalls well the patriotic ditty sung in the classroom by every Indonesian schoolkid.

His voice lilting over the phone, Anta gave Southeast Asia Globe a taster of the opening verse, which translates into English as:

“From Sabang to Merauke islands are scattered, 

are connected to one that’s Indonesia. 

Indonesia my country I promise you, 

to uphold you, my country Indonesia”

As a university student, Anta became interested in politics and started to read West Papuan history, a subject largely absent from his school years. He remembered finding out in his 20’s that the sovereignty decided by the Dutch in 27 December 1949 did not include West Papua. This discovery prompted Surya to investigate further, in turn prompting him to start campaigning in 2002 for Papuan self-determination. He is now spokesman for the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua, a campaign group founded in 2016. 

“Many parts of the history are not told to the people, that’s why many people in Indonesia think that yes, Papuan territory is part of Indonesia since the beginning,” said Anta. 

Regularly criticised as a traitor, Anta is part of an apparent minority of Indonesians who speak up against the government’s presence in West Papua. He said it is love for the values on which his country was founded – “of anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and also anti-capitalism” – that prompted him to campaign for an independent West Papua.

“It’s a kind of ideology that the West Papuans are in some sense also being liberated, in a kind of benign way by the Indonesian state”

Kjell Anderson, researcher at the Netherlands Center for International Criminal Justice

However it is not these values, but a censored, official version of local history, that pervades Papuan classrooms. Concerns of the quality of education in the region – where up to 80% of all education and community work is conducted by mission organisations or NGOs – prompted the establishment of the Papuan Literacy Network, a group that provides teaching materials and support for literacy.

Mira Wenda, the organisation’s co-ordinator, explained some of the shortcomings of the official version of  history as taught in state schools. “[T]hey do not teach about the history of the merger of West Irian into the lap of Mother Nature (Indonesia),” she explained. 

According to Binur, the narrative taught is brutally simple. 

“Papua was liberated with blood, Papua is still primitive, so Papua has to follow what is in Java,” he said.  

“What there is, is the history lessons about how Papua was liberated from the Dutch.”

The language of liberation, freedom and emancipation echoes around the Indonesian perspective of events. Kjell Anderson, researcher at the Netherlands Center for International Criminal Justice, argues for the situation in West Papua to be understood as a “slow motion” or “cold” genocide. 

As the means to sustain themselves from the land are slowly cut off, and their indigenous culture eroded by forced assimilation into a national identity, the Papuan people are slowly being destroyed, Anderson said. 

Underpinning these actions is what Anderson terms a ”classical language of colonialism” disguised as freedom. 

“It’s a kind of ideology that the West Papuans are in some sense also being liberated, in a kind of benign way by the Indonesian state,” he said. “So I think the government would also say that what they’re doing really is developing West Papua and uplifting West Papuans.”

“They are also being prohibited to discuss their own history, especially the integration history,” claims Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer representing the West Papuan National Committee (KNPB), a non-violent organisation campaigning for another independence referendum.

On New Year’s Eve, the Timka headquarters of the KNPB was overran by Indonesia police and military. Located in the small city near the southern coast of Papua province, the venue was to host a prayer meeting and traditional feast to celebrate the office’s fifth anniversary. According to reportage in The Jakarta Post, 80 ‘security personnel’ smashed apart the cement signage outside the building and removed all Free West Papua insignias or posters before commandeering the building.

Discussing the case, Koman said “banners and writings about these historical facts were used as evidence of treason.”

Living history

While the image of heroic Indonesia dominates the classrooms, many Papuan children are exposed to another understanding of history through word of mouth. But 50 years on, they are forced to witness the fallout from these historical events in real-time. 

In retaliation for an attack last December on construction workers building a highway, in which up to 31 people were killed, the Indonesian military has sought to root out separatist fighters. A faction of the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), led by Egianus Kogoya, claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming that the construction workers were soldiers. 

People gather in a Wamena Church to share information and personal experiences of military operations in the villages they fled. Photo: Hipolitus Wangge
People gather in a Wamena Church to share information – and their experiences of military operations in the villages they fled. Photo: Hipolitus Wangge

As the military offensive swept through the remote Nduga region over the past eight months, an estimated 5,000 Papuans fled their homes. Many of the refugees – or internally displaced people (IDPs), to use the policymakers’ term for people who flee their homes but not across borders – travelled by foot to Wamena. There they are reportedly packed 10-50 people per house where they get one meal of rice or noodles a day. The largest town in the highlands area, Wamena’s population of around 30,000 has swelled with the arrival of 2,300 IDPs, stretching local resources. 

“The Act of Free Choice is legally flawed, and that [knowledge] is inherited from our parents”

Max Binur, cultural activist

The death toll among those who fled the fighting has risen from 139 people in mid July to 182 on 1st August, though the Indonesian government claims that only 53 displaced people had died. The alleged causes of death are famine, exposure to the elements and untreated illnesses. 

Florianus Geong, known to many as “Ence,” is coordinating a team of local volunteers who are setting up emergency schools for children who fled their homes because of the conflict. 

Ence tells Southeast Asia Globe that some children have joined the insurgents as soldiers. He suggested that one reason the kids join ”is because they have come from their village and have to choose if they go to Wamena or another place for safety, the question is (…) Will there be any people [in Wamena] who want to help them?”

Binur believes that the child soldiers seek “revenge for loved lost ones”.

“These children themselves are witness to their father, mother and siblings being shot and terrorised,” he said. 

“This life experience becomes the tip of the iceberg, or the peak of hatred against Indonesian people, and the choice to fight against Indonesia,” he said, a hint that like culture or oral history, anger can be passed down through generations.

Why have the deaths of 139 Papuans not sparked any response from the majority of Indonesians? Hipolitus Wangge, an Indonesian researcher of democratisation and militarisation at Marthinus Academy, Jakarta, believes Indonesians do not “have any interest in the context of Nduga and cycle of violence in the area.” 

Wangge, who recently returned from volunteering in Wamena, called on the Indonesian government to “acknowledge child soldiers to save Papua’s children”. He described the children he met at the camp as traumatised by the violence they have seen.

“They [Indonesians] still think Nduga’s people should be grateful for massive military presence in the area in order to restore social order,” he said. 

Local volunteers distributing supplies in Wamena. Photo: Hipolitus Wangge
Local volunteers distributing supplies in Wamena. Photo:​​ local volunteer

Reality in the mind alone

Two versions of history continue to exist. One in minds and textbooks across the rest of Indonesia, and another that has been passed down through the generations in Papua – through stories and secret speeches. In a region where literacy levels are low and where many children often avoid formal schooling taught in an official language they do not understand, oral tradition is key. 

“The Act of Free Choice is legally flawed, and that [knowledge] is inherited from our parents,” said Binur. “They’ve been telling us about the story from when we were little children until now. And we as Papuan people will keep telling this story to the next generation.”

Added to the memorised stories of military terror that Papuan people pass on to their children and grandchildren, the next generation of Papuan youth are exposed to the conflict on their doorstep, engaging them in a cycle of violence and revenge. 

Wangge acknowledges that the legitimacy of the Act of Free Choice is a sensitive issue, and one that many in government continue to avoid addressing. Yet, in his opinion, “the government knows it is a matter of time [before] the Papuans will bring the issue to be debated publicly”.

Their version of history, of where West Papua came from and what happened at the referendum in August 1969, refuses to die. Wangge believes the government must acknowledge any wrongdoing it has committed, “including a flawed historical process of Act of Free Choice in 1969”. Otherwise, he says, the conflict will remain “an Achilles-heel problem for every Indonesian government.” 

While these memories of history stay alive, it is unlikely there will be peace in West Papua. 

Indonesia’s Ministry for Education and Culture did not respond to an interview request 

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