After a short period of independence, in 1806 with the successor of Prince Nuku, Sultan Zainal Abidin, expelled, the Sultanate of Tidore was back under the Dutch colonials. So were all regions under the sultanate, including West Papua.
Not to confuse with the modern days West Papua province, the West Papua here refers to the western half of the New Guinea or Papua island, or once known as Irian Jaya.
When Indonesia declared its independence from Japanese occupancy in 1945, it laid claim to all territories that were once the Dutch East Indies. This included West Papua since the East Papua or Papua New Guinea was not at all a Dutch colony.
The Dutch, however, could not simply let East Indies go. It attempted to reclaim the regions through military aggressions, and yet these earned the Dutch a strong criticism from the international world. Therefore, diplomacy was sought to resolve this territorial dispute.
Several bilateral agreements were made between Indonesia and the Netherlands. In the span of four years after independence, four agreements were signed between the two countries: Linggarjati, Renville, Roem-Royen, and Konferensi Meja Bundar or the Round Table Conference. The latter concluded the Dutch’s acknowledgement of Indonesian sovereignty in exchange of payment of all the Dutch’s foreign debts prior to the Japanese’s occupancy.
Nevertheless, the Dutch were still unable to settle on West Papua. The Dutch argued that West Papuans were Melanesians, which did not have ethnic relation with other parts of Indonesia at all. They did not relate the racial similarities between the West Papuans and the Malukunese and Ambonese, who inhabited the Dutch-acknowledged Indonesian territories.
Unfortunately, the settlement of this conflicting interest on West Papua was not resolved for more than ten years after the Round Table Agreement.
International Political Agenda on Indonesia
Even when Indonesia gained popularity in the international world through the Geneva Summit and Asia Africa Conference, the resolution of the West Papuan conflict was still long overdue. In fact, the Dutch still retained West Papua up to mid-1960.
In desperation, the Indonesian President then, Soekarno, approached the Soviet Union for assistance. In 1958, the Dutch begun to flee the country due to massive attacks and seizure of Dutch business in Indonesia by the Communist Party. This severed the relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia.
Alarmed by potential Indonesia-Soviet cooperation, the US, then headed by John F. Kennedy, pressed the Dutch to conduct another diplomacy effort with the US as the mediator.
Why was the US worried about potential cooperation between Indonesia and the Soviet Union? Well, the Soviet Union was a strong communist country. With the extent of the Indonesian archipelago, the US feared that Indonesia would also become a communist country. In fact, the potential of turning into the largest communist country in the world made Indonesia closing in with the Soviets a highly alarming situation.
With the Dutch’s agenda for West Papua became secondary to this considerably more worrisome prospect, the Dutch had to give in. Therefore, both countries’ contingents gathered in New York, and the Dutch agreed to return West Papua into the folds of Indonesia.
Signed on August 15th, 1962, the New York Agreement marked the Dutch’s official handover of West Papua to Indonesia, via the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). In addition, the Dutch also agreed of an Act of Free Choice to be conducted not later than 1969, under the UN’s oversight. This allowed West Papuan adults to freely choose if they would like to stay or separate from Indonesia.
The Act of Free Choice and Its Disputable Outcome
With the UN’s overseeing the execution of the Act of Free Choice, the outcome was announced that the majority of the people voted to stay with Indonesia. Thus, West Papua was then officially under Indonesian sovereignty.
This raised internal conflict from the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), who argued that the execution of the Act of Free Choice was impaired. No option to choose the Netherlands, military intimidation and absence of the most genuine representative of the West Papuans were among their arguments.
Through the years, the OPM still considered that West Papua was transferred from the Dutch colonial to Indonesian colonial. It strong disagreed with the capitalization of Papua’s natural resources, particularly the ore mountain, Mount Carstensz. Despite increasing mining activity by Freeport, most West Papuans were still under poverty and poor living conditions. Moreover, the gold, copper and sulphur mining destroyed Papua’s natural environment as years went by. This resulted in numerous violent, separatist acts conducted by the OPM activists.
In efforts to muffle these destructive separatists, the Indonesian Government, under the command of its second president—Soeharto—authorized extreme military acts against the Papuans. Additionally, to subside the separatist acts, the Government introduced transmigration, migrating Javanese and Sumatran to settle in the region. All these were eventually stopped upon successful attempt to overthrow the ruling regime of Soeharto.
Subsequently, Indonesia’s fourth and fifth presidents, Gus Dur and Megawati, gave autonomy for West Papua to solve its own separatist issues and promised full autonomy. In 2003, Megawati split the region into two provinces: Papua and West Papua. This new West Papua was less than half of the original West Papua or Irian Jaya.
Despite all promises for autonomy, the OPM though still insisted on independence from Indonesia, even till today.