Before West Papua Got Its Name: History

West Papua

West Papua is the easternmost province in Indonesia which is an expansion area of Papua territory. It has an area of 15 sqm, consisting of 12 regencies and one city. Just like the Papua Province, West Papua Province also has rich biodiversity and hundreds of tribes, making it abundant with culture, customs, and local wisdom. However, do you know that the province wasn’t called West Papua in the first place? It is the history of West Papua and how it got its name. 

Names for Papua

West Papua

Before we get into the history of West Papua, let’s dive into the fact that West Papua is not the only one that changed its name. In the past, people know Papua as New Guinea. The term referred to one single island, the island of Papua. It is later known as Irian.

The presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, changed the name of Irian to Papua because the word ‘Irian’ is a pejorative term. The word is derived from the Arab language, which means ‘naked’. It is one of Gus Dur’s ways to dignify the Papuans. 

The name Papua is derived from Biak language ‘sup-i-papwah’ which means the land under the setting sun simply because Papua Island is located on the west where the sun is setting. 

From West Irian Jaya to West Papua

West Papua

The province was called Irian Jaya Barat (West Irian Jaya) based on Law No. 45/1999 concerning the formation of West Irian Jaya Province, Central Irian Jaya Province, Mimika Regency, Paniai regency, Puncak Jaya Regency, and Sorong City.

It was supported by the Irian Jaya Regional Legislative Council Decree No.10/1999 on the division of Irian Jaya Province into three provinces. However, the plan to divide the province into three was rejected by the Papuans in Jayapura. A massive demonstration on October 14th ensued. Since then, the provincial division had been suspended, while district expansion had been implemented in accordance with Law No. 45/1999.

The Law No. 21/2001 on Papua Special Autonomy mandates the name of this province to be changed to Papua. The people of Papua think that West Papua needs to be separated from Papua. The motivation behind the separation between Papua and West Papua is because the area is too wide to be managed under one provincial administration which will impact various issues of underdevelopment in infrastructure and the economy.

 After numerous protests and unrelenting approaches toward the central government, the expansion of West Irian Jaya was reactivated in 2002 based on the Presidential Instruction No. 1/2003 under the presidency of Megawati Soekarnoputri on January 27th, 2003. 

In 2003, followed by numerous protests regarding the merging of Central Papua and East Papua, Papua was divided into two provinces by the Indonesian government; the eastern part retained the name Papua while the western part became West Irian Jaya Province (later West Papua). The eastern part is currently the territory of Papua Province.

Since then, West Irian Jaya province slowly established itself to be a definitive province. However, the journey wasn’t as easy as it seemed. The province was under the great pressure of its motherland – Papua. 

The Provincial Government of Papua then filed a lawsuit to the Constitutional Court which eventually decided to cancel Law No. 45/1999, the legal provision for West Irian Jaya. However, the nation still ‘recognized’ the existence of West Irian Jaya. 

After the failed attempt, the West Irian Jaya continues to have its government system equipped. After having a clear territory area, the inhabitants, government apparatus, budget, and regional legislative council members, West Irian Jaya province was finally completed after having a governor and deputy governor Abraham O. Atururi and Drs. Rahimin Katjong, M.Ed. 

Both the governor and deputy governor were inaugurated on July 24th, 2006. It becomes the turning point in the history of West Papua, and so the struggle for the West Irian Jaya Province to get legal provision started since then. 

The government changed Irian Jaya to Papua based on Law No. 21 2001 on special autonomy. During the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the name Irian Jaya Barat was changed to Papua Barat (West Papua) based on Presidential Regulation No. 24/2007.  

The word Papua itself is derived from a Melayu word, means “curly hair”, the physical description of Papuan indigenous. Thus, the name Irian Jaya Barat was changed to Papua Barat based on the ‘two but one, one but two’ view. Meaning, there are two provinces in Papua, but it’s still one Papua. 

Abraham Octavianus Atururi was the figure behind the expansion and the pioneer of development in West Papua. He was the government official of West Papua from 2003 to 2005 and became the governor of West Papua from 2006 to 2011. 

That is the history of West Papua on how it got its name. From history, we learn that the name West Papua was chosen not by random coincidence, but by contemplation on the meaning and the vision and aspiration of the people and the nation.