West Papuan independence diplomacy, 1960-62
E-dossier #7. In the early 1960s, a group of Indigenous Papuans tried to exercise their right to self-determination and were ultimately denied. This e-dossier will present the Papuan independence movement from 1960-1962 based on primary sources from Western governments. It will explain the strategies and claims of the Papuans, their international achievements and will introduce some of the diplomatic obstacles that halted their push to take control of their own nation’s destiny.
West Papua (previously known as West New Guinea and Irian Jaya) is the western half of the island of New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean. Its diverse people were colonized by the Netherlands, promised independence, but came under Indonesian rule. We focus on the key years of the Dutch-Indonesian-Papuan dispute over sovereignty, examining the internationalization of the Papua issue.
Two paths to self-government
There were two main approaches of Papuans to achieve independence in the 1950s and early 1960s. The first was to work with the colonial Dutch administration and appeal to the international community. This part of the movement was led by Papuans Markus Kaisiepo and Nicolaas Jouwe. Kaisiepo worked in the Dutch administration of Papua for over a decade leading up to the Papuan independence struggle. He criticized Indonesian attempts to take control of Papuan territory citing Indonesian beliefs of their superiority to Papuans. He also appreciated Dutch assistance to Papua, calling for continued Dutch support after Papuan self-determination.
Document 1 Australian report on Kaisiepo, 4 Nov. 1960.
Jouwe, a timber merchant, had been more critical of Dutch policy than Kasiepo in early 1960 though by late 1960 he too praised Dutch efforts to help Papua to advocate for itself internationally.
Document 2 Canadian embassy in the Netherlands report, 16 Dec. 1960
While providing financial transfers and some political opportunities to the Papuans, the Dutch administration was intensely paternalistic. They characterised an early Papuan political party, Parna (Partai Nasional), as “naïve and infantile”. Further they described “under-development” as a Papuan problem referring to Papuans as “victims of [their] environment”.
Document 3 Canadian embassy in the Netherlands report, 18 Nov. 1960
Document 4 New Zealand visit to West Papua report, 21 March 1961.
Some Papuan elites chose instead to align with Indonesia, which had gained independence in the 1940s. For instance, Silas Papare was a Papuan businessman who had left Papua for Indonesia in the 1950s. He represented Papuan self-determination sentiment in the Indonesian parliament and was the presumptive candidate to become Governor of Papua under a potential Indonesian administration.
Document 5 US embassy in Indonesia airgram to Dept. of State, 8 Jan. 1962.
Eventually, however, Indonesian military aggression towards Papua pushed even Papare towards the Papuan independence activists anchored in the Dutch territory. Further, by late 1961, the Papuan led New-Guinea Council (NGC) had in its first six months already realised significant diplomatic progress on the world stage towards Papuan self-determination. By this point, Papare informed the US ambassador he was prepared to defect and rejoin Papuan nationalists in the territory itself.
Document 6 US embassy in Indonesia report, 15 Dec. 1961.
With Indonesia claiming control of West Papua on the grounds that it was the successor state to the entire territory of the former Dutch East Indies, the issue moved to the United Nations. Dutch administrators eventually accepted Papuan calls to promise Papuan self-determination. The dispute prompted Papuan activists to internationalize their struggle.
In November of 1960, Kaisiepo traveled to the Netherlands and made preliminary call for “an independent Melanesian federation” gathering the ethnic Melanesian peoples of West Papua, Australian-ruled Papua New Guinea, and British-ruled Solomon Islands. This was the first attempt by Papuans to build alliances across borders by invoking shared identities. (See Document 3 above.)
A second attempt came a year later in November of 1961 when the elected New Guinea Council again tapped into a shared international identity. Papuans had for decades been subjected to racialization by the Dutch as Black people. This formed part of the Dutch justification for holding on to Papua when Indonesia gained its independence in 1949. The Dutch referred to Papuans as “racially different from the Indonesians” and argued they “needed a longer period of tutelage.” (See Document 4 above, quotes from p. 13.)
However, with the addition of several newly decolonised African nations to the UN in 1960, the Papuans leveraged their externally imposed identity as so-called “negroids” to connect their struggle with that of Africans. At the UN, the NGC partnered with a group of 13 African states known as the Brazzaville group. These African countries, mostly former French colonies, posed a decolonisation vision drawing on their own recent past, and made West Papua the subject of their first joint action for decolonisation at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The Papuans’ quest for self-determination resonated with them, leading to the Brazzaville Resolution at the 16th UNGA. Acknowledging the Papuan fear of falling under Indonesian control after Dutch departure, the resolution called for talks between the Indonesians and Dutch to negotiate a plan for Papuan self-determination. The fall-back plan of this resolution, should those talks have been unsuccessful, was UN trusteeship and Dutch funding for Papua until it could be fully independent. Though it gained a majority, the resolution fell 16 votes short of a required 2/3 support at UNGA. However, it was a symbolic moment that exemplified the international support Papuans had cultivated for their self-determination.
Document 7 US mission to United Nations report, 30 Nov. 1961.
This achievement was followed in 1962 by official visits from representatives Frédéric Guirma of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Maxime-Léopold Zollner of Dahomey (now Bénin). Both were Brazzaville group states. A photo of Guirma beside a Papuan teacher was the third photo published in a pamphlet created by the NGC in 1962 highlighting ethnic similarities among Papuans and Africans as an appeal for self-determination. (page 8) The pamphlet also emphasises the belief held by some Papuans that “Indonesia does not guarantee the right of self-determination to the Papuan people” (page 11)
Document 8: Voice of the Negroids of the Pacific to the Negroids Throughout the World, Papuan nationalist pamphlet, 1962.
In addition to gaining the support of newly decolonised African countries, by August of 1962, Melanesian solidarity with Papua resurfaced. A conference held in Pago Pago (Samoa) brought together eight South Pacific nations, including West Papua, which all called for the respect of the latter’s self-determination as per UN resolution 1514 on decolonisation.
Document 9 Papuan leaders’ message to United Nations, 7 Aug. 1962.
Roadblocks to self-determination
Despite all this progress, there were significant international barriers to Papuan self-determination.
Though many African states supported the Papuan appeal to the UN, there were numerous others from Africa and Asia that did not. This was due to both a recent situation in the Congo and the influence of Indonesia in the region and in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) formed in 1961.
First, Indonesia had claimed West Papua ever since the Dutch had retained Papua in 1949 after they accepted the independence of the Indonesia. Although delegates to the UN from NAM nations were sympathetic to Papuans’ self-determination claims, their relationship with the Sukarno administration in Indonesia was more important. This, for instance, was a major concern that compelled Ghana, a leader in the Casablanca group of African nations, to vote against the Brazzaville resolution in 1961.
Document 10 Canadian embassy in the Netherlands report, 18 Dec. 1961.
A second contributing factor to the position of NAM nations was a parallel drawn between the Papuan experience and Congolese independence. When the Congo took its independence from Belgium in 1960, a group of Belgians supported the secession from the Congo of Katanga province. Given continued Dutch presence in Papua, it was considered by some an “Indonesian Katanga”. Several NAM nations felt compelled to support Indonesia in claiming Papua since they decried Belgian presence in Katanga in 1960.
When Papuans later visited Ghana, a member of its foreign service became less certain of Ghana’s stance on supporting Indonesia. No changes were made because of this visit from the Papuans, however.
Document 11 Canadian embassy report, 12 June 1962.
Finally, the United States played an active role in quelling support for Papuan self-determination internationally as it ultimately preferred Papua under Indonesian control. For instance, the Kennedy administration pressured the Dutch to limit the visits of African delegates to Papua. This helped promote the Indonesian narrative that West Papua was a part of Indonesia and therefore reduced African support for Papuan self-determination.
Document 12 US embassy Jakarta report, 31 March 1962.
US pressure on both Indonesia and the Netherlands brought both countries to the bargaining table in 1962, where a deal was hammered out. Under US pressure, the Dutch agreed to transfer West Papua to a temporary UN administration, while the UN in turn would hand it to Indonesia in 1963, pending an act of self-determination by the end of the decade. No Papuans were permitted to take part in these negotiations or the resulting New York Agreement.
There were several reasons for the American stance, including the fear that Indonesia might turn away from its past anti-communism and a potential loss of political capital among the increasingly powerful NAM states at the UN. The US reaction to the Papuan independence movement will be/is explored in our next e-dossier.
Document 13 Canadian UN staff report, 30 Nov. 1962.
In sum, the 1960s Papuan movement for self-determination initially diverged but eventually coalesced around the New Guinea Council. Papuan council members took a small diplomatic opportunity and created a strong international appeal. Impressively, they did so partly by leveraging their racist categorisation by the Dutch, transforming Blackness into a diplomatic asset. Papuan diplomacy was remarkably successful considering that their goals conflicted with the interests of both Indonesia and the United States. Their diplomacy led to declarations of support for their self-determination from both the Brazzaville group of African states at the UN and from South Pacific states. Ultimately, the 1960s Papuan movement was hindered by perceptions from recent colonial strife and sabotaged by American interests. The debate, however, continues to this day.
Compiled by Duncan Crabtree and David Webster. Archival documents from Library & Archives Canada, Cornell University, US National Archives, John F. Kennedy Library. Free to reproduce but please credit and link original source.